Holding the reins
A growing number of women are taking on the top job at councils across the region.
When it comes to women in local government, the Hunter Region is leading from the front. While just over one quarter of all mayors across New South Wales (27.8 per cent) are female – the highest percentage ever recorded – that statistic almost doubles in the Hunter where five of the 10 councils are led by women. Add Central Coast Council to the mix and it’s an even more positive picture. But this isn’t the first time the region has made its mark on the local government record books. In 1974, popular Newcastle councillor Joy Cummings became the first woman in Australia to assume the role of Lord Mayor – a position she retained for a total of nine years.
Hunter and Coastal Lifestyle Magazine goes beyond the politics to find out a little more about these pioneering women. While Joy may have been Newcastle’s first female Lord Mayor, it took another 30 years before a second name could be added to that list. After first entering local government in 2008, Nuatali Nelmes was elected to the top job in 2014, at the same time becoming Newcastle’s youngest ever Lord Mayor (at the age of 38). When asked to nominate the most inspiring female figure in her life, Nuatali was quick to sing the praises of her mother, Suska, who she described as a feminist, environmentalist and unionist who left school at 15 but went back as an adult to become a lawyer. “My mother has a huge social conscience so everything that she’s ever done or instilled in me growing up was always about the effect on the broader community or for the greater good,” she said.
|City of Newcastle – Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes While Joy may have been Newcastle’s first female Lord Mayor, it took another 30 years before a second name could be added to that list. After first entering local government in 2008, Nuatali Nelmes was elected to the top job in 2014, at the same time becoming Newcastle’s youngest ever Lord Mayor (at the age of 38). When asked to nominate the most inspiring female figure in her life, Nuatali was quick to sing the praises of her mother, Suska, who she described as a feminist, environmentalist and unionist who left school at 15 but went back as an adult to become a lawyer. “My mother has a huge social conscience so everything that she’s ever done or instilled in me growing up was always about the effect on the broader community or for the greater good,” she said.|
“My mother just turned 74 and she grew up in an era when you were encouraged to leave school at 15 to do your secretarial training … But she went back and studied as an adult, when I was still a teenager, and got her law degree. When she started working in the public service, she became very active in terms of workers’ rights, making sure that people had fair pay and working conditions.” Nuatali’s great, great grandmother has also had an unconscious influence on her life. “My name, Nuatali, is my great, great grandmother’s name. She was from the Solomon Islands and my father’s mother is from the Solomon Islands,” she said. “It’s a family name, specifically from the Roviana Lagoon area in the western Solomons, and it means ‘a reason and listen’.
“I went to school in the ’80s and the ’90s and most of the time I just answered to Natalie because everyone thought that I spelled my name wrong. I think growing up it didn’t bother me, but I guess it could have because you know what kids are like in the playground, I got teased about it a lot because it is hard to say, it’s very unusual. “But for me it’s a source of pride to have that connection to my family and their culture.”
|Maitland City Council – Mayor Loretta Baker|
Loretta Baker also entered the history books when she was elected as Maitland’s first female mayor in September 2017. She said she was thrilled to be elected at a time when “the number of female mayors in the Hunter is unprecedented.” “It is an honour to be the first female mayor of Maitland in 163 years of local government and I thank the community for changing history in this respect. It opens a door for young women in our community who may previously not have thought it possible, so for that I am proud,” she said.
Outside of the council chambers, the former nurse is also an avid gardener who takes her own inspiration from a pioneering British landscape designer from the 1920s. “Edna Walling arrived here from England in her teens and established her landscape practice in the 1920s.
“Her idea of garden rooms means that you can’t see all the garden at once and you walk around herbaceous hedges or stone walls and find hidden gardens. Hence the garden appears bigger than it actually is,” Loretta said.
“I have incorporated much of her design into my own garden in Lorn.”
| Singleton Council – Mayor Sue Moore After becoming the first female Mayor of Singleton in 2008, Sue Moore added another record to her name when she later became the first female to be popularly elected as Mayor by the voters. Outside of her official council duties, Sue is a cattle farmer who lives with her family on their property at Elderslie and has a long and passionate connection with the land. |
“I live on the property where I grew up. Four generations before me arrived from England and settled at Elderslie. “I have always been very active on the dairy farm and this continued when we moved over to Angus beef cattle 12 years ago. I can often be found checking electric fences, feeding cattle or horses when not involved in my role as Mayor. Growing up on the land, one learns to make do with what you have got to get a job done. This was reinforced by my parents and also having the surname of Thrift.
“As a ‘country representative’ on Council, I often told my peers how ‘country people learn how to spread the butter thinner to make it go further’. It was wasn’t easy at times but like many others on the land you just keep putting one foot in front of the other until the job is done.”
| Lake Macquarie City Council – Mayor Kay Fraser |
With a passion for social justice and equity inspired by her father, Kay Fraser became Lake Macquarie City Council’s second female Mayor in 2016 after taking the baton from the first woman to secure the top job, Jodie Harrison. While she believes there are now more opportunities for women to succeed, Kay says society is “still a long way away from women having equal representation at all levels”.
“For me, I was the first female manager of a motor registry and I think it is important that women encourage other women to follow their dreams and don’t give up,” she said. “
“At Lake Mac we only have three female councillors out of 13, however I am pleased that we have recruited our first female CEO at Council.” Outside of council, Kay also enjoys being involved in another area that has traditionally been dominated by men, but is increasingly attracting more women into the fold. “In my downtime I enjoy being involved in motorsport,” she said.
“My husband has competed in Targa Tasmania and I have navigated for him at local club events. As Mayor, I have had the pleasure of driving a super boat and have been a passenger on the back of a jet ski, so I do like a bit of speed.
| Central Coast Council – Mayor Lisa Matthews It may not have been around for long, but Central Coast Council is already bucking the gender equity trend. Since being established in May 2016 following the amalgamation of Gosford City and Wyong Shire councils, both mayors that have been appointed have been female (initially Jane Smith and now Lisa Matthews). As an Executive Board member of the Australian Local Government Women’s Association, encouraging greater female representation on councils is an issue close to Lisa’s heart. |
“Encouraging and promoting women into leadership roles is a key passion of mine. Women bring a unique and interesting perspective to leadership roles, particularly in local government, as we are often very active in our local communities,” she said.
Lisa plays an active role in her community in many ways, including as a successful business owner. The qualified natural beauty therapist set up her own venture at Chittaway Bay in 2004 and is providing beauty services to women outside of normal business hours.
| Dungog Shire Council – Mayor Tracy Norman |
As a business owner and strong supporter of the arts, Tracy Norman also knows what it is like to be actively involved in her community. The Dungog Mayor moved to the picturesque rural shire in 2003 and was blown away by the beauty of its landscape and the warmth of its people.
“Dungog Shire is a place of great natural beauty, that prides itself on its clean rivers and fresh air and with a community dedicated to preserving our natural environment and biodiversity,” she said. “Driving to our home in the late winter’s afternoon, I never fail to be struck by the colour of the rolling hills, it is truly spectacular. The mixture of bushland and farming land along with beautiful heritage villages makes it idyllic.
“The community of Dungog has some truly inspirational characters and warmhearted people. I do what I do as Mayor of Dungog as I am inspired and humbled by the volunteers in our community and the positive difference they make each and every day.”
This story is part of the Summer issue of Hunter&Coastal Lifestyle Magazine.
Story by Michelle Meehan.