When Tammy Milne was elected to Tasmania’s Devonport City Council in 2016 she faced a rude shock. As the only Green on a very conservative council, she was met with taunts of “bloody greeny” and worse. But 12 months later, Tammy reflects on her time as a councillor with great satisfaction, knowing she has already made a positive difference for her local community.
From deeply practical changes, like improving waste management services, to important symbolic initiatives, like formalising an acknowledgement of country before council meetings, Tammy’s achievements are emblematic of the profound impact Greens can have in local government.
“Being a Green councillor is like being the social and environmental conscience,” she says. “I am able to push the green agenda at every opportunity. Yes, budgets are important, but social equity is just as important and as a Greens Alderman I am able to push for more socially and environmentally friendly council programs.”
As someone who herself has a disability, Tammy has been an important advocate for others in her community with disabilities. Her success in having a bus shelter modified to accommodate disabled access led to a change in the council’s policy, and now all new bus shelters must comply with disability regulations. Tammy is seeking to extend that policy to cover other public amenities.
There’s a different dynamic for Greens on more progressive councils, where in many cases the party has had elected representatives for many years, and where there may be multiple Greens councillors.
Cathy Oke and Rohan Leppert are the current the Greens Councillors for Melbourne City, where the party has had a presence since 1999. Years of hard work by successive Greens representatives have led to significant reforms for action on climate change, urban ecology and cycle ways – to name just a few key areas.
“Consistency pays off,” Cathy says. “Having Greens on Council over many years in Melbourne is proof of this. It is a team effort.”
Cathy has been at the forefront of projects like the City of Melbourne’s world-leading Urban Forest Strategy, which aims to double the canopy by 2040 and reduce heat in the city by one to four degrees. And she’s led the development of an urban ecology plan dubbed ‘Nature in the City’, which is fostering diverse, resilient and healthy ecosystems within the urban environment.
“To ride or walk the streets of our city knowing I have created a more sustainable future for those who come after me is a pretty special feeling,” Cathy says.
Right around Australia, Greens councillors are achieving great things for their local communities. In Bega Valley Shire, in NSW, Cathy Griff helped ensure her council was the first to sign on to the Climate Council's Cities Power Partnership – an initiative that helps local governments achieve ambitious goals on climate change. Bega Council has set a 100% renewable energy target and is already taking practical steps towards achieving it.
And Brisbane’s first Greens city Councillor, Jonno Sri of the Gabba Ward is using a participatory budgeting system to give local residents a say in how council money is spent. It’s a three-stage system by which residents make suggestions, council advises which projects are feasible and how much they will cost, and residents then vote for their preferred projects up to a total value of $350 000.
“It has triggered broader conversations about rethinking budgeting processes at other levels of government,” Jonno says. “For any kind of radical structural reform to succeed, it must start locally and come from the bottom up.”
Cathy Oke believes these types of initiatives are why it’s important to have Greens on Council. “As elected representatives our actions showcase what Greens policy means in practice... It's grassroots democracy in action. Councils are the closest level of government to the people, we offer visibility of what best-practice community engagement, transparent and open government, sustainable and just society policies mean on the ground,” she says.
Much is often made of the fact that local Government is a great training ground for Greens members who go on to represent the party at a state and federal level – so many of our MPs began their political careers in local government. But this should not be seen as an end in itself, Cathy says.
“Yes it is great to get experience of politics, and of representing Greens members and the community… but don't look at it only as a stepping stone to other levels. I am constantly surprised and proud of how much a Green at local level can actually achieve.”