Stephanie Asher: “We need empathy not antipathy.”
July 19, 2017
“I DON’T like to punish a community but sometimes you have to. The councillor deserved it; needed pulling into line.”
These were the words of a councillor over a casual coffee, back when ward spats were frequent and the residents were the pawns in the power game of Geelong councillors.
As the list of council candidates for October’s election grows longer I’m transported back to my second mayoral campaign — targeting the bullies in local government.
I knew they existed because local people reported stalled permit requests, veiled threats to businesses and the fear was palpable.
An overwhelming majority of businesses were loath to put a poster in the shop window. They’d say, “I support you and wish you all the best but I don’t want to risk it in case you don’t get in.”
Wow, people were afraid in a democratic local government election. We had a problem.
Of course, there’s nothing like standing up for something to attract every complaint under the sun. Some gripes are weightier than others and clearly every story has two sides. I also found many positive examples of council officers doing good work, but people tend not to focus on that.
We expect it because that’s their job. People pay rates to get that job done.
What took me by surprise in the mayoral by-election was the reaction from some sitting councillors to my anti-bullying campaign.
By then it was clear that our first directly elected mayor had been subjected to a decent dose of poor behaviour from all sides.
When I released phase two of my campaign — the first was to simplify processes — which focused on exposing the bullying culture, the blowback from sitting councillors was immediate.
It was a multimedia show:
A HEATED phone call from one demanding to know how I expected to work with them if I called them all bullies. Speaking to me as though I was a five year old who’d taken to the suede settee with a permanent marker.
A LARGER-THAN-LIFE tantrum from another in the Coffee Club in Corio Village, in front of witnesses, followed by evening phone calls and abusive public Facebook posts.
ONGOING silence from a third who actually hasn’t spoken to me since I worked with a group to save our Ocean Grove Park from council takeover in exchange for part-funding the park pavilion. (Closer investigation revealed no change of ownership requirement was attached to the money).
THE usual comments via Messenger from yet another, saying I had no idea about anything.
All pretty standard stuff from what was proved to be a dysfunctional council, at that stage still smarting from the resignation of our first directly elected mayor. The lack of self-awareness and insight into poor behaviour was mind-boggling.
It was an interesting response given I hadn’t specified councillors as the source of the bullying.
In my sights was the toxic culture at ‘the brown building’.
In 2012, as one of only two candidates to take up the offer of time with the (then) CEO, I was met by a line-up of tall figures in leadership positions — grey suits, folded arms, thin lips and cold eyes to a man.
Effusive, obsequious greetings to Keith; tepid, dismissive handshakes to me. Their pained exasperation was palpable. I’d clearly crashed the party.
The leadership stench had filtered down. For both mayoral elections, the CEO’s office distributed the first-week agenda for the successful mayor to candidates a week prior to the vote count. The schedule was chaotic.
Now, I like working hard. I’m renowned for high energy levels and comfortable in high-pressure workplaces. But why put someone who’s straight off several months of political campaigning into 12-to-16-hour days of back-to-back meetings, events and briefings? Why schedule the official photo shoot at the end of the first day?
Why, after only three days, send the mayor to Canberra — as part of a crowded delegation — armed with a depth of knowledge acquired in the past 72 hours. Achievable? Definitely. Smart? Hardly.
I politely questioned the wisdom of the agenda, but got the usual short shrift from a minion.
Fortunately, personnel have since changed and those I have met have mostly been a breath of fresh air. There’s a professional vibe.
I just hope the new team will not be set up for failure this time. We need empathy not antipathy.
The people of Geelong need a victory without a battle.
— Stephanie Asher is a management consultant, professional writer and speaker. Twitter: @stephanieasher1