By KIERAN FINNANE
After announcing that she will not stand in August’s local government elections, Councillor Jade Kudrenko is urging candidates to put themselves forward, particularly young mothers like herself.
“My family have never once been the issue,” says Cr Kudrenko, who during her term has had two children. In fact she found out she was pregnant with her first the very day that the poll was declared.
This did not stop her from emerging as one of council’s most effective performers: always well prepared, thoroughly articulate, knowing which questions to ask to draw further information, whether from council officers or deputations, knowing how to steer her own path as a progressive through a mostly conservative council.
This at the same time as caring for little children has been a “positive challenge”, she says, though not one she could have managed on her own: she describes her marriage with Scott as “an equal partnership” and her mother has always been willing to help. As well, with both she and Scott working full-time, they employ an au pair who takes over during working hours.
“I want my daughter and son to see a mum who can work.
“I also think that young mothers on council bring an entirely different insight and add value and depth to the conversations that are had.”
Cr Kudrenko is keen for her decision against standing not to be interpreted by other young mothers as a message that it is too hard: “I don’t want to perpetuate that stereotype.”
Has it been the experience of council itself then, the frustrations of often being in a minority, or even solitary position?
These have been very real but on the whole Cr Kudrenko has loved being on council and will miss it. She has also had some wins of which she is proud (more of these later).
Nonetheless she knows she needs a break to regather her energies, and this results from stress in another area of her life that has also been on public view, to a degree: the fostering of children in out-of-home care. She and Scott began fostering before they had their own children and one child in particular was part of their family for five years.
As challenging as some of the vulnerable children who came into their care could be, Cr Kudrenko says it is the protection system that has been the real problem. Despite the good will of some within it, she says there is no support for foster parents, even when they are having to deal with the most difficult and serious situations.
This should not come as a surprise; after all there is a Royal Commission looking at these very issues (among a multitude of others). But when highly capable people like Cr Kudrenko and her husband feel obliged to withdraw from the system, it is a measure of the depth of its crisis.
Cr Kudrenko does not wish to say more at this point, other than to make clear that motherhood itself has not been the issue, in the fervent hope that other mothers will put themselves forward for council. Diversity of representation is critical in her view: “More Aboriginal people, more young people and more women need to stand and be elected.”
At times in the last term – with the resignations of Liz Martin and Kylie Bonanni and before the election of Jacinta Price– Cr Kudrenko was the only woman in the room apart from the executive assistant taking the minutes: “This has got to change!”
She sees her withdrawal from council now as temporary and would definitely consider standing again in the future. In the meantime, she looks forward to completing her term as a member of the Development Consent Authority (her appointment is until June 2018) and will look for other opportunities of community service.
So what advice would she offer prospective candidates?
Campaigning is the first big step and you can’t take it on your own. Her personal network was not politically oriented, so she turned to The Greens. She was not a member of the party at the time although her values were broadly aligned with theirs, on bringing a progressive approach to the delivery of council services, taking into account particularly their environmental impacts and their contribution to social cohesion: “We were in agreement about what could be achieved in town and what was missing.”
During a leadership course with Desert Knowledge Australia she had already developed a commitment to working inter-culturally and to being prepared to consider things from many different points of view. Only in this way can you aim to represent the entire community, says Cr Kudrenko.
Once The Greens had endorsed her candidature, their network of volunteers sprang into action, in particular with leafleting and on polling day, handing out how-to-vote cards.
She polled very well, coming in at fourth position with over 10% of the vote. This she puts down in part to an effective campaign that introduced her and her ideas to the public, but in part also to the “longtime local” factor (in her case, born and bred), which seems to be important in Alice Springs despite it being such a transient town.
For the first six months of the term she was on a steep learning curve. Environmental and social impacts are headings in every report from officers on issues for council consideration, but most of the time the entry under the headings is “nil”. How could she bring into focus what she had stood for?
During this time she says it was important to have a mentor. It didn’t necessarily need to be someone who knew council from the inside; experience on other kinds of boards would provide the necessary insights, she thinks. But in her case it was former councillor John Rawnsley who over a cup of coffee once a month talked through with her the organisational dynamics she was dealing with and ways to handle the high volume of information that councillors are expected to get across.
You need to learn how to read the council papers for their impacts on policy and for accountability without getting bogged down in all the operational detail, she says.
You also need to get used to a level of public exposure, and this starts when you’re campaigning: being interviewed by reporters, seeing and hearing your name in the media, knowing when to say ‘no’ to media requests, all things that are “entirely foreign to most people”.
Once elected, there comes the realisation that you are never “off shift”. Cr Kudrenko no longer goes to the supermarket, for example; people would constantly stop her in the aisles to talk. She says this is a great opportunity to listen, to get to know your constituency, but it also has to be managed. Shopping for her family would take hours, so now she does it online. A visit to the Todd Mall markets can’t really be a family outing: Scott and the children have done 15 laps by the time she’s done one!
Some ways that the current council does business contribute to time pressure on elected members and should be revisited, says Cr Kudrenko. There are a large number of advisory committees on which elected members are expected to sit, dividing responsibilities according to their interests and experience if possible. But more have been added in the last term, for instance, the Executive Development Committee, which meets at 7am on a Monday once a month, and the Risk and Audit Committee.
All of the committees should be re-examined for their effectiveness in serving the needs of the community, she says.
The recent budgetary process was also extremely demanding. Elected members held some 10 budget meetings (in addition to all their other meetings), on one occasion an all-day meeting on a Saturday, to go through the budget line by line. In the context of having had a high turnover in the executive this may have been necessary this year and the elected members identified significant savings for the budget.
Above: Cr Kudrenko alongside CEO Rex Mooney.
“But this is why we have highly paid executive officer positions,” says Cr Kudrenko. “This really should have been their job.”
Given all of the above, what kind of a difference has she been able to make? What kind of difference could prospective councillors aspire to make?
At the start of her term, council did not have an Environment Officer, something she fought hard for, and now they do.
At the start of her term, despite a lot of talk in the past and quite strong support from the community, there was no kerbside recycling on the horizon; now tenders have gone out for an operator to provide such a service.
So there’s been some movement in the right direction for matters important to her.
But perhaps unexpectedly, Cr Kudrenko puts forward as one of her biggest contributions financial accountability. To this end, she undertook governance training with the Australian Institute of Company Directors and did some financial management training, in order to be able to scrutinise council’s financial reporting and to ask the right kind of probing questions.
When an elected member wants to propose something, she or he has to be able to say how council will pay for it, she says – what budget line it will come from, and what the impact may be on the rest of what council does.
“I have really honed my governance skills by having a part in managing a $35m budget,” she says, one of the rewards for her efforts.
No matter what goals an elected member or group of members may have, they have to be able to work with everybody: there are nine, and to get a motion up you need five.
In the early part of her term, there was much discussion of a conservative “block” on council but this softened over time, she says, as people got to know one another and a certain level of respect developed between those who were attending meetings and had something to offer.
“You have to give a lot,” says Cr Kudrenko, “but you get so much in return.”
Diversity, your town needs you!
By KIERAN FINNANE