A Writer’s encounter with politics.
THE first political piece I ever wrote was also the first scoop I ever got.
I was a resident of the Blue Mountains for thirty years, give or take my years at university and a six-year stint in the United Kingdom.
By the time Blue Mountains City Councillor Janet Mays stood for the NSW State elections in 2011, I was on the bandwagon of change for an area I loved deeply.
It was time for us to cease being a political football, an electorate that churned-out state and federal backbenchers who shored-up the numbers in parliament but stood for very little locally.
Janet burst onto the region’s political scene with a compassionate assertiveness that started to wake people up, the same way voters seem to have become aware of the two-party power shenanigans in the Victorian federal division of Indi, where Independent Cathy McGowan toppled the sitting member for the LNP, Sophie Mirabella, at the federal election in 2013.
She took a fifth of the primary vote from the major parties, and lost the seat in a State intent on nothing but ridding itself of the ALP, but Janet Mays used orange for her Independent campaign colours when Voice for Indi was just a whisper of frustration. It’s a fitting symbol of her link to the groundswell of Independent thinking rising across Australian electorates.
This feature was published in the October-November 2010 edition of Blue Mountains Life.
The Long Walk to Independence
From cafés and cars to the footwork of politics, meet Janet Mays.
Janet Mays knows her way across the Blue Mountains better than most. In November 2009, she led the Health, Equity & Access Lobby (‘HEAL’) on a walk covering the fifty kilometres between Katoomba and Nepean Hospitals. The ‘It’s a Bl**dy Long Way to Nepean Hospital’ walk was designed to throw light on declining hospital services at Katoomba, and HEAL ignited a movement which is taking more than footsteps in the region.
“We were frustrated at the way nothing was shifting. We’d gathered a lot of support around bringing primary health services back to Katoomba, but there was very little action,” Janet says. “No-one is demanding the government provide open heart surgery at Katoomba, but it’s not too much to expect basic surgery at your local hospital, like an appendectomy.”
In 2007, Janet experienced first hand a hospital system which was simply not functioning. “As someone who’d lived in the Mountains for a few years, I just assumed I could have my appendix removed locally,” she says. “At Nepean I had to wait twenty-seven hours for primary care on two occasions before they diagnosed the problem was simply appendicitis. It was so traumatising at some level, having to come home and then go back again, like Groundhog Day”.
“I knew intuitively that the removal of my appendix could have been done locally, if the will was there.”
Janet’s search for that will saw her take out a full-page letter in the local newspaper, gathering support from a number of groups and individuals concerned about similar issues. From this, HEAL was born.
“I also spent two years visiting council meetings. I listened to the debates and gained an understanding of how it all worked. This cemented a desire to eventually get onto the Blue Mountains City Council, in order to understand and represent the views of the community.”
In 2008, Janet was elected as an Independent Blue Mountains City Councillor. When asked about her first time in the chamber, she recalls: “It was like being let off a leash as a resident, but also very daunting. I knew I had it in me. I’d been involved in plenty of drama and music as I grew up. Part of being a politician is articulating a message in the same manner as a performer does”.
“It is hard as an independent to get support. You have to be very eloquent in prosecuting your case to the other councillors. When I am going to debate, I research the facts so that I gain an understanding of both sides of an issue.
“Ward One might be my patch,” Janet says, “but I am required to vote on issues across our entire region, so I need to get out there and familiarise myself with the issues. As a true independent I don’t believe I have any choice. I don’t have the luxury of party colleagues informing me of anything, so I need to listen to people up and down the Mountains”.
“I sometimes change my mind on issues when I do the research or consult an expert. Being an independent can get lonely sometimes, but it’s also very exciting.”
Born in Melbourne, Janet was raised and schooled in Canberra.
“It does heighten your political interest,” she says, “at least it did then. My Dad was in the public service, and so were friends’ parents. Politics were discussed around the dinner table every night. That was part of the Canberra culture.”
After running her own café for many years, Janet, “stumbled into a career in and around the automotive industry, spanning twenty-four years.”
Like many other Mountain residents, she and partner Jocelyn Street purchased a Mountains weekender which soon became their permanent home in 2003.
“After a very short time we both realised that Sydney is not that far away, so we said ‘bugger the commute’ and settled here. Commuting is tiring,” Janet adds. “We do it for economic reasons, but it can separate you from your community. I work four days a week in the city and I travel up and down every day, which allows me time for my council work.”
The death of her father a short time before the move seems to have been more of a defining moment than Janet is prepared to reveal. “It left me unsettled as a person,” she says of a period when she and Jocelyn also committed to their de-facto relationship. “We have very similar family backgrounds, with many siblings,” Janet outlines. “We’re both from stable homes, with parents who worked hard”.
“I came out in my late thirties,” Janet adds. “I’d been through a marriage, and I suppose the world had shifted since my strong Catholic upbringing. My parents’ reaction to my sexuality was to say ‘as long as you’re happy’.
“With the support of my partner, I have really come into my own as a human being, and I’ve been able to achieve a lot in many different ways.”
As a Blue Mountains City Councillor, Janet has championed Indigenous access by helping set up the First People’s Advisory Committee. “I am particularly proud of that,” she says. “Council now has a way to be advised by Indigenous people on matters directly relating to them.”
Janet’s support of the creation of an Economic Development Working Party aims to broaden the employment base in the Blue Mountains Government Area. “Fifty-eight percent of working adults are forced to commute,” Janet outlines. “This working party aims to create new industries here, and broaden existing ones.”
And the local health system remains high on Janet’s agenda.
“Day one was a very hot day,” she recalls of the Bl**dy Long Way to Nepean walk. “We were very blessed with a large gathering of people at the start, and more joined us along the way for one or two legs. We ended the day at the Ori in Springwood … it was the best tasting beer,” she smiles.
“On day two the seven core walkers sped up considerably,” Jocelyn (walk support team leader) remembers. “There was an incredible energy on the day, not just from the walkers, but also passing motorists, who seemed to really love the fact that people were getting out there and doing something for the community.”
“Once we crossed the Nepean River our signs really told our story. There was a recognition from Penrith residents that Nepean is their hospital, and they were saying ‘good on you’ because our aim is to take the pressure off Nepean,” Janet says.
“We know HEAL raised an important issue that day,” Janet underlines, “because we brought Phil Koperberg (ALP State Member for Macquarie at the time) and Jillian Skinner (Opposition Health Spokeswoman) together at one moment to demand a shared response on Katoomba Hospital. It’s the first time that has ever happened. The more we do, even though it annoys the Sydney Western Area Health Service, we are representing community views”.
“It’s an ongoing process to bring further change,” Janet says. “Katoomba is blessed with a dedicated hospital staff, operating at their best in a system which does not value them. They are not permitted to deliver services as they are trained to, yet they remain dedicated. Our hospital staff deserve greater support from all levels of government”.
“The Blue Mountains have not been well served in recent years,” Janet adds, before revealing her intention to run as an independent candidate for the Blue Mountains at the March 2011 state election. “The Blue Mountains is a unique area with its own identity and a fragile environment under pressure from all sides,” Janet says. “How do we ensure our voice is heard?” she asks. “It is time for this community to have a member absolutely focussed on local interests, and not party interests”.
“It takes courage,” Janet adds. “Independents are not in opposition. Our role is to work collaboratively with the government of the day, to beat the drum and bang the table for our communities. That is the essence of what it is to be independent.”
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s ebook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.