This week the global #MeToo movement of women speaking about their experiences of sexual harassment smashed into Australian local government. The fallout from this collision will forever change the way councils respond to sexist behaviour.
Across local government, CEOs, Councillors and governance staff are scrambling to see if their council Code of Conduct would pass ‘the Doyle test’ and peak bodies are calling for change.
As background, the former lord mayor of the City of Melbourne, Robert Doyle was one of the most well-known, and important councillors in Australia. Following an investigation into complaints about his conduct, investigators this week found that Doyle had indeed sexually harassed two councillors; Tessa Sullivan, who resigned after making a complaint in September, and current Councillor Cathy Oke.
My hope is that the courage of Tessa Sullivan and Cathy Oke speaking up, will result in real change for women in local government across Australia.
How bad is it for women councillors?
No records are kept on the levels of harassment experienced by women councillors in Australia however, the experience of the Melbourne councillors is not unique. As a Local Government coach, I support many women councillors in their demanding role as community leaders. As women describe the challenges of public office, inevitably stories of bullying and harassment surface. The offensive behaviour comes not only from fellow councillors but also from members of the community.
It’s a difficult fact of political life but most women in public office will have #MeToo stories of sexual harassment or sexist behaviour directed towards them.
In the past when women complained they were often told “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, toughen up!”, “it’s just a joke’, or “that’s the way he is, just ignore him.” However, as a result of the report into harassment at the City of Melbourne, I think we’ve reached a tipping point where things must change. Time is indeed up for sexism in politics.
Councils need to be safer for women
The report on the sexual harassment allegations at the City of Melbourne has highlighted the need to make councils safer workplaces for women. This will mean changes to Councils’ Code of Conduct which are silent on sexual harassment. As Tessa Sullivan said this week on ABC Radio
“Out of 79 councils, you would presume there would be harassment or sexual harassment of some kind. To completely lack a policy leaves women vulnerable and open to what happened to us and furthermore gives them absolutely no outlet for complaint”. Tessa Sullivan
Across the sector, there is recognition by the peak bodies that things need to change. The Municipal Association of Victoria said the City of Melbourne report “highlighted the need for better processes to deal with allegations of sexual harassment and maintain a safe workplace for all councillors and staff”. A call echoed by the Victorian Local Governance Association who want the state government to “include sexual harassment and discriminatory behaviour as grounds for serious misconduct by councillors”.
The organisation representing women councillors, the Australian Local Government Women’s Association (ALGWA) are also calling for fundamental changes to be made including a complaint handling process similar to the UK where a Local Government Commissioner receives and investigate complaints and then makes recommendations to an independent body.
“There needs to be an overhaul of the Code of Conduct complaints process and it needs to be independent of individual Councils.” ALGWA President Cr Coral Ross
The timing is right not only with the growing confidence and boldness women have to come forward with #MeToo stories, but also with the review by the Victorian Government of the Local Government Act, which currently makes no specific mention of sexual harassment relating to misconduct.
The Doyle Test
Codes of conducts that seek to regulate Councillors’ behaviour have been put on notice that from now on they need to pass ‘The Doyle Test’. I encourage Councils to assess the efficacy of their code to deal with similar allegations by asking two questions:
- “If Robert Doyle was our Mayor and a female councillor made sexual harassment allegations against him, how would this have fairly and swiftly been handled by our code of conduct”? and
- “Where do we need to improve our code to make our workplace safe for all councillors?”
The courage of Tessa Sullivan and Cathy Oke must be acknowledged with lasting changes so that when harassment happens it can be confidentially reported, swiftly resolved and ultimately prevented. I hope their pain from speaking out, will not be in vain but leaves a legacy where:
- From now on women councillors no longer have to put up with the “rough and tumble’ of politics which makes excuses for sexist behaviour and harassment,
- The next Local Government Act addresses these types of behaviours and
- Soon, every council code of conduct will pass the ‘Doyle Test’.
These brave women who called out the behaviour of the most powerful councillor in the state, deserve no less. #TimesUp in local government.
Ruth McGowan is a former Mayor and Councillor. She works as a consultant and coach in local government and runs training and programs to support women to stand for council. She was recently contracted by the Victorian Government to develop the Best Practice Guidelines on Gender Equality in Local Government.