A new friend of mine asked me recently how long being a politician had been on my list of ambitions. The quick answer is not long – I only made the decision a few months ago. The longer answer is that I’ve wanted to be a politician for years. I just didn’t know it yet.
I’ve always been driven by ideas that change minds and make the world better. As a child, social justice, making a contribution and walking a mile in others shoes was the mantra that underpinned every dinner table conversation.
My mother, who came from a long line of Welsh Quakers, was an ABC radio journalist, and my dad was a cameraman who became a producer. Dad’s childhood was shaped by the Depression, and he would tell me about the swagman that would come to the back door asking for whatever food could be spared. When he made Journey into India with Keith Adams for the ABC in the late 70s it wasn’t the Raj that fascinated Dad, it was the culture and the fortitude of the Indian people. At the height of his TV career, Dad met a couple who were fostering children. Struck by the difference good foster parents could make to children's lives, he had an idea that became Home & Away.
News, factual shows, and documentaries became my world. In 1983, three days after I left school, I got a job with 60 Minutes – back then a program that broke world news and shone light into dark places. I was fascinated with how you can tell stories that educate and entertain. Over the next few decades I made programs on everything from parents struggling with the lack of support for kids with autism to young women with eating disorders to women’s surfing. I collaborated with comedians and producers using comedy to help us to laugh at the things that make us feel uncomfortable – feminism with Judith Lucy and sex with Rosehaven’s Luke McGregor are two happy examples.
While my TV career was thriving, I was also a single mum – sitting in meetings terrified to be the last parent at after school pick up, eating mainly cereal in the week before my monthly paycheck came in. I attended P&C meetings, organised fundraiser events and became president of the band committee.
But increasingly I wanted to help directly rather than document the efforts of others. In 2001 a friend and I started a refugee organisation to support the advocates who were fighting to get children and their families out of detention. Watching the ALP say ‘me too’ to the Liberals’ refugee policy in 2001 made me wonder – not for the first time – how our elected representatives seemed increasingly incapable of standing up for human rights.
In 2015, now an empty nester, I got involved in political life. I got a job working on Tony Windsor’s campaign as he tried to wrestle his seat back from Barnaby Joyce. While the campaign failed, Tony remains an inspiration. He was a true independent politician. In both the NSW and federal parliament Tony voted for his electorate. He spent as little time in Canberra as he could and his electorate office buzzed with people from the community. Each had their own story of Tony’s vigilance for his community.
In 2016 I came to Tasmania, initially to make a TV commercial that shone a light on the harm the Tasmanian salmon industry was doing to our waterways. The ad came and went, and I stayed, taking on a job with The Australia Institute. Like many mainlanders before me, I fell in love with Tassie’s wildness and its people.
The salmon farming debate, and meeting Tasmanians who had been fighting for transparency and accountability – in some cases for over 20 years – taught me much about state politics. Tasmania’s donation laws are like the federal donation laws – any amount under $14K can be hidden from the public view. I discovered that vested interests rule this state, and the hidden money in our politics is the reason that there is so little effective regulation. The only way to change these outcomes is to change the system.
In 2019 I got a job working for Senator Jacqui Lambie. I was excited – maybe being closer to the centre of power would mean I could make a difference, even if in very small ways.
I met with many activists and organisations. Mothers made hollow by the suicides of their children, smallholders fighting for water allocations from hedge-funds farming thirsty almond farms, and patient, smart Australians pointing to the widening gap between rich and poor. Their recommendations and advice falling again and again on deaf ears. I watched the party backbenchers rolling up to the chamber after lunch voting like robots, often against the interests of their own constituents.
After 18 months in the Canberra bubble I realised that real politics happens on the ground, in local communities. I headed back to Hobart. Leanne Minshull, my colleague from the Australia Institute, and I spent many nights talking about how much better parliaments would be with more independents, while noting that our system works much better for the parties than it does for individuals.
Then Leanne had a brilliant idea, “Why don’t we start a party that is a network for independents? A party where every vote would be a conscience vote. A party where the moral contract is between the elected representative and their community, not the politician and their party.” A party that drew on the wisdom of the community by placing citizen juries at its heart.
My response was immediate “Hell, yes.”
The ambition to be a politician had found me.