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Young leaders shaping Local Government

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In October 2021, aged just 22, Maddi McDonald successfully ran in the local government elections for the Shire of Dandaragan, becoming the youngest Councillor in the Shire’s history. The 2021 Local Government elections saw a swell in youth candidates around the state, with 19-year-old Amy Astil elected to the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, and the City of Bunbury voting in its youngest mayor ever, 30-year-old Jaysen De San Miguel.

With this year’s Local Government elections looming, I asked Maddi about her journey to councillor:

I think interest, awareness, and knowledge of politics in young people has increased over the generations, though I’ve not seen that interest necessarily transfer to local government. What exposure did you have to the workings of council growing up, and what encouraged you to step up and become a councillor?

Growing up on a farm on the fringes of two Shires, I certainly heard about what the Shire should do — and where they should stick it if the roads were full of potholes, especially after a big rain! With Dad having two properties either side of Coorow, and Mum — working as an agronomist in the North Midlands — we travelled a lot. There was plenty of time to think about all the things that needed fixing. But apart from that, I didn’t even really know that local government was a ‘thing’.

Getting sent to boarding school sparked my political interest, but it certainly wasn’t at a local level. When I went home, I debated heavily with Dad about government decisions, and I’m sure the rest of my family were counting down the days until I left for Perth again.

Local Government wasn’t really on my radar until 2020. I was keeping an eye on what was happening in the Shire of Dandaragan, when the state was entirely in lockdown, and then the opportunity arose in 2021 for me to go up for election as a Councillor. President Leslee Holmes was talking about young women in local government and I asked myself, “Do I know any local councillors around my age?” When the answer was no, I decided then and there that I would try my best to get voted in. I knew that I would be supported no matter what the result!

What are some of the challenges you have faced, and are there any that have specifically arisen due to your age?

Although my work has always been incredibly supportive of me joining Local Government, I think for anyone that does work full time and still wants to have a social life —on top of the demands of being a Councillor — it is an adjustment.

The biggest challenge was mostly around my lack of procedural knowledge, and the quick turnaround from ‘ratepayer’ to actively making decisions within the span of a few weeks.

Luckily, the resources accessible to Councillors are extremely comprehensive, and I have thrown myself into additional training to fill in the gaps. I’d say I’ve been very lucky, and despite being only 22 when joining Council, most people have been incredibly supportive of me and have treated me equitably.

I know it is early days, but is there an achievement that you are particularly proud of, or what are you working to achieve in the future?

Honestly, it would have to be being nominated as Chair for the Jurien Bay Recreation Centre Precinct Working Group. As someone who spends a lot of time in the precinct throughout the year, playing summer basketball, barefoot bowls, netball and hockey through the winter season, it’s safe to say that I well and truly know the constraints of the current facility. I hope that I can contribute meaningfully to the development of the Precinct Plan. I consider myself very lucky to know nearly all the other working group members, and feel that we will have a productive and collaborative group.

What encouragement would you give others looking to become a councillor?

Knowing what decisions are being made in your community and being involved is one of the most important things you can do, especially when we look at the length of time Local Government decisions can span. When looking at things like strategic planning — which is a huge part of every decision made by Council — having a diverse group guiding these strategies ensures future residents and visitors alike have been considered in a variety of ways.

With Councils around the state reducing numbers, it is important to represent every part of your community. If you feel as though your voice may not be heard, it’s important to put yourself in a position where that voice is heard. I know for a lot of young people who are starting a family or busy with their careers, being involved with Local Government might not seem very high on their priority list, but it really is such a fulfilling role. Learning the inner workings of local government, along with meeting other people in the same positions in the regions as you makes the role a whole lot more interesting.