‘In the service of the shire: What life was like as the wife of a local councillor’

Jul 29, 2020
Brian Lee (far left) at Government House in Melbourne when he first became a councillor for the Gippsland area of Victoria. Source: Jacqui Lee

For three years, my husband was on Wellington Council in Gippsland, Victoria. They were interesting times; it was an eye opener for us and revealed a new world.

It started so innocently, a friend said he was standing down from council and suggested my husband, Brian, was a good candidate, so why not have a go? Brian had not even considered such an opportunity before that.

We’d only been in the town for a couple of years, but amazingly he was elected! Still in shock, we set about learning as fast as we could. Yes me too! We are a team after all.

Life changed overnight! I was going to the opening of festivals, tractor pulls, farm days and country shows. I needed a whole new wardrobe, some sober clothes, not just jeans. I set about muting my wardrobe. Navy suits and neat dresses, classic looks not hippy ones!

I had irate community members phoning me. They’d want to speak to Brian, but would proceed to give me an ear bashing. I was their unloading zone, the first port of call for their frustrations.

“What is Councillor doing about the roads?”, “Why are there no ballroom dancing groups for young people?”, “What is happening about the beach toilets?”, “What is he doing about the hospital bus … and the swimming pool?” These were just some of the questions that came my way.

I had one lady call me almost daily to discuss her concerns. It was difficult because Brian was often at meetings and I was therefore left to field the onslaught!

Life in those council days was quite challenging and keeping my temper was often a strain. Fortunately, I was able to keep an even keel, though I admit to muttering about the youth of the area not really caring too much about ballroom dancing …

Some of the highlights included the delight of small gatherings. I loved the tiny towns and the warm people we met on our travels, their generous welcomes and the view into their lives.

I learned how tough being a wife on a farm was in my meetings with these people. I also joined Women on Farms, a small group of farming women in the area who sought to promote their role as farmers and who offered support, friendship and a female perspective on agriculture to other women in the community.

My artistic skills were used for decorating the theatre for a convention and making table settings for the dinner dance. Again, it was a steep learning curve. I had never done floral displays and I had to decorate large areas. But I coped.

I joined the Country Women’s Association and saw first-hand the work that they do. They were assisting communities with the delivery of sewing machines and parcels for women in remote areas. They continue to lobby for the rights of women, and during my time with them I was in awe how hard some of them had to work on the land while also driving support for their cause.

When Brian first got into the role, I’d say we underestimated the time and commitment the role required; the demands on councillors are considerable. As he became more experienced and together we were more prepared for the challenges, I feel it made us both more responsible and better able to represent the people of our community.

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Have you ever represented on a council or board? What were some of your responsibilities and how did you cope?

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