Working in local politics can be tough. Putting yourself out there in the public sphere is undeniably a bold move. The pressure, the long hours, the constant criticism that faces politicians is only exemplified when those politicians are young people. Pelican sat down with three of Western Australia’s youngest local politicians to get a sense of what youth leadership looks like, their process to success and highlights along the way.

ADAM KOVALEVS (22) has served as a Whiteman ward councillor for the City of Swan for two and a half years. GEORGIE CAREY (21) has served as local councillor for the Town of Mosman for around 5 months. SEBASTIAN SCHIANO DI COLA (20) has served in the Shire of Capel as a local councillor since aged 18.

What would you say is the highlight of the time in your position as a local councillor? Were you ever pressed to take a bold stance or position?

ADAM: I would have to say that the highlights almost always are related to direct interaction with the community. I think there is something very rewarding about being able to work together with the community to achieve some tangible outcomes. I have meet some amazing residents in my area all doing their bit to improve our community and lifestyle. Being able to be part of various community initiatives, fairs and events definitely helps provide balance to the long council and committee meetings.

GEORGIE: My highlight happened at the February Ordinary Council Meeting (the monthly meeting where we actually make the decisions). Prior to the meeting, we had been through the initial stages of some community consultation to do with a proposed skate-park extension. The idea for skate-park extension had come from some young members of the community that wanted to improve the skate-park in Mosman Park who argued that it is now quite old and a bit too small for the numbers of skaters in Mosman Park.

We had to make a decision about whether to go forward with further consultation with the wider community about the potential skate-park extension at the February meeting. At the meeting, we had about 10 of the young members from the skate-park committee come and address a room full of adults about why they were passionate about the skate-park and the reasons why it needed the extension. This was a highlight for me because it is the first time I have ever seen young people attend or engage with our Council meetings. I give full credit to the passionate young skaters for convincing all of the councillors to vote in favour of continuing with further community consultation because had they not come and spoken, I’m not sure that the consultation would have been approved.

SEBASTIAN: The highlights of Local Government especially in regional WA are the little wins. One of the first little wins I had was with the help of fellow Councillors securing funds for a local cricket club through our minor community grant scheme. On a larger scale, over the past months I’ve been working on establishing the Shire of Capel’s WALGA Roadwise committee to assist Council with extra leverage in acting on road safety concerns affecting our more than 500km of roads.

I was recently pressed to make a bold move and back down on my original support for the South West Waste Site being investigated in Capel, it’s economic benefits were second to none, though community outcry was too loud to ignore. I’ve received petitions and protests, against current political issues before, most have been from our loud minority, though I could clearly distinguish that this time, it was the true belief of the whole community and actively changed by position on the matter. As a council we reversed our decision to the delight of the community.

Many have described becoming a local councillor as the pinnacle for youth leadership and representation, in your experience do you feel this is true? Are there better or alternative avenues for young people to be bold and express their views?

SEBASTIAN: I attended a youth leadership program as a speaker in 2016, participants had spent the week talking about the many way’s people can make change, in fact only a small amount actually recognised politics as an avenue, there is plenty of avenues to wander down, and Local Government isn’t the top of the political chain. Volunteering was probably one of the most distinguished ways of making change. Join a campaign or issue that you’re passionate about and provide the best resource you have (yourself) to making change. That’s how I started, my passion was youth engagement and providing young people a voice, that’s what I’ve always been working towards.

How did you find the campaign and election process? Did you feel there was a need to prove your experience when compared with older candidates to the community?

GEORGIE: The campaign process was an interesting one for me! I predominantly used social media to reach as many people as possible, as well as give people an easy and accessible avenue to engage with, however, it also left me susceptible to online trolls. I think because I was shaking things up a bit and pushing for more diversity on local councils, I was targeted by online trolls determined to dismantle my campaign to protect the status quo. Nevertheless, this vocal minority was no match for the support I received from the Mosman Park community. While I think I might have raised a few eyebrows when people realised I was only 21, I think there was a hunger in the community for something different. And I guess that’s the beauty of democracy; we all have the right to put our hands up regardless of our experience (or lack thereof) and it’s up to the community’s as to whether they’ll vote you in or not.

SEBASTIAN: I had a very successful campaign, I worked hard, and I did it with a lot of support from friends, volunteers, supporters and businesses … The election process was well explained to me and I understood my obligations and responsibilities. Unfortunately, I think that some candidates sometimes do not understand before they put their hand up.

I am constantly having to prove my experience compared to my older fellow councillors. Often not to council but to the community. As one of the only Capel councillors who uses social media to discuss issues with constituents as they arise, I am constantly bullied and threatened by electors for my age. A recent example was when I was publicly abused by an elector for not owning my own home, and therefore she said, “you have no right to talk about rates or explain how they work to me until you have owned a home”. She went on to say some nasty things about my appearance, experiences and value, personally targeting me for my age rather than discussing the issue. I was only attempting to explain to her how the GRV and rate in the dollar calculation works and how though her rate notice was higher in Capel than on her other properties outside of the shire that her rate in the dollar is in fact higher in the other towns and therefore she technically pays a lower rate on a higher valued GRV property in Capel. The hard truth for some in the contentious rates debate. Furthermore, it’s unfortunately not uncommon for me to receive message or comment criticising me for my age, electors refusing to discuss issues with me and publicly targeting me on social media.

On the contrary though, the constant flows of messages and support I receive directly from the majority of electors far out ways the abuse. Along with the support my local radio, TV news and newspapers have given me over time because they respect and are aware of my experience and know that I can provide a youthful perspective on issues.

I was wondering since you first took the position has the job matched your expectation in terms of making decisions and changing the local community? Or do you feel like your hamstrung-on occasion by having to compromise with other voices in chamber?

ADAM: The very first thing I learnt on Council was that you can’t please all the people, all of the time! I had this idealistic thought, that I would be the people’s champion, that I would stand up for the little guy and be one of the good guys.

And then I got to my very first council meeting and the initial decision I had to make was on a housing development approval. I sat there and listened to the neighbours of the house in question passionately argue against the development, speaking about the negative impacts it would have on them and their family and I thought right, these are the everyday people that I was elected to represent let’s support them. Then the family who put in the application got up and spoke about how they had been saving for twenty years and had gone through significant financial hardship but were finally in a position build their dream home. Right then and there I learned that the community will always have differing opinions so even when you think you have made the right decision there will be someone waiting to tell you that you made the wrong one. Don’t get me wrong, I think diversity of opinion is important and should challenge us to make better decisions. It is clear though that many issues are more grey than black and white. My intent is always to listen open-mindedly, consider carefully the opinions of others and then act in the service of others.

I think it is important to be aware that as a Councillor you only have one vote in the Chamber so you need the support of your fellow Councillors in order to make positive change for our communities. That means there are times when despite you believing in something passionately and being convinced that it would benefit the community enormously it doesn’t get through council. It can be very frustrating but that is the way democracy works, it teaches you to really saviour the victories and despite how tough it can get when you are able to effect real, meaningful change for your community it makes it all worthwhile.

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The work that Adam, Georgie and Sebastian have done in their local communities shouldn’t be overlooked, they’ve provided perspectives and platforms for youth in a sphere where they were never listened to before. They have also provided the inertia that has seen more youth candidates in local elections. Yet it is important to remember that just because you aren’t a local politician doesn’t mean you can’t create change. All these fantastic people started out representing youth issues in all forms, from volunteering to advisory councils, there is no one size fits all policy. if you are prepared to put in the hours, to stick it out when the going gets tough and to not be put off by those who say it can’t be done then you can achieve real change no matter what position you may or may not hold.

Full Transcript from interviews available here

Joshua Cahill