So you want to be a councillor?
Local government elections are held every four years and on the same date for all 77 councils across Queensland.
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Gain genuine insight into local government political life and the opportunities to represent your community, as we chat with councillors, mayors, and council executives from across Queensland, Australia.
We share a handful of experiences from those who represent our regions, including first nations people, female leaders, those with agricultural backgrounds or with careers in governance. Our host, Rob Hazel, uncovers what the roles within our state’s 77 councils entail, the qualifications required, and the positive impacts of engaging with your local community.
Queensland is seeking candidates of all genders, ages, backgrounds, abilities and experiences who can actively represent the interests and issues within our diverse communities.
Discover how local government works, election campaign requirements, and to access online training modules, candidate fact sheets and resources. Embark on your local government journey now, so that you’re ready for by-election opportunities and prepared for Queensland’s next local government election in March, 2024.
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A natural disaster led Rachel Chambers to fall in love with the North Burnett community and subsequently decide to take on a leadership role, despite being new to the region. A self-confessed ‘annoying constituent’, Rachel put up her hand for Mayor despite having no prior experience as a councillor, to the surprise of some in her electorate, because she knew she could make a difference. In a state where only 36.5% of elected representatives are female, discover Rachel's journey from mud army to majority votes in local government.
[Host] Rob Hazel: Welcome to ‘So you want to be a councillor?’ where you'll get a realistic glimpse into what it's like to be elected to represent your community on one of Queensland's 77 councils. There are nearly 600 councillors across Queensland’s 77 councils, but following the last local government elections in 2020; only 36.5% were female, just 13% under the age of 40 and even less identify as First Nations.
Why is there a lack of diversity among those elected to represent the interests of the communities they serve? Is it because those who may wish to run think they don't have the qualifications to do the job? Or is it a lack of understanding about what the role involves and the positive impact working as a councillor can make?
It takes a special person to both serve and represent their community. In this podcast series we'll give you a real life perspective of what it's like to be a councillor by chatting with previous councillors, mayors and council executives.
It's an often misunderstood fact that mayors themselves are also technically councillors and their duties don't end at the close of the business day. But those who take up the honour of the position say they find it worthwhile, after seeing the tangible difference they've been able to make.
So how does someone find themselves in the position of mayor? I'm Rob Hazel and let's jump into the first episode where we catch up with Rachel Chambers, former Mayor of North Burnett Shire and current CEO of Growcom, Queensland's peak fruit and vegetable industry body.
A newcomer to Gayndah and a leading figure in the region's mud army during 2013's flood recovery activity, Rachel says she ran for mayor simply because she fell in love with the North Burnett community and knew she could make a difference. Rachel tells us exactly why she put her hand up to run and how she was able to make a positive impact as an elected representative, despite being both new to the region and local government itself - a situation she describes as having been a great advantage.
Rachel Chambers: My name is Rachel Chambers. For five and a half years I was Mayor of North Burnett Regional Council. Currently I am the CEO of Growcom.
Rob Hazel: So you're Mayor of North Burnett Regional Council for five and a half years. How long had you been living in that area before becoming mayor?
Rachel Chambers: So I became Mayor at the end of March, 2016 and I moved to Gaynder in the North Burnett on the 29th of January, 2013 so just over three years.
Rob Hazel: So you hadn't been in the in the area for very long. What drove you to want to become the mayor of that area?
Rachel Chambers: Well if you think back in 2013 what was happening in January was Queensland was being inundated by floods; the North Burnett of course was highly impacted. So my husband's family, his father was the police sergeant there for over 20 years, so I decided that I would just pack up and go and be like one of the mud army and go and help.
Rob Hazel: So what did that help entail?
Rachel Chambers: Look, never to be one to do things by halves I drove in, I hired an empty industrial shed and pulled trucks off the road, initially, because that was a problem. There was no one getting, you know, out of the roads - they were congested. A lot of the trucks were - had donated goods in it so we started sorting donated goods. Which is a huge issue in any kind of natural disaster, so I came to learn. And then we just sort of did whatever we needed to do at the time.
So we ended up running what we called the ‘Just say yes centre’ so people from the community just came in and if they needed help all they had to do was answer a question and “yes - do you need help?” “yes” and then we'd do whatever we had to do to make their day a bit better.
Rob Hazel: At that stage I don't imagine that local politics was really on your mind. What were you doing with yourself?
Rachel Chambers: It's a funny thing, politics definitely was never on my agenda, it was on my mother's agenda. So I remember being young in - growing up in Logan City and her chuffing me off to the Logan City Council chambers and I was so bored. I didn't know what she was doing, what she was trying to teach me, I just needed to get out of there. And politics to me hadn't really made an impact to my - into my life until that time so I was a very late adopter into politics.
There's always a reason and the reason was at the time the Mayor and Councillors came into the ‘Just say yes centre’ and said we were detrimentally affecting the economy of the region by doing what we were doing. And I sought to understand that opinion and so I started a dialogue with Council.
Rob Hazel: Did that experience give you a bit of an affinity as well for the community there?
Rachel Chambers: I fell in love with the community there and then. So it was almost four months, seven days a week, long, long hours and in any kind of disaster response you see the absolute best and some of the worst of humanity. So that's when I fell in love with the entire North Burnett.
Rob Hazel: The experience of setting up the ‘Just say yes centre’ and what you were able to accomplish yourself, I'm guessing you were confident to do it? Did you feel that you were able to do something like that?
Rachel Chambers: Setting up the centre during a natural disaster, I think you have a great deal of time spent with community, absolutely. But you also deal with government departments. So we dealt with, you know, Department of Health, and public health, and of course the Council, and emergency services, and SES, and QFES and all of those departments as well. So it sort of expanded my eyes as to all the different functional parts of a community and that definitely drove me and helped me out, with my council endeavors.
Rob Hazel: So from that from that time you started dialogues with Council. How long was it then, from having this experience during the natural disaster for you to say “you know what? I'm going to run for council.”
Rachel Chambers: This is a great story because I don't think there's anyone sitting in their lounge rooms in any council area that says “you know what my council has it 100% right.” So I always say you have to put your life where your mouth is and so for me I started I started questioning council from that time. So I was like “why did you want to shut us down? And why did you come in? And why did you put that particular service there when the community obviously wanted it over here? And how are you making decisions?” and all of those kind of things. So that absolutely stemmed from that first time and it never stopped.
So I was continually asking questions and I was that really annoying constituent. And I did that up until the next election where I gave myself a long hard look, at myself, and said Rachel you have to put your life where your mouth is; it's time to give this a crack.
Rob Hazel: Did you know what you were doing?
Rachel Chambers: Yes. So over the years, particularly in the first couple, there was people always saying you didn't know what you were doing did you? [Laughs] How could you? And I would say “look no one knows in its entirety what any job, or any relationship or anything's going to entail; you work that out after the fact.” But did I do my research? Absolutely.
Rob Hazel: I'm impressed by the research that you did do. Talk us through - because you seem to me to be a very level-headed and thoughtful person and you wouldn't go into something like council, or running for council, without having thought it through very, very clearly. What was the preparation that you made, individually, to prepare yourself?
Rachel Chambers: So I read two years worth of minutes, of every general meeting. And I read the local government legislation which, since then, I have worked out that very few people do. Which is really unfortunate, because as a piece of legislation, it's really easy to read. And I've read far worse pieces of legislation mind you, since. But I think that's fundamental in just - by reading the legislation I knew what was expected of the position and I sort of, you know, that's the rule book - what you can and can't do.
And then by reading the minutes of the council meetings I could understand where council had come from, and I did it for two years for a purpose. So I wanted to see where council had come from, where they were in their decision making in case I popped in. And of course the plan was to pop in as mayor, so I knew I had to sort of understand council from day one.
Rob Hazel: You had confidence in yourself. You don't just walk into a position like mayor, you have to be voted into a position like mayor. So how were you able to instill the confidence that you had in yourself, into the community's belief in you?
Rachel Chambers: So back in 2016 - oh it's actually 2015, so I resigned from my job in education and then I announced it as a three-month job interview. So that's how I approached it, that I was going to have thousands and thousands of people who decided whether I was worthy of this job. And I approached it like in any other job interview; so I made sure that I did my research, I made sure that I went to understand the communities.
Of course you can't go in, you know, and meet everyone individually, so I focused on groups; so sporting groups or community groups or things like that, to give bang for buck. I mean any election campaign is a hard task and you will always be criticised for not going to speak to that person, or that group, or whatever so you have to have quite a good strategy around it. Mine was get to groups it's going to be better bang for buck and really get to know what their issues are. So don't do any sort of flying visits, spend a few hours with them.
Rob Hazel: You'd never been a councillor before so wanting to go straight into the mayoral-ship. [Both laugh]. Was your experience called into question during that election campaign?
Rachel Chambers: 100%. 100% and at one town hall meeting a voice from the floor was “what makes you think that you can not do your time as councillor and go straight to mayor?” And of course I said “well the local government legislation says,” because of course I'd read it. And although that may not be the right decision for everyone, I did it because I felt that I couldn't wait for another term in order to achieve the things I had read about in them, in the minutes. The council was - had some financial concerns and it needed some hard decision making and I knew that I was a person capable of doing that. So I needed that leadership position.
Rob Hazel: We're not elected yet... question marks over experience, whether - were there other question marks about things that may have surprised you? Were there question marks over your age, at the time?
Rachel Chambers: To answer your question a bit backwards, no I wasn't surprised about some questions. Yes they were based on my age and potentially my family situation. So the age thing was “what makes you think that you're old enough for the job?” Once again, “it's the legislation” - everyone should read it. You only have to be 18 and I was decades past that. And the other the one was “you're a mother, do you think this is the right position for you?”
Rob Hazel: Was that something that you were asking yourself going into it?
Rachel Chambers: I wasn't asking myself as much as asking my family. So this, I knew that I was capable of delivering in this position but my family had to agree to it. So we actually had a big family discussion with immediate family and extended family to say “this is what I'm thinking” and this is months and months out. “This is what I'm thinking - who thinks it's crazy? [Laughs] Who thinks it's a good idea?” Knowing that everyone is going to be elected to council, so it's basically a one in all-in system regardless of who you are. Everyone you touch; your friends, your family become part of your, you know, your role in community. So absolutely it was a family-based decision.
Rob Hazel: Prior to election you obviously had thought about it and discussed it with the family. The reality of the job, did it - did it pan out the way that you thought it would?
Rachel Chambers: Yeah I would say so. I knew it was going to be a 24 hour, seven day a week position and anyone who doesn't think that is delusional. There's strategies around that so after - and there's some really lovely friendships in local government because everyone is in a similar boat. Other councillors and mayors gave me some really great advice on the outset.
And I remember one such piece of advice saying, “Rachel the people that will bring you down, the people that you will hear from most is about 5% of the population. 95% actually don't care what you do every day. [Laughs] So stop focusing on the 5% and actually just get on and do your job. Things like that helped, but yes the responsibility was never lost on me.
Rob Hazel: and it's an interesting one because I think we've got 77 councils in Australia, 77 local government - oh sorry - in Queensland 77 local government areas, all of them are different. They're all unique. For your experience you don't have one primary centre of population, a number of different townships. How challenging was that for you to represent equally and I guess, holistically?
Rachel Chambers: Yeah that's actually one of my campaign approaches in that - so North Burnett for anyone who doesn't know is a region that was amalgamated, so six towns into one. And if you can think of the region, it's four hours in any direction that encompasses the whole region. So one of my election, sort of, speeches was about who better to represent the view of everyone in someone who has only been here three years? Who can actually represent everyone equally and without any kind of bias? So that's what I did, I went in and I'd had that flooding experience where I had just loved everyone from around the region and that's exactly how I worked it.
Rob Hazel: What would be some of the, I guess, the career highlights isn't there?
Rachel Chambers: It's funny in a regional area, of course the financial sustainability and those kind of things; it's a different job to potentially city or coastal mayors. And this is something that we ought to speak about, in that there's a lot of opportunity for other mayors to cut ribbons and do something nice for community. And when they look back they might be, you know, “well we got this centre up” or “we got this” and all that. The North Burnett was much more basic.
I enjoyed lobbying for a number of years to get things like the John Peterson Bridge renewed [laughs] and to get a water treatment plant replaced. Some people are driven to their community in a sort of a one-topic agenda; I've seen that go badly. So for me, yes you have to be driven for your community but it has to be about leaving a legacy; rather than just solving a problem.
One of the best descriptions about what we do came from a lovely lady who used to be a CEO in local government at Wajul Wajul. And Eileen said to me in First Nations, they think about decision making in five generations time. So what will the outcome be in five generations time? And I took away from that something quite special in that I couldn't think what five generations time looked like. So we started talking about what we were working for, were our children's grandchildren and try to frame it in that way. So it was about decision making in the context of leaving a legacy for others.
Rob Hazel: That's quite an enormous responsibility isn't it? And that's one of those things, I guess, if you're thinking about putting your hand up to run you've got to take into account; that you're guiding your community for decades to come.
Rachel Chambers: It's quite the responsibility and I think too, the other thing that people get a little bit caught up on is, and particularly people who run for mayor, they may think well you're mayor - and I know that certainly community said to me sometimes - “well you're Mayor why didn't you? Why can't you just make the decision? I said “well yes I'm Mayor, I'm the figurehead, however I just get one vote like the rest of the councillors.”
And I think that's a poorly understood concept in Queensland, in every councillor, which of course includes mayors, around the table gets one vote each. So it actually doesn't matter what, you know, election campaign you had, or what agenda item you're in there, or anything like that. It can get overturned quite easily depending on the numbers. And the other part of the legislation that people don't understand is once it gets overturned, as a councillor you have to support it. So you don't have to personally agree with it, but you've signed up to supporting it, because it is a council decision.
Rob Hazel: Looking back now, five and a half years on the job, how would you rate it as an experience in your life? Was it the best experience, was it something you regretted doing?
Rachel Chambers: Never ever regretted it. So there was some hard, hard times, there were some beautiful times. It was - it was quite a complete experience, if I could use that word in that. But never ever did I regret it. It gave me such profound life experiences that could never be replicated. Remarkable and probably thus far, the most remarkable experience of my life.
Rob Hazel: Thank you Rachel and thanks for listening to ‘So you want to be a councillor?’
[Background music commences]
Rob Hazel: On the next episode, we're speaking to Brett de Chastel, a 32-year veteran of local government and self-described ‘local government tragic.’ Brett's claim to fame is having held, in his words, ‘the best job in Australia’ as the CEO for Noosa Shire Council. It's a position he held for eight years. Recently retired as the ‘Local Government Managers Australia’ Queensland President, Brett is currently volunteering with Cherbourg and working with some Cape York Councils, acting as a mentor and continuing his passion for supporting indigenous communities.
Brett de Chastel: It's funny you know, I went through university and a couple of my friends have asked me that same question. And if you'd have asked me - I would have spent my career working in local government originally - I would have laughed.
Rob Hazel: If you are feeling inspired to represent your community and considering running for council, go to statedevelopment.qld.gov.au/getelected - there's a link in the show notes.
The Community’s CEO
Back at university, Brett de Chastel would have laughed if anyone predicted he would spend his entire career in government! Now, the self-proclaimed ‘local government tragic’ is struggling to retire, as he continues to mentor indigenous councils. Throughout his tenure as Noosa Council CEO, a job he describes as ’the best in Australia,’ Brett worked with close to 100 councillors and has discovered the key characteristic is being passionate about community. Join us as the former CEO reveals how councils representing today’s community, are also representing the future.
Chair of Cyclones
Former Mayor of the Cassowary Coast, Bill Shannon, found there was a greater array of opportunities to contribute to community, in a regional area, as opposed to the city. The multi-committee member facilitated cyclone management, which gained international recognition for best practice! With a background spanning both economics and agriculture, Bill urges people with diverse experience to engage in local government; ‘what really matters is your connection to the community.’
Grandmother of an Island Home
Deniece Geia has been advocating for her community for almost two decades both as an elected Councillor and a Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council executive. She believes self-care is essential for balancing public life, with her role as a grandmother to 16 children! In a state where less than 13% of councillors identify as First Nations people; Deniece engages with elders, mothers and young people in meaningful ways, such as yarning circles. She encourages females to enter politics, ‘because women have the strength.’
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Last updated: 18 Nov 2022