Last Sunday was only the second Sunday in ten years I did not publish a blog post. The only other one was the week my husband died. Getting elected to Mayor took two days to be counted due to disruptions that the Electoral Commission of SA entertained and that is the story I will tell today. I think the count has potential to be a four-part mini-series so any script writers out there who want to reach out I’m ready!
In South Australia, local government elections are conducted by postal ballot and are non-compulsory. It is optional preferential voting. The ballot papers are in circulation for four weeks. Over the past few years, the number of public letter boxes has diminished. There were changes in the Local Government (Elections) Act last year which banned signs promoting candidates being displayed on public property. I hope you are getting the picture that casting your ballot had its own challenges and really requires you to be committed. For the City of Onkaparinga 25.65% of residents eligible cast their votes for Mayor and councillors. This result was the lowest percentage of any council, however given it is also the largest council representing 10% of the whole State more people participated than anywhere else in the State.
The voting period ended at 5pm on Thursday 10th November and the ballot boxes were to be opened for the count from 9am on Saturday 12th November. Every candidate for both Mayor and Councillor is allowed two scrutineers to attend the count, candidates can be there, but they are not allowed in the counting room. The whole count process is conducted by the Electoral Commission of SA and the City of Onkaparinga’s was conducted at the Civic Centre in Noarlunga. There were eight candidates for Mayor and there are six wards. Each ward had between seven and ten candidates. Are you doing the math? The potential for a crowd of scrutineers and candidates was high. And sure enough, there were around fifty candidates and scrutineers, ready and waiting when the doors opened on Saturday morning. I had instructed my two scrutineers to go down to the opening for the briefing from the Electoral Commission staff and then go back about 3 or 4. The first five to seven hours is usually spent opening the ballot packs with counting rarely beginning til mid-afternoon. I was expecting a result to be known between 11pm and mid-night. In fact, it was not until 3pm on Sunday that the provisional declaration was made.
One of the mayoral candidates had organised like a political party and ran two candidates in every ward and this group of candidates were well organised with scrutineers and had a plan to question every part of the process. It was a disrupt and distract strategy. The police were called twice over the weekend and extra Electoral Commission staff came to support the local team. The Electoral Commissioner took the unprecedented step to contact all candidates by email to remind us of our responsibilities and advise what action he would take if candidates could not instruct their scrutineers to behave appropriately. I will not share all the details here about what happened as this is now all subject to investigations and enquiries. I am looking forward to having the opportunity of adding my experience into the mix.
Early afternoon I left the count and went to Lot50Kanyanyapilla for a river red gum planting ceremony with the Governor of South Australia. The weather was biblical – there was so much rain and with each downpour black clouds gathered like world cup rugby players in a scrum. The rain was so heavy you could not hear the speakers or even plant the trees. The Governor and the bi-cultural partners of L50K, Karl Telfer and Gavin Malone planted their three trees but that was it. As I drove back from McLaren Vale to Noarlunga to heavens continued to open, trees were down on the roads, there were pots holes overflowing with water and debris, power lines were down – it was a tempest.
When I arrived back at the count, the security guard saw me coming towards to the door and she left her spot to come and let me in. As I pressed the button on my side, an enormous bolt of lightning lit up the sky behind me and she reeled back. We both laughed at the apocalyptic tone that was now set by the elements as I walked into the building. I felt all the gods in Olympus were behind me! I drew on that energy more than once over the course of the next day and night and day.
The count ended at 2.30am on Sunday morning when it became clear that the distribution of preferences was not going to have any one candidate romp away with a result. I started well ahead on first preferences, but with the distribution of preferences it was clear my margin was diminishing. With the seven other candidates, none were progressive, and some were a very long way from me on the political spectrum. I had a number in mind about how far ahead I would need to be on first preferences from my nearest rival and I had fallen short. I was pretty concerned we would not make it. In my mind I felt if the candidate who was the acting Mayor came third that was going to make it very hard for me to get over the line. As a conservative his preferences would have gone to the remaining conservative was my guess. As it happened, he did come third and his preferences were almost 50/50 and so did not change the gap between me and the person who came second. Making me the one who got elected to Mayor, so at about 230pm when my scrutineer delivered me that news with a thumbs up through the glass doors and another scrutineer showing me the numbers, I was very happy to receive the hugs from them both. It was momentous on so many levels.
I had decided to wear one a Clothing the Gaps t-shirts on Sunday to the chamber. The one I chose was my white one with a modest logo of “always was always will be” on the left-hand side. The person I beat had a platform of not doing acknowledgements to country and if he did win, I wanted to be there for the declaration with my t-shirt on publicly acclaiming solidarity. If I won, I wanted to be there for the declaration with my t-shirt on publicly acclaiming solidarity. I drew on the deep roots of our land and the ancestors and those River Red Gums to hold me steady as I stood there to hear the provisional declaration. I am deeply rooted in my story and place. This place Onkaparinga – the women’s river. Forever grateful for the opportunity to be in civic leadership, and deeply respecting the responsibility and privilege to lead in this way, in this place.
I am coming to terms, and to grips, with what it all means and the kind of leadership that will be required for this time and how the role of Mayor can be transformed within this context with me in the role. I am excited for the possibilities and enriched by all the care, love and support I have had and will continue to have along the way.
I made a small space for reflection and will make more as I sense into what is now emerging. I drew on a David Whyte poem “Still possible” on Friday. Here is the first and last stanza of a rather epic piece of poetry that I encourage you to read.
It is still possible to be kind to yourself,
To drop constraints and fall often
To your knees, it’s not too late now, to bow
To what beckons, the world still swimming
Around you as you kneel transfigured
By what sweeps on, it’s still possible
To leave every fearful former self
In the wake of nearly heard words
Issuing from an astonished mouth.
It’s still possible in the end
to realize why you are here
and why you have endured,
and why you might have suffered
so much, so that in the end.
You could witness love, miraculously
Arriving from nowhere, crossing
Bravely as it does, out of darkness,
From that great and spacious stillness
Inside you, to the simple, Light-filled life of being said.