From community activist to councillor

By Shane Scanlan

It’s been interesting to watch Jackie Watts’ transition from community activist to councillor.

She clearly struggled during her first term, coming in mid-way through to fill a casual vacancy on a count-back of votes.  This period was marred by a bitter personal dispute with Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and resulted in Cr Doyle being exonerated over accusations of harassment and bullying.

It would have been entirely understandable had Cr Watts not sought re-election in 2012.

But contest the election she did – and was the seventh of nine councillors elected.

The ALP member raised a few eyebrows in the process though  – having aligned herself on the ticket of pollster Gary Morgan and larger-than-life conservative figure John Elliot.

Cr Watts prefers not to talk about the issues that dogged her first term, pointing instead to a victory in successfully lobbying for two extra councillors to help shoulder the burden of elected office.

“Having two extra councillors has ameliorated the situation,” she said.

However, she is far from satisfied with the electoral system, which sees businesses in Melbourne granted two votes, while individuals have only one.

“I am agitating constantly for reform and I am very keen that the new Labor Government pick up the recommendations of Petro Georgiou’s review of electoral reforms,” she said.

The former Coalition government commissioned a review of the state local government system and released its findings last September.

Recommendation four of Mr Georgiou’s first stage report is: “A corporation may nominate only one representative, who may be enrolled only once in a municipality.”

However, when releasing the report, former local government minister Tim Bull said the Coalition would: “retain the existing electoral structure and franchise for the City of Melbourne.”  It is yet to be determined what the new Labor Government makes of the recommendations.

Cr Watts said: “The overarching problem remains and it will remain while the gerrymander remains.  I’m hoping that some of the Petro Georgiou recommendations will be adopted before the next council election.”

When she became a councillor, Cr Watts was the convenor of the Coalition of Resident and Business Association (CoRBA), an umbrella group of 17 groups throughout the City of Melbourne.

Her own particular area is Carlton where she has held various executive roles with the Carlton Residents Group.

CoRBA, she explained, was created to give the smaller disparate groups a louder voice with the City of Melbourne.  These groups favour a return to dividing the city into wards, each represented by a councillor.

“There was a shared view among community associations in relation to the city,” she said. “The general view was that they were not being heard.  How do you get heard?  You create a group and you tackle things collectively.”

So, if the electoral system is broken, how come Cr Watts managed to get elected?

“It’s been thrown up a lot over the years that, because I was elected under the current system, it must work.  It doesn’t.  It’s dreadful. And it’s ludicrous that Sydney should be considering a shift towards what is occurring in Melbourne,” she said.

Cr Watts could count on support for her views on the electoral system from ALP councillor Richard Foster and the two Greens councillors would agree that businesses should not be favoured, but the other seven councillors certainly wouldn’t agree.

And the loose alliance on electoral matters with the Greens doesn’t necessarily extend beyond a few broad principles.  After all, in the inner-city environment, the battle for political dominance is not between conservative and progressive, it’s between the Labor Party and the Greens.

Cr Watts distances herself from party politics, saying she believes it has no place in the council chamber.  Her alignment with John Elliott at the last election is evidence of this.  But it makes her harder to read in council, particularly as she is not the most vocal contributor.

Essentially a private person, it’s easy to form a view that Cr Watts became a councillor out of obligation for a cause and doesn’t really enjoy it.

She has been suffering illness of recent times, which also doesn’t help her confidence or how she performs in the council chamber.

Cr Watts is the daughter of English “economic migrants” who came to Melbourne in 1951 and essentially grew up in the eastern suburbs during a time when Doncaster and Blackburn were as much rural as urban.

Her father was a retailer and small business man and her parents twice returned to live in England (resulting in Cr Watts attending five different primary schools).

She travelled extensively as a young woman, including overland from London to Kathmandu and around Africa in a converted bus.  She has two children and four grandchildren.

Cr Watts is also defined by her academic career, which saw her start a part-time arts degree at LaTrobe University when her children where young in 1977 and culminate with a doctorate in vocational training
from RMIT.

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