I made my political debut early – not that I had any choice in the matter.
In 1970, my mother ran for council in Werribee, a town just west of Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria, where I spent the first eight years of my life. My parents had arrived in Werribee in 1966. After spending a couple of years as a teacher-librarian at Werribee High School (where she worked with Helen Garner, later to achieve fame as an author), Mum started a Master’s degree in law. She focused on the law relating to subdivision of land and how it was applied in Werribee. Werribee had been a country town but was increasingly coming into Melbourne’s orbit, and rural land was being converted to urban uses. Mum was concerned that this was happening in an unplanned way, with the risk of losing some of Werribee’s character and failing to provide adequate services for the new communities that were created. The Werribee Shire Council seemed to her to be dominated by men for whom ‘development’ meant converting rural to urban land as fast as possible.
When a sitting councillor retired, Mum decided (after some hesitation) to contest the vacant seat. She was up against Frank Purcell, a popular local solicitor. Purcell was arguably the establishment candidate, but the differences between him and Mum don’t seem to have been ideological in nature. Purcell was a member of the right-of-centre Liberal Party, but would later describe himself as being on the left wing of that party. In the same year that he ran for council, Purcell had been one of the lawyers for the claimants in the ground-breaking (though unsuccessful) land rights case brought by the Aboriginal people of Yirrkala. He would go on to be involved in other campaigns for Indigenous rights, a cause Mum also strongly supported.
Mum recalls that there’d been little campaigning in previous Werribee elections, with councillors getting in on name recognition or running unopposed. She didn’t have that luxury, so she and her campaign team needed to come up with ideas to attract publicity. And this is where I come in. Mum and a friend made a little smock out of an old sheet for me to wear, with the words ‘Vote  My Mum’ on one side and ‘Vote  Gwen Morris’ on the other. The Mail newspaper agreed to take photos of Mum out doing the shopping with me wearing the smock.
The Mail photographer was also the photographer for the Melbourne Age. And so it was that Mum and I ended up on the front pages of both the Mail and the Age.
The Mail described it as ‘the best election gimmick of all time’, while the Age called me ‘a great vote-catcher’.
This was a time of changing roles for Australian women, who were increasingly having their own careers but were still expected to perform their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Another article in the Mail, noting that Mum was making a bid to become Werribee’s first female councillor, called her ‘a young housewife’ while also reporting that she had been in paid work for several years and was now studying for her Master’s. In the climate of the times, my brief involvement in the campaign was attention-grabbing, but also a useful reminder to voters that Mum was not only a lawyer with expertise in town planning but also a young mother.
Mum lost the election, though she received a very respectable 44% of the votes, so she was unable either to become a pioneer of female representation on the council or to help shape the future development of Werribee. The first woman was elected to a local council in Victoria in 1920, 50 years before Mum’s attempt (and a year after South Australia led the way). A century later, things haven’t progressed as far as they should have: women still make up only around 38% of Victorian councillors, and 35% in Australia nationwide. New Zealand is doing somewhat better: it elected the first female mayor in the British Empire, Elizabeth Yates of Onehunga, in 1893, and women now make up 42% of councillors here.
As for Werribee, it has changed enormously since 1970 but has retained its own identity despite the threat of being swallowed up by Melbourne. I still remember my outrage, after we moved from Werribee to Canberra, when I told a teacher (himself a Melburnian) that I came from a country town and he replied scornfully that Werribee was just a suburb of Melbourne. Werribee’s population has continued to grow and to become more diverse, as earlier non-British migrants from Italy, Greece and Macedonia have been joined by migrants from many parts of the world. There is now a significant Māori and Pacific Islander population in Werribee, and even a local branch of the Māori Wardens.
Werribee’s challenge today may be less losing its identity than having an unwelcome identity foisted upon it. If you’ve seen the 2006 Australian mockumentary ‘Kenny’, about a plumber who works for a portaloo company, you might have caught one or two passing references to Werribee. That’s because Werribee is home to a major sewage treatment plant, which is the main thing many people know about it and makes it the butt (no pun intended) of many jokes. Werribee and its people also face class snobbery and urban condescension from their big-city neighbours. Werribee is not alone in this respect: Londoners look down on neighbouring Essex, and Wellingtonians on Lower Hutt (where I now live), in a somewhat similar way.
As Werribee resident Fatima Measham wrote in a lovely essay a few years ago, ‘Melbourne wouldn’t be what it is now if it weren’t for Werribee’. The establishment of what was then known as the Werribee Sewage Farm allowed Melbourne to outsource its waste treatment and escape its former nickname of ‘Marvellous Smelbourne’. Werribee market gardens have also long supplied Melbourne with produce.
The sewage works are also the site of important wetlands, home to large colonies of native birds, and there are other areas of natural beauty in and around the town. Measham writes:
there are pockets of deep magic that belie the perception of blandness and seediness that encumber the place I call home.
There is, for instance, a creek behind our house that winds through several estates. It flows past 300-year-old river red gums, through clefts in the plains, curving gently around small marshy coves. If you knew how to look, you would find traces of the Marpeang people who used to live on and with this land.
Almost 50 years earlier, Mum was entranced by similar aspects of Werribee’s landscape: ‘I really liked the river red gums that grew along the Werribee River and in hollows on the plains. You knew the river was there but it was kind of like a hidden secret.’
Since my family left there, Werribee has also explored its history more fully. This includes not only its colonial heritage (such as Werribee Park, home to a mansion once owned by the local equivalent of landed gentry, the Chirnside family) but also, belatedly, its Indigenous heritage. As the first President of the Werribee Historical Society in 1970, Mum played a part in this process.
Mum never ran for office again, but her experiences in Werribee helped shape her thinking about the elements that make up successful communities. And her thinking, in turn, has shaped me, contributing to my interest in place and history. Happy Mother’s Day, Mum!
Margaret Campbell, From There to Here: Excerpts from the First Person Accounts of Family Migration Werribee 1840s-2000s Recorded for a Centenary of Federation Community Grant Project, Werribee, Werribee Community Centre, 2005 (particularly the accounts of Gwen Morris and Frank Purcell).
Fatimah Measham, ‘No Shit’, Meanjin, vol. 73, no., 2, 2014, available online here.