Council Magazine caught up with Berrigan Shire Council’s new Mayor, Julia Cornwell McKean, to discuss her work as the newly elected Mayor of Berrigan Shire Council and the challenges she faced when trying to enter local government for the first time.

Berrigan Shire is a cross-border community located in the Southern Riverina of New South Wales, near the Victorian border. Cross-border issues have defined Mayor Cornwell McKean’s work in local government so far, as she campaigns for vital infrastructure and support services.

Hitting the ground running, Mayor Cornwell McKean has made strides to connect with her community and government ministers to improve the quality of life for Berrigan Shire residents.

How is your term as mayor going so far?

It’s been a very busy time, but I jumped straight into it by meeting with local and state representatives. I’ve already met with the New South Wales Minister for Regional Transport and Roads, Jenny Aitchison, and we talked about all things road networks and freight. I met with the Cluster Manager for Murrumbidgee Local Health District, Mark Massey, and we talked about my commitment to health equity in our communities, which was a really positive conversation.

I also spoke with the Murray River Police District Chief Inspector, Jy Brown, and one of the things I really wanted to focus on with him was road safety. While we have not had tragedy in Berrigan Shire to the scale of our neighbouring councils, Moira Shire Council and City of Shepparton in Victoria have had many tragic incidents on the roads. We also use those roads so I’m very keen for the Victorian and New South Wales Governments and police departments to work together to encourage road safety.

How does it feel to be the first indigenous mayor of your shire, especially following the voice referendum?

Obviously Indigenous Australians have been in Australia for thousands and thousands of years, and I’m honoured to be representing all of the people in our community, including my people. However, it’s no different to me being a woman or being a local person, it’s all the same. I represent everyone equally, but I am immensely proud nonetheless.

In terms of the Voice, obviously I voted yes and I supported the campaign. Unfortunately, that’s not where it landed, but you get up and you wipe yourself off. From here, we can consider what the next steps are to find the next best solution to ensure equity for Indigenous people and equity in Indigenous communities.

Was representing your community a big part of why you entered local government?

Yes, doing good is fundamental to me and community is the most important thing to me. I grew up in Melbourne, but I commuted between Melbourne and Barooga for over ten years. I really wasn’t regarded as a local, but when the pandemic happened, I moved my business wholly to Barooga.

Here I am today, representing the community, bringing my city smarts to old problems, and trying to pave the way for new and innovative solutions while not throwing out the old. I’m just making sure that we partner with some of the new things as well.

How was your campaign and what were your main challenges leading up to the election?

I was a blow-in candidate and I knew that I needed to go at it hard because the people didn’t know me. Before my journey to run for council, there had been a situation in 2020 when the Barooga indoor swimming pool was to be closed permanently, and I led a group of locals in securing funding for two years to continue the operations there.

That was where I started and then people started saying, “You should run for Council.” The pool campaign made me get braver in terms of challenging what was happening, in particular the challenges with the border closures and the lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cross-border communities are one big community and it really caused a lot of angst for us. We couldn’t travel into Victoria and then the Victorians couldn’t travel into New South Wales. I started actively campaigning and writing to the ministers in Sydney, and I got to be known as a bit of a pain and tenacious.

When we had to set up the digital certificates in order to prove your vaccination status, it was challenging for our ageing community in Berrigan Shire, since our average demographic is over 55 and a lot of people are not digitally connected. I spoke to my friend who’s the publican at the Barooga Pub and said, “Can I run a help desk at the pub?”

When he said yes, I got there on a Friday at lunchtime and people were queuing out the door for me to help them get their digital certificate on their phone. We did that again the next day, and I thought, there were so many bugs with the app and it wasn’t working. I wrote to the Prime Minister about this and I received a response from his office within five days. I’ve worked in government and you don’t normally get responses from the Prime Minister’s office in five days. I got that by being that tenacious person.

What barriers need to be overcome to make politics a more accessible career for first nations people?

I think the barriers are financial, especially for First Nations people, but also for all people. Local government in New South Wales is different to some of the other states. The very small payments that we receive do not cover the loss of income. This means you have to be willing to forego income if you want to run for Council, which often ends up being only people who are retired or well-off that are entering local government.

We have skin in the game and we’re prepared to sacrifice our own income in order to do good for our community, which is a rarity. We could really get more people more involved across all of local government if we considered making sure that the compensation was appropriate for the amount of work and the community expectations.

What are your hopes for Berrigan Shire in the future?

I think Berrigan Shire has a very bright future, but for the next year, I want to focus on cross-border issues. We’re one of the last places on the Murray that hasn’t really blown up in terms of population, but I think that is going to happen soon, which means we will have infrastructure challenges as a consequence.

Right now, the pressing issue for me is the campaign to get an ambulance in Tocumwal. There are deficiencies in the operational boundaries for the deployment of ambulances from both Victoria and New South Wales to our border towns, which result in the double handling of calls that waste time. I don’t have a problem if the quickest ambulance is coming from Victoria, but we need to make sure people don’t have to repeat themselves and that an ambulance can get there as efficiently as possible.

There’s a campaign being run by the Ambulance Victoria Union about improving that memorandum of understanding and I’ve written to the Cross Border Commissioners to indicate our support as a border community to that initiative. It is a long game because they’re not going to build an ambulance station tomorrow. You’ve got to find a site, you’ve got to get plans, you’ve got to construct it, and you’ve got to staff it.

But we know what’s on the horizon, so planning now will put us in the best possible place for the future. I’m not going to let go, and some people think, “Oh, well, that’s the end of the road.” There is no end until we have an ambulance.

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