By Shane Scanlan
If Cathy Oke was an elite athlete, and not a politician, you’d want her drug-tested.
She’s half-way through her second term as a Melbourne city councillor with an impossible work-load, including being a new mum, but shows no sign of burn-out or disinterest.
Everyone knows town hall politics is a bruising environment but there is not a hint of cynicism about her. It’s all surprisingly positive, up-lifting, genuine.
She is certainly idealistic. But the “looney” label that can come with being a Green doesn’t stick.
Cr Oke remains unaffected because she is doing something that she loves.
“I feel we are making a difference,” she said. “Especially in the sustainability space.”
What makes Cr Oke different from what you might expect of an inner-city Greens councillor is the grounding in grass-roots community politics she got at her kitchen table growing up in a staunch ALP family in North Melbourne.
The electoral rules have changed now but, “back in the day”, town hall politics was largely decided around similar kitchen tables in West Melbourne, Flemington and Carlton.
Her fanaticism for the North Melbourne Football Club also sets her apart from her peers.
“I’m not your usual greenie in that sense,” she said. Adding that she really enjoyed the three years she spent with deep-sea fishermen while she researched a PhD thesis on the genetics of orange roughy.
Cr Oke’s parents remain actively involved in local community life. The family allegiance has shifted to the Greens, one suspects, because of the purity of its ideals, particularly in relation to social justice issues.
It’s easy to imagine Cr Oke as an absolute joy to her parents – high achieving at school, respectful and well-behaved (“Goody two-shoes” is the term she uses). She studied marine biology which led on to community activism around marine national parks and voluntary work with the Surfrider Foundation.
Sun, sand and surf. Does it get more wholesome? Cr Oke carries a bit of that golden sunset idealism with her into the council chamber.
Party politics came much later than community activism for Cr Oke.
She said she was very careful in choosing the Greens but had first voted for the party over its stance on asylum seekers during the “children overboard” controversies of the Howard Government years.
She’s now a seasoned councillor and points to achievements in sustainability and transport. She points out that, on some routes, bicycle use in now almost at the council’s stretch target of 16 per cent of “mode use”.
She says the next bicycle plan will turn its attention to short trips within the municipality with safer infrastructure and lower speed limits.
The council is due to release its final “walking plan” later this year and Cr Oke is keen to get some outcomes.
“We all know that a plan is just a plan and that you actually have to do it,” she said. “I’ll be concentrating on getting some to the actions enacted over the next two years.”
She’s also excited by an urban ecology strategy, which she hopes will draw solid connections between nature and the economy of a functioning, liveable city.
She says she hasn’t decided what her political future will be. She needs to see what happens in her private life, career and political life during the remaining two years of her term.
At the moment, though, she shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’ve found you can actually make a lot of difference being in the political process,” she said. “It’s a big commitment and there are a lot of hours and you don’t get recompensed as you perhaps should but you actually get to make a difference.” She said she mostly loved working with residents and would like to think that she was connected with residents from all around the municipality.
“Sometimes its tough and you don’t always provide the answers they want to hear,” she said.
“You have to decide whether you want to be inside the tent or outside the tent. Do you want to make political change from within or from the outside?”