An interview with Sally Flannery by Lily Harrison
Graphic by Alisha Nagle
This piece was originally published in ‘Memento Mori’, Bossy’s 2021 print edition.
CW: Mentions of violence, sexism, institutional betrayal.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sally Flannery, a 28-year-old community oriented activist, recently ran for local council in Lismore, a regional town in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. Sally was behind the successful 2019 petition made to Australia Post that saw pricing change for sustainable packaging options. Earlier this year, she won an International Women’s Day award for contributions to our community.
As a young woman from Lismore myself, I met Sally through mutual connections to the community several years ago. When I called her for this interview, we reflected on a series of messages we previously shared, in which we encouraged each other to give politics a go. I asked what caused her to move from thinking about it, to actually running for local council.
I was really interested in it and started going to a lot of the meetings and reading the briefings to see if it was something that I actually wanted to be involved in. I started [going to sit in chambers] and just found it really fascinating. People would sometimes apologise at the end for how boring a meeting was and I would just say, “No, I found it weirdly fascinating!” I just felt like it was something that I could do.
On 5 June 2021, a Facebook update from Sally read, “this is … potentially the hardest [post] I’ve ever written – but I have decided to rescind my decision to stand for election to Lismore City Council.” After weeks of being followed in the street, having rocks thrown through her windows, and daily defamatory posts on social media, the emotional toll of being a young female voice in the community became too much. Sally was very vocal about the harassment and abuse toward her throughout the entirety of her campaign, but the extent of it was largely unexpected.
What did you expect when you started on your campaign trail?
I mean, I expected there to be some negativity and I definitely expected it from [certain people] because I’d seen it for other councillors. But I didn’t expect it to start before I’d even announced who I was aligned with. I hadn’t even put out any policies when it started. And I just felt like, you don’t even know anything about me, why would you try and tear someone down when we maybe have the same views?
When I returned home to visit recently, my almost 12-year-old sister greeted me eagerly. “Lismore’s really evolving,” she told me matter-of-factly, clitoris-shaped stained glass sun-catchers hanging in the shop window behind her. “Is it, now?” I asked. Like Sally, I have always harboured a deep love for my regional hometown, and been proud of our many outwardly progressive characteristics and deeply artistic, passionate community. The extreme public vitriol Sally experienced forced us both to confront the fact we are a small town nestled between very conservative farming communities, and to question whether Lismore’s progressive attitudes are, in fact, mostly superficial.
Do you still love this community?
I do, but I think this [experience] has tainted my perception a little bit. I’d say I like Lismore now, I don’t love it. I used to think this is where I’d like to settle down and live forever but after this experience, I don’t really know if that’s the case anymore. I think [this community] is very progressive, but I also think there are many Nationals ideals here. When the current mayor put out the news about Sacred Lands being given back to the Traditional Owners, which is something I was really proud of, people were posting that we can’t afford to give that away, and that it was wrong, and all sorts of right-wing stuff … Superficially, we may be quite progressive — the shops in the CBD really represent that — but I think when we look a bit further out it’s very different.
In a political climate where the likes of Jane Caro are telling girls everywhere they “have to go into politics” because it’s “a boy’s club and we do not have enough women in power making these decisions and changing the culture”, I asked Sally about the reality of being a young woman in the political arena, and what it feels like to fall out of love with your community.
Do you feel that the vitriol from certain people was happening because of your politics?
I don’t know. I feel like some of those people already had issues with me. I remember after I received an award on International Women’s Day, posts started about me back then. I did think it was partly because I was young — heaps of people would say, “you’re just too young”. There’s a constant hum at the moment that we want more young women to run, but when we do it’s so vicious. I don’t think it would have been different had I aligned differently politically.
Was the negative response to your campaign widespread?
It was mainly a vocal few individuals. I had one man contact my boss [at the very start of my campaign] saying that if I didn’t run on his ticket I’d be publicly humiliated. But I think those few men just had vicious supporters, and when they started sharing my address, that’s when I started having vandalism and break ins at my house, so it’s hard to pin down and say exactly who it was, but it all felt very related.
How does it feel to know that to feel safe again in your own community and home, you had to step away from something you were excited about?
I felt a lot of frustration about that and, to be honest, I still don’t feel totally safe. I started seeing a therapist because I’d experienced nightmares about people breaking into my house, and she said, “it’s not irrational, it’s okay to have those fears.” Even just walking down the street — yesterday I was walking to work and [a man] called me a slut and said he’d rip the mask off my fucking face if I kept posting online about [my experience running for local council]. So, I’ve ended up just deleting my Facebook … I still feel like I’m looking over my shoulder.
Reflecting on your experience, would you ever consider running again, or encourage other young women to do so?
I was sad because so many other young women say to me that they were thinking about running, but are so glad they didn’t, and that was the one thing I didn’t want to happen. I didn’t want my experience to deter other women from running, but at the same time, I don’t think I could encourage them to. I think I’m a pretty strong person, but that almost broke me. I almost feel like you have to be a little bit hardened by life and beaten down to not have it affect you, which is sad really, because that’s not who we need in Council. We need people who can be emotional and vulnerable and positive and real.
What are some of the changes we need for this experience to be more positive for other young women?
I think it would be good if the councils themselves had some sort of protection for people in that situation. Because I went to the police and they said, well, you could get an AVO but then [the harassers] could take you to court, and I could’ve ended up with thousands of dollars in legal fees. That didn’t really seem like a viable option. I talked to ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) and they couldn’t do anything because [my harassers] weren’t actually elected officials. But those people were still able to behave like that and then run for council, which just seems really wrong. There’s no protection for people in that situation. Like, literally no one seemed to be able to do anything meaningful about it. I don’t know what the answer is, but something needs to change.
Are your experiences with local council and what’s happening in Canberra right now connected?
I think it’s a culture within politics in Australia, for sure. I think it’s partly tall poppy syndrome and partly ingrained sexism. Particularly amongst right-wing men — that was definitely the main demographic that came at me — who are maybe not wanting to see young women in power and have the entitlement … to behave like that. I put it up on a few women in politics groups when it was happening to me, asking if people knew of anything I could do or where I could go, and I just had so many women share similar experiences. Even one of the Liberal staffers who was in the news recently reached out to me and was really supportive, but also said, you know, this is just everywhere. Like, do men in parliament experience that? I just don’t think they do.
How do you feel now?
I feel sad. But I also feel good knowing that I made the right decision for myself and in looking after myself. I think I also feel a bit angry because I don’t know what the motive is, and this doesn’t seem to happen to everyone. It just felt like a very orchestrated plan for it to be so targeted before I even started … It definitely wasn’t easy [to withdraw] but … what once felt exciting and inspiring, now feels exhausting and daunting.
During our interview, Sally and I discussed the conflicting messages currently circulating domestic Australian politics. On one hand, we’re begging women to go into politics — but when they do, young women find the systems against them, and face significant vitriol without strong mechanisms in place to offer protection. After hanging up, I sent Sally a screenshot of a post made by Women NSW on Facebook, encouraging more women to take seats on local councils. “If you are passionate about your community” it read, “why not stand for election to local government?” Sally’s response came a few hours later: haha funny.