A spate of resignations and allegations of toxic work cultures has Tasmania’s local government sector grappling with more than just an image problem.
- Councillors are paid between $9,546 and $37,198 in Tasmania depending on additional allowances for mayors and deputy mayors
- A Tasmanian mayor says the loss of high-profile women recently is discouraging others from standing
- A government MP says some councils have not had enough candidates to fill vacancies because they are seen as dysfunctional
Councillors say the combination of public expectation and constant online attacks are forcing many people out of the role.
Recent resignations have sparked more concerns the problems will stop potential new candidates from standing in local government elections later this year.
Last week’s resignation of Huon Valley mayor Bec Enders is again prompting questions about the pressures on local councils.
The council has faced months of criticism over its hiring of a general manager who was in a relationship with the head of the recruitment agency who hired him.
Ms Enders is yet to say why she left the position she had held for three-and-a-half years.
Acting Mayor Sally Doyle said the council “has owned up to the fact that we could have done a little better” but also said the backlash from the community had been severe and had taken a toll.
But that has not been the only controversy on Tasmanian councils.
Last week, a review of the Clarence City Council found interpersonal conflict between elected members was creating a toxic culture within the council and could lead to a “health risk” due to workplace bullying.
Three councillors recently resigned from Derwent Valley Council, including mayor Ben Shaw who cited social media misinformation as one of the reasons.
In 2019, councillor Rachel Power resigned from the same council after only holding the position for less than a year, citing ongoing personal attacks and social media harassment.
In December, the Tasmanian government announced a review into workplace culture in councils, prompted by a statement signed by 40 representatives expressing concern, particularly about the treatment of women.
Christina Holmdahl, president of the Local Government Association of Tasmania (LGAT), said the review would identify standards for councillors to abide by, but would also look at protections for elected members against bullying and harassment.
“Unlike any other sector of government in this country, we don’t have the protections that those other two levels [state and federal] have,” Ms Holmdahl said.
“I would go so far as saying that some of the abuse that elected representatives get would not be tolerated in any workplace in Australia, and yet we don’t have the protections in place to protect us from that.”
Women discouraged from standing
Former Tasmanian Labor state minister and now Kingborough Mayor Paula Wriedt said she was worried the tainted reputation of local government and the wave of resignations by female members sends the message that women should not enter politics.
“What is really unfortunate is that in the last few months we have seen a number of high-profile women both at local and state government level who have stepped down for various reasons,” she said.
“I hope that it doesn’t put off women in the future from putting their names forward to stand and be a voice for others who can’t be in that position.”
Ms Wriedt said the pressures of the job could be “extreme” and social media was an added burden.
“You can criticise their policies and their decisions but don’t play the person,” she said.
Is it worth it?
Tasmanian councillors earn between $9,546 and $37,198 depending on the council and the additional allowances for deputy mayors and mayors.
Ms Holmdahl said the low pay left many wondering if the work was worth the strain of public life.
There was a mixed response on ABC Radio Hobart’s Facebook page when people were asked if they would consider running for council.
Peter Power-Lawrence ruled it out: “I find mostly narcissistic personalities run for council these days, it’s a no from me!”
Mark Kause was also a no.
“So if there are resignations, bullying, bad behaviour and low pay, what’s the incentives? While some are driven by bettering their community, clearly others have other motivations,” he wrote.
“You’d have to have a very thick hide to take it on. Kudos to those who do put up their hand,” posted Ingrid Harrison.
But Ryan Posselt decided it was worth a tilt: “I’m putting my hand up because I think we can do better, I think society can be a fairer, happier and healthier place.”
‘Why would I subject myself to that?’
Government Minister and former Kingborough councillor Nic Street said there was evidence the chaos in local government was discouraging potential candidates.
“I spoke to somebody a couple of days ago who I thought would be a terrific candidate,” he said.
“They’ve watched what’s happened in the last couple of years at a local government level and said: ‘Why on Earth would I put my hand up to run and subject myself to that?’
“When you put your hand up for public life you expect to have to take responsibility for the decisions you make.
Huon Valley Acting Mayor Ms Doyle said the expectations sometimes went beyond the realm of what was possible for elected members to accomplish.
“More needs to be done to create safer and more respectful interaction between councillors and community members,” she said.
“We’re not politicians. We don’t go in needing to have a degree. We are local community people that want to do the best for our communities.
“Everybody comes in with very good intentions and it’s really hard then to be able to take that criticism when you know that you’ve been trying your best.
“Elected representatives play a role in leading by example. We need to make sure we create a space that fosters respectful debate.”
The next local government polls are set for October.