Post by Gareth Hart.
I recently read in the Leader that the Mayor of Yarra Range, Cr Fiona McAllister is about to take a leave of absence – as she is about to give birth to her new child. Two things struck me deeply about the article. Firstly, that the deputy Mayor, who will step up to assume Mayoral responsibility in Cr McAllister’s absence, is not being remunerated for her time in this role. (See full article here). I will not make comment here, as it is clearly obvious what should occur in this situation.
Secondly, I was intrigued to discover how one of the most prolific leaders in our community, our Mayor, seemingly finds a balance between her professional and her personal lives. So, at 4:15pm on her last afternoon in the office until 1 month’s maternity leave, the Mayor graciously agrees to talk with me about exactly this (as if Cr McAllister wasn’t busy enough!)….
I get the sense that you are very active in the community; so, broadly, how do you balance your personal and professional lives?
Like a circus acrobat at times! I think the secrets to success are the level of family support. Certainly, the support I get from my husband and my children in their willingness to be a bit of blend between the personal and the council lives.
There are things as a family that we make conscious choices about where the line is, where the family time is and I need to make sure that I lock that in so that we do get that family time. There is a lot of middle ground where essentially I am performing my Mayoral role or councillor duties and the family are a part of that. Everything from speaking at Dawn Services to Citizenship ceremonies.
So, where possible, I include my family in that. I have to say, the feedback I get back from the community broadly around that, is really positive. People love the fact that they get to meet my husband and my children. A significant proportion of what I do is in the evening, and it’s trying to, where possible, make sure that these things are later in the evening to avoid impact on family. So we have our dinner together and those sort of things.
It’s chaotic at times! And I’ve given up on trying to maintain a tidy house, and those sorts of things, but it’s a happy, great experience for the whole family I think….mostly!
I guess you are saying that you try to make wearing these two very important hats (Mayor and Mother) an inclusive thing.
Yes. I think that’s it. It isn’t like when you are in a professional role where you do prioritise, because this is a public role, a community advocacy role, a representative role. You are a very public figure, and you can’t say ‘I don’t have that hat on at the moment’ you just can’t. That’s my personal philosophy about it. When I ran for council I understood that our lives would change, and my husband supported that, in fact encouraged it. For the term of council you can’t flick a switch. But again, you find ways to draw the lines.
I had a conversation with an artist yesterday, about the inability to ‘switch off’ that part of your brain, because creativity is a part of you. Do you feel the same about your role as Mayor?
Yes and no. I think for me having children is the best switch off method you can have! People often say ‘how do you do it [be the Mayor], whilst having children’ and I would say ‘how do people do it without children!’. Because if I went home and it was just me and my husband, it would be very hard to switch off, but I go home and I have a grizzly or happy little 2 year old, and a 10 year old wanting help with homework. In many ways, it is such a happy balance and a happy return to reality, that I have to say in many ways it can be my sanity: in not have space to mull over political things or community issues. For me, context makes a big difference, and I love the time I have with my children, and I have to be there 100%.
Do you see a synergy between your Mayoral duties and parenthood?
They are very different roles. The thing about any public role is you have to have the passion, the commitment, it’s about the people, it’s not about what I want it is actually about what the broader community wants. Is that the same as being a parent? In some ways I suppose it is. IN some other ways it’s not. Being a parent is about what needs to happen.
What sort of Yarra Ranges would you like to help create for your children to grow up in?
In so many ways we have a wonderfully engaged community, and I would really like that to be part of forever in the Yarra Ranges. I would like my children to feel that they are part of making decisions about what happens in their lives and what happens locally. So I think that is really important. I live in the rural part of the municipality, we moved there 8 years ago because we loved it! And I would like my children to have that choice when they grow up: that lovely mix of great communities and small towns, environment, but still with good services and infrastructure. I think that is a real priority, getting that balance right. Being able to still access good education, sporting opportunities and all those sorts of things. I think that’s really important.
But you know, communities that are vibrant, that aren’t declining because we are trying to lock them up, keep them as they were 100 years ago. So it is really about trying to get that balance right.
Alive and progressive communities? Yes, absolutely.
Has motherhood had an effect on, or made you more aware of particular community values or needs?
I think every stage in our lives does. There are lots of things I have done, whether that be a parent or involvement in different community groups or meeting people with particular needs, just being a counsellor has opened my eyes to a whole lot of new issues and needs.
I would say for every counsellor as they go through different stages they are exposed to and their eyes are open to different and new things as well. So being a parent is no different to that.
Is there something you would specifically like the community to know?
We have an incredibly diverse, passionate and engaged group of people who live in the Yarra ranges and I love that. I am really thankful for that. I speak to some of my colleagues in other Councils where they hold council meetings where only 2 people turn up. We [Yarra Ranges] rarely have council meetings where less than forty will turn up! I love the fact that we live in a place where people care. So, if there is a message to the community, it is Thank You for that. Certainly, as a councillor, it keeps the fire in the belly and the passion there. It reminds all of us why we are here.