A former Melbourne councillor at the centre of a local government #MeToo scandal has revealed she felt “used” after being approached by both sides of politics to run as a candidate in key seats in the federal election.
Tessa Sullivan, who resigned in 2018 after making allegations of sexual harassment against former Mayor Robert Doyle, also told a gathering of women in local government that she has been accepted to do a Master of Liberal Arts in Journalism at Harvard University.
Speaking at the Australian Local Government Women’s Association (ALGWA) National Conference in Sydney, Ms Sullivan denounced sexual harassment in the workplace and said she had spoken out about her experience at Melbourne City Council to protect other women.
Mr Doyle stood down and subsequently resigned in February 2018 following the complaints. A 2018 report by Melbourne City Council found against him in four complaints.
Mr Doyle has denied all allegations against him.
“Sexual harassment is insidious and degrading,” said Ms Sullivan. “It makes you feel vulnerable and targetted.”
‘Wined and dined’ to run as a candidate
Ms Sullivan, the first woman to make an allegation against Mr Doyle, on Thursday said that in the run-up to the election she had been “wined and dined” to run for the ALP in Flinders, and to contest Higgins for the Liberal Party. The Greens had also approached her, she said.
But she felt used because of her profile and as if “people were trying to tap into my ordeal”.
She said she had fought hard to be elected and resigning was a devasting experience that left her feeling hopeless.
She also said when she raised concerns before her resignation she felt silenced “It was very much pushed under the table,” she said.
But she said deciding to take action was “empowering”, and she did so in the hope that it would prevent other women in a position like hers from experiencing the same thing.
Ms Sullivan admitted she was blindsided by how big the story became, and by the nature of the coverage she received.
“I was devastated, I’d just lost my job,” she said. “But there was all this victim blaming, making it look like I had asked for it to happen.
“I felt totally cornered and upset by the whole thing.
“The Local Government Act was silent (on sexual harassment) on it, the Melbourne City Council was silent.
“I thought I was just a small councillor but it ended up being a David versus Goliath story.”
Ms Sullivan said there is too much emphasis on quotas and KPIs in local goverment, rather than action on gender equality. For a council with a multi-million dollar budget she was disappointed to see that rather than addressing internal gender issues Melbourne City Council decided to put a skirt on a traffic light man.
“I don’t care about traffic lights, I care about equal pay for women,” she said.
Bringing about change
Outgoing ALGW president Coral Ross praised ALGWA for supporting Ms Sullivan and helping bring about change.
“Last year local government had its own MeToo moment”, Cr Ross said. “And at ALGWA we said it’s time.”
“ALGWA was active in this space, supporting the women and calling for change. We demanded changes to the councilor code of conduct, made submissions to the Victorian local government minister for sexual harassment to be included in the local government act, we made complaints to the press council … about the treatment of Tessa.
“We decided we had to make a stand because this was victim blaming, and would discourage any councilor in a similar predicament from making a complaint.”
She said as result of lobbying by ALGAW Melbourne City Council had adopted a new code of conduct as well as acting on the association’s suggestion of establishing an independent person to hear and receive complaints.
“It is a great template for councils looking for a code of conduct,” she said.
Victoria was now set this month to become the first state to have sexual harassment included a local government act.
“We encourage all states to follow,” Cr Ross said.
“I’m proud for ALGW to be standing up and saying it’s time.”
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