ahtinWe interviewed the Mayor of Palmerston, Athina Pascoe-Bell, as part of International Women’s Day.
PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH DEFENCE: My husband served in the Australian Army for 12 years, then discharged in 2005 and continued with 2 years of Army Reserves. He mostly served at Holsworthy and deployed twice to East Timor, so I was left behind without children at the time, which was lonely for me. I understand the challenges of being a defence partner with or without children, even though my husband is no longer serving.
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR JOURNEY TO BECOMING THE MAYOR OF PALMERSTON? There’s a lot of opportunity in the Top End, which makes this such a unique place. The lifestyle suits our family, but it has been hectic being the Mayor.
We moved to Darwin in 2004 and purchased our own home in 2005 when my husband was planning to separate from the ADF and we wanted to settle here permanently. Around the same time, there were a few challenges with the City of Palmerston and I felt that there were some changes to be made. I had been a public servant for a number of years, so I had a certain expectation of how Council should operate and I started challenging the organisation.
In 2015, there was a bi-election and my friends nominated me, so I ran a campaign and was elected into council. Before being elected, I only saw the tip of the iceberg, but it was much worse underneath the surface. I bought a lot of my public service experience into the role. It was so bad that in 2017, the council was suspended, then dismissed for negligence by the Minister in January 2018.
I had decided before council’s dismissal that I was going to run for Mayor anyway. In 2018, they allowed the community to hold elections again; I won on preferences in that election. In 2021, I was re-elected as Mayor, but this time I won with a 74% primary vote and will be the mayor until at least August 2025. That would be a decade of service to council, so there will come a time when it is right to hand it over for fresh ideas and new opportunities.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN 3 WORDS? Tenacious (determined to stick to things), compassionate, approachable.
WHAT IS THE BEST ASPECT OF BEING THE MAYOR OF PALMERSTON? I thoroughly enjoy welcoming new Australian citizens and I preside over citizenship ceremonies. We welcome people from all different nationalities and I get invited to various cultural events, which is a great way to meet new people and hear their stories. My father was a Greek migrant when he was 14 years old, so it’s important for me to listen and build trust as a community leader. The majority of immigrants have aspirations for their children, which is why they migrated to Australia. To see the children of migrants in leadership positions is inspiring for them - I like people to feel assured that they have made the right decision to move to Australia.
I have been able to watch the community transform while I have been the mayor, making key decisions with the Council to make sure that Palmerston is an inclusive community where everyone is welcome.
BEST ADVICE YOU HAVE RECEIVED? Sleep on it, read it tomorrow before you respond.
WHAT ARE YOUR GREATEST CHALLENGES? Time management is a huge challenge with 2 children (11 and 14 year old). My youngest child was 3 years old when I first elected into council, so balancing council duties that run into evenings and weekends, with a husband that had started shift work after defence, has been very challenging at times. But this is where I have learned about life in a community and leaning on my neighbours to help with our commitments - it would not have been possible to balance council without the ability to trust my support network.
I can’t really go anywhere in the Top End (or interstate sometimes) and not be recognised. I’ve wanted to be approachable in my role, so it can be challenging when I am enjoying time with my kids or bumping into lots of people during a quick trip to the supermarket.
I am currently studying a Bachelor of Law part time, and it requires a lot of reading and attention, so I really have to concentrate. Add this to the reading I do for council (agendas, workshops, committees and policy) and I am often reading 400 pages per fortnight, which can be challenging. I can’t skim over things either, I need to pay attention to detail, ask questions about reports and make sure that everything is addressed appropriately.
In relation to Palmerston community, it has been challenging to bring the community together. After the dismissal of council in 2018, there were a lot of trust issues towards council and it was important to unite people to rebuild that trust. During covid, we had to ensure that we delivered services to bring people together. We implemented some simple initiatives (like offering free community facilities) which made it easier for people to reconnect and create new community groups, events and activities.
We provide programs to support various groups and youth in Palmerston, as well as valuable community infrastructure for future generations. We recently demolished and rebuilt the Gray Community Hall and have closed the Palmerston pool for a $19.4 million redevelopment, which is amazing for our community. Zuccoli Community Hub Stage 1 is complete, which includes a dog park, car parking and headworks for future stages. Future stages are planned over coming years and include a Library, community rooms, community garden skate park, playground and pump track.
It has been my focus to make Palmerston a liveable city.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO WOMEN TO MANAGE STRESS AND HOME/LIFE BALANCE? It’s a tricky balance, don’t sweat the small stuff. Some things can wait (except for school uniforms) and it’s important to work out what is a priority and what is not. We started sharing tasks with our children at a young age, so it’s normal for all of us to contribute to the household. It’s important to acknowledge that you can’t do everything, but you can ask for help and find a trusting support network. Both of my kids have left their lunches at home, and they learned quickly to pack their own lunches from then on.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE OR THING TO DO IN THE TOP END? We go camping a lot and there’s so much space in the NT, so we can always find a beautiful spot to enjoy, relax and reconnect. We have travelled all across the Northern Territory and seen lots of hidden places - Kakadu, Uluru and lesser-known places. I love a nice waterhole to swim in.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU? I’m currently studying and looking forward to completing my Law Degree this year. I would like to use my law degree and my experience with council, but I haven’t decided what’s next after council. I still have 15-20 years of my career, so I am sure that whatever I do next will be interesting.
I am also a Scout Leader, which initially started when my kids’ scout group needed parent helpers, so I took on the role of chairperson and eventually became a Scout Leader. It gives me dedicated time with my children and now my husband is a Scout Leader, so it’s something we do together. It can be difficult without a support network, so the Scout group can be a family environment for those who feel isolated, and we always find ways to include members of the community. All our Scout Leaders have links to defence - defence members are great contributors to our community.
Interviewed by Deb Herring Committee Member The Top Ender Magazine