I’m feeling really good at the moment. Being a politician, it takes a while for you to find your feet, to find your voice.
I think that I learnt a lot through that first term, in terms of the goals I wanted to pursue, what I want to achieve for Canberra, where I fitted into the scheme of things in terms of the party and the parliament. There’s been some good things about it, some bad things about it, but I’ve come out that other end and now I’m in a really good space. I feel as if I’ve been able to deliver for the community, but I’ve got further ideas on what I want to deliver.
My three favourite things would have to be my husband—my marriage, my family—my mum and my sisters and my nieces and nephews, and being at this particular point in my life—even though being over fifty isn’t wonderful, in many ways it’s got real benefits in the fact that you’ve got a lot of experience under your belt and as a result of that you’re relatively intuitive so you know how to respond to environments. The issue is just trusting that instinct and trusting that intuition. It’s good being a woman, in Australia, at this point in time, in her fifties.
I came up to Canberra to study in the early 80s at ANU, because their political science course was the best in the country. But I also wanted to get out of Melbourne and to spread my wings and test myself in a new environment where I knew no one, where I didn’t know the town, to live on campus, experience the college environment, as well as being on my own, fending for myself away from home. So I spent three years here and then moved back to Melbourne, and then moved back in 1990 because I’d won a public relations scholarship. I was looking at promoting Australia as a manufacturing nation in North Asia on the back of the Garnaut report into the Northeast Asian ascendency. So I was wanting to go up to North Asia and see what the perceptions were of Australia—I spent six months at Austrade here looking at what they did in terms of promoting Australia, and then I travelled throughout Northeast Asia interviewing journalists, politicians, business people and a whole range of people to see what they were doing up in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. When I finished that study I thought that I’d go back to Melbourne and live down there but the recession had hit Melbourne and there was a lot of really good, interesting work here in Canberra. I wanted to work in the public service and so I decided to apply for jobs here, got them, fell in love, bought a house, the usual story. And now I’m baked on, I love it. Completely baked on. I don’t like being in big cities anymore. I don’t like being in environments where I can’t see the sky. I don’t like being in environments where I can’t see the mountains. Where I can’t get a broad vista. My idea of hell is actually working in the CBD of either Melbourne or Sydney in one of those tall twenty story buildings.
I think one of the best things about Canberra is that we’ve got all these amazing women here. I’ve got a network of friends, including my team, that are fantastic. The beauty about Canberra is that it attracts people who want to live here and want to make a difference to the nation. A lot of them come to work in the public service and so they come here to serve their country—I call them servants of democracy. Canberrans generally are altruistic and they think beyond their own community; they think across the nation, they think internationally. So I’ve just found that the people here—men and women, but particularly women—are the most interesting I’ve ever met. One of my girlfriends has been Head of Mission in Kathmandu, other women I know have done extraordinary work, another one was Head of Mission in Tel Aviv. People who want to lead a big life, an interesting life. Not necessarily chasing the dollar, none of them are living in Canberra because they want to earn big money. They just want to make a difference and have an enriching life. So that’s the beauty about the women here, they are altruistic, they are interesting, they’re really smart, they’re really funny, they’re highly educated and they’ve led big, bold lives and had some fantastic experiences. I like people who have taken a bit of a punt and who have taken a few risks and have moved away from their home town to explore their dreams and that’s what you see with the women here.
I love being a woman. We’re at an interesting time in terms of what it means, for the fact that the younger generation, I don’t think, fully appreciate the fights that have been fought by the 70s feminists, and even the stuff that I was doing in the early 80s. I fought to get a clinic here, the [pregnancy] termination clinic—there wasn’t one here when I moved back in the 1990s, which I thought was outrageous, and so women were travelling to Sydney at the time. There was a group of us in Labor who fought for that. I think that there’s an assumption today amongst young women that it was ‘ever thus’, and I’m not saying that they should fall at their feet of these older women who fought those fights—I just think that it can regress very easily and so women need to be ever vigilant and never assume that it’s always going to be like this. These gains can so easily slip away.
I think that women in Canberra are actually probably better off than women elsewhere, because of the fact that much of the population is employed in the public service so they’ve got these fantastic conditions—thanks to Gough and successive Labor governments. Because it’s small, they don’t have the tyranny of distance that other women, say women living in the Western suburbs of Sydney have, who are socially isolated, who find it hard to get access to services. I think that we’re pretty blessed in many ways. There are pockets of disadvantage in my electorate. I suppose it could be the fact that quite often they are isolated from their families, or they’re removed from their families, so when they’re bringing up kids the couple has to do it on their own, because they don’t have extended family, that cul-de-sac thing that tends to happen if you’re living in Melbourne or Sydney where people don’t tend to move around much. Because we’ve got this largely transient population, we’ve got people who’ve come from all over the country, so they don’t have that network. So a lot of them have to do it on their own—it can be quite expensive. And also, if you’re a single mum it would be pretty tough doing it on your own without those family networks. But again the Canberra community’s pretty good at rallying around as a rule. So I’d say that probably not having the family networks—my sisters and my mum live in Melbourne. We couldn’t have kids so I actually didn’t have to face that issue, but I know from girlfriends who are single mums that it makes it difficult. Particularly when the kids are little, you’re on your own, you usually don’t have much money.
One of the things I noticed when I first got in, and I don’t know whether it’s changed, was the fact that with our women’s refuges they didn’t at that stage have a refuge for women who have teenage boys. I’ve been lobbying on that for a while, since I got elected, because when I had just got the keys to the office the first phone call was from a woman who was undergoing chemo, being a victim of domestic violence, living in the car with her two teenage kids, and one was a boy so they couldn’t go into a refuge. We got her housing, it all worked out, she’s got a job, and she’s in remission. But it was quite shocking to learn that. I understand the sensitivity of other women not wanting to be with young men, but I think that there should be something set up for those women because I don’t think this woman was the first to be in that situation.
It’s easy to look after your health and wellbeing here, much easier than it is in other cities. Just the distance, the fact that you’re not caught in traffic snarls for an hour and you can do something on the way home from work. Winter’s a challenge if you’re doing anything outside, even inside…I hate winter! It’s so soul destroying in terms of, you know, it’s dark in the morning, it’s dark at night. You’re at work and you stagger out and it’s dark! That’s a challenge, but I think that’s why Canberrans make the most of spring and summer and autumn.
On the weekends I usually do big walks around the lake, but quite often I just do a walk to my local shops to get dinner, you know with a backpack, and then come home and cook dinner. And so just the fact that I can do that—there’s this little supermarket close by, that’s unique to the planning environment that we have here in Canberra. Canberrans I think have the highest rate of participation in sport of anywhere else in the country and there’s a really strong spirit of volunteering here and so people are actively engaged in sports and our sporting organisations are very strong. There’s no excuse for you to be idle, really, with all the facilities you’ve got here, with all the sporting groups.
My perfect day in Canberra would be in summer. It would be Sunday. Being with my husband all day. Going for a walk around the lake and probably doing a bit of reading, perhaps catching up with some friends for yum cha or something, and then having a nice meal outside, a nice BBQ meal, possibly with friends. It’d have to be summer, definitely!
Image created by Liz Thompson