Journalist Michael Burge interviewed Carol Sparks — mayor of Glen Innes Severn Shire Council in the NSW New England region — in 2019, before this week’s bushfires that have caused multiple fatalities and property losses, and continue to burn in conditions widely described as “unprecedented”. Here’s a glimpse of where Clr Sparks’ principled stand about climate change came from.
That’s what women are facing all over the nation, and women are leaving politics in their droves.Clr Carol Sparks, mayor of Glen Innes Severn Shire Council, NSW
CAROL Sparks describes herself as an unlikely candidate for local government, but a desire for change in her community drove this former nurse into a political career that’s already made history in Glen Innes.
It was while co-ordinating state and federal elections for New England Greens candidate Mercurius Goldstein that Carol got a close-up look at public life.
“I went on the campaign trail and I spoke to lots of people,” she recalls.
“I realised I had a bit of a passion for it, to try and bring climate change to their attention, the problems with our waterways, and the environmental damage that was happening on the Barrier Reef.
“Then the council elections were coming up and I thought well, I could just keep talking to the people.”
Carol’s campaign for the Glen Innes Severn Council (GISC) elections in 2016 was conducted over a fortnight in a very grassroots manner.
“I just stood out on the street and said: ‘Vote me in for council’ and people liked that,” she says.
“There had been campaigning in this region in the past, but it had always been done in the newspaper.
“It was quite exciting and people were enthusiastic towards me. The community was feeling a little bit frustrated, they said we needed a change.”
A major driver for Carol was the under-representation of women in local government.
“There was a majority of men on the council and I really felt that women needed to have a decision-making presence,” she says.
“Dianne Newman was a councillor and she was feeling a bit isolated.
“I campaigned on health, women, water, and potholes. Unfortunately there’s still some potholes around, but we’re working hard on that,” she says.
Raised at Tathra on the far south coast of New South Wales, Carol’s mother’s family were dairy farmers and her painter father a Second World World veteran.
“I left school at fourteen and worked in a grocery store, before starting my nursing training at Bega,” she says.
“I went to the Keppel Islands on holiday and that’s where I met my husband, Badja.
“We sailed around the Whitsundays, got married, and lived in England for eight years where our children were born.”
After moving to the Glen Innes region in 1980, Carol and Badja established a local antiques and collectable business and a second-hand bookshop. The couple’s son Joe now owns The Book Market in central Glen Innes.
When asked about what sparked her political ambitions, Carol admits to having an internal drive that shocks a few people.
“I’m an old woman,’ she says, laughing. “And I wanted to have a change.”
“I was a registered nurse and working in palliative care here in Glen Innes for twenty years.
“There were needs in the community. We’ve got doctors on call, but it’s very different when you have a doctor right there when you present at a hospital.
“Towns in the bush tend to get poor services.”
Trial by fire
Carol served as deputy mayor from 2016 until September, 2018, when a majority of councillors elected her into the mayoral office. Looking back at her first years as a local representative, she describes the experience as a “trial by fire”.
“It still is,” she says.
“We had another lady who was president of Severn Shire Council,” Carol adds, referring to councillor Alice Clifford, who served prior to the amalgamation with Glen Innes Council.
“But we’ve never had a female mayor of the municipal council.
“That’s what women are facing all over the nation, and women are leaving politics in their droves. I suppose that’s writ small here.
“But I’ve tended to be a person who goes against the grain, and it’s been very inspiring to look at Dianne, who is now deputy mayor, and notice the changes that have happened for her whilst I’ve been on council.
“We could do with a couple more women, I reckon, just to balance it up a bit.”
When asked what she imagines her legacy will be, beyond bringing more gender equality, Carol is very clear.
“I think renewable energy, happy kids, more community gardens, and more sustainable businesses,” she says.
“We do have a tendency to be a bit old-fashioned. I’d love to bring the rail trail here, for example, with lots of backpackers coming from overseas,” she adds, referring to a proposal to alter the use of the closed rail corridor that runs from Armidale to Wallangarra.
“Volunteering is also a big thing in Glen Innes. We cannot survive without our volunteers and of course they’re all getting older, so encouraging younger volunteers is something I’ll be looking to do.”
On the issues that divide country towns along political lines, Carol is firm.
“If we care for our waterways and our creeks, we should create biodiversity and plant trees instead of cutting them down,” she says.
“To have healthy waterways is where we find most in common with farmers. They need water too, so we need to look after the environment.
“We come together though common sense.”
This article first appeared in New England Living magazine and Michael’s website.