Canberra Budget (Reply) Trip 2021

Last week I travelled with the Victorian Young Labor group organised by the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) and some of the most freaking determined, inspiring students.

As PPE President, Clare Elliott aptly puts it, “I could never have adequately prepared for the quality of this trip.”

I won’t bore you with naming all of the amazing MPs, staffers, and unionists we talked with (jk I’ll list them at the end), but below are the key takeaways I had from our interactions with them. Honestly, these lessons are valuable within so many areas of your life – not just the political realm.

If you want to be a politician, don’t. But also, do.

Or, stick to your values.

Like so many other women and girls who saw Julia Gillard lead our country, my year 12 yearbook goal stated “PM” (and for the record, I will never feel shame in looking up to Australia’s first female Prime Minister). So, when Chris Bowen decisively stated that if your goal is to become a politician, then you shouldn’t be, I was initially taken aback. Chris made a fair case, though; It’s not that you shouldn’t EVER become a politician, but that you need outside experience to develop real values that represent you so that you can better represent others.

The previous night, we had dinner with TWU representatives, Wayne Swan, and NSW Senator Tony Sheldon. I’ve gotta admit, I had no idea who Tony was before this dinner, but the conversation I had with him and LIRA President, Lani Dumas, echoes Chris Bowen’s sentiment. Tony was elected to the Senate for the first time in 2019 after his experiences in TWU, barkeeping, and cleaning – he had a plethora of different experiences. To encapsulate our conversation, he said that to solely pursue a career in politics and not gain outside experiences is a disservice to yourself and a major disservice to the people you’re meant to represent. Essentially, how are you meant to develop genuine values when all you’ve seemed to strive towards is a career in politics?

Penny Wong (moment for applause) communicated her values of honesty, transparency, and character. She relayed that she actually cares if she is right or wrong. We see so many instances of people doing anything to ensure that they are seen as “in the right” – not just in politics, though there are overwhelming examples of them. We were so fortunate to watch Penny in action in Senate Question Time and grill the Government on their vaccine rollout. The Government had multiple, conflicting answers, none in line with the Budget they’d just announced, and the Opposition called the Government out on this.

Kristina Keneally candidly admitted to us that just the day before, she’d stuffed up something she’d said in front of Parliament, caught some slack for it, but owned up and took responsibility for her mistake. KK, committed to her values in accountability, corrected her mistake.

On a lighter note, when Tanya Plibersek was asked “What advice do you have for women wanting to enter politics?” she replied with, “Just do it.” And this leads me to my next key point.

🔥 Women 🔥

I’ll be candid about this – I had to rely on other people’s memory of our meetings with MPs like Penny and Tanya because I think I got a bit starry-eyed (don’t judge me, you’d also feel like this if you were in the same room as these absolute guns).

Tanya joined us in the Labor Caucus Room (!!!!), discussing her current role and experiences. After Tanya’s “Just do it” response, we found that MP Anne Aly had snuck in behind us and, damn, what Anne said about Tanya had us tearing up (or was that just me…). Dr. Anne Aly was first elected in 2016, and she described how Tanya had made a space for Anne to grow into her role and supported her in this very new environment. Seeing this dynamic relationship and women supporting each other was a defining moment in my Canberra Trip experience, and they are an inspiration to us all.

Penny Wong reiterated that every person needs to listen to and advocate for women. Perhaps a revelation for some…hey Scomo…but this should be a fundamental principle in everyone’s life. The political realm is a more difficult and hostile place than it is for men (just take a look at the Gillard years, and more recently, Brittany Higgins’ experiences). Every person needs to contribute to a safer environment for everyone.

We also discussed with Penny mentoring opportunities, and she admitted that as an openly LGBT+ Asian woman, there wasn’t anyone who really represented her that she felt she could look up to. However, women in general have been an inspiration; her South Australian colleagues backed her, and John Faulkner was the closest person she felt she had as a mentor. Penny believes mentor/mentee relations are valuable but that she really had to fight tooth and nail to get where she is and it shaped her capabilities as a politician.

“I want to be Anne Aly when I grow up.”

Or, hold onto your personality.

Something that struck me was the personalities exuberated by the people we met – especially the women. I’ve often dismissed engaging in politics because of how bland and soul-crushing it can be represented as. But, damn, Anne Aly is a pillar of personality and staying true to yourself and your values.

After the Opposition’s Budget Reply, we were so lucky to see them out of the chamber, cheering them on. Anne Aly chose to stick around and chat with us. She talked with us about her expertise in counter-terrorism and her experiences as a university professor and with the United Nations. I can’t even adequately describe the energy she emits. Anne recalled how excited she was to be the closing speaker at a UN conference, but after long days of delegates bickering and making no progress, she used her closing speech to condemn their efforts and describe her disappointment. After these experiences, she grappled with how to become an effective change agent and never expected to become a politician, but received a call from WA Labor asking her to run for a seat and never looked back.

Jo Ryan came over and asked Anne what she was doing later. Anne Aly replied she was gonna stick around to talk with us some more and then she’s bloody going home to watch Ginny and Georgia and, wow, the entire room had a chuckle.

“You can decide not to be interested in politics, but you can’t decide not to be affected by it.”

Or, burst your bubble.

Penny Wong is paraphrased above, and the damn woman is never wrong (maybe only occasionally). After the shitshow of a year 2020 was, this statement should ring truer than ever.

Parliament, and politics in general, can be a bubble or an echo chamber, and I’m sure we can see in our own lives that we usually become friends with and work with people who have similar views and values to us. But we need to burst our bubble. Michelle Rowland had a meaningful discussion with us about this and how some groups can be taken for granted as voting for certain political parties. I gave the example that I was talking with someone I work with, and they were praising the strong, active union at our workplace. Then, they continued to berate the Labor Party and tell me they’ve always voted Liberals. This was personally a shock to my bubble of ideas and beliefs. Upon reflection and through the conversations throughout the last week, there are many contributing factors as to why people see things in different ways—taking union members for granted as Labor voters is disillusioned and shows a disconnect between people and policy.

Plant the seed.

In further discussions with Michelle Rowland, we considered how we might have conversations with people who don’t necessarily have the same or even similar views to us. Michelle’s electorate, Greenway, runs along the “Bible Belt” in NSW, and the Marriage Equality Plebiscite became a significant topic in our conversations. In a conscience vote, Michelle initially voted “no” to marriage equality before meeting a woman whose son was serving in the Defence Force and desperately wanted her son to be able to marry the man he loves. Michelle drew on that conversation and questioned herself and others with, “I’ve never served my country like that, so why should we be able to judge in this way?” And I think this was a major theme in our conversations. You cannot outright tell people, “You’re wrong, your ideas and beliefs are wrong”, and expect their entire mindset to be transformed. Connecting with their values (another example of the importance of developing values!!!) and asking them questions can “plant the seed.” You’re very unlikely to sway anyone when you come out guns blazing, but planting the seed and asking questions about how they feel represented can be an effective tool for them to come to their own conclusions.

Dee Madigan, Creative Director of Campaign Edge and someone who has led many political campaigns, confirms the effectiveness of posing questions and planting the seed. You know those advertisements where you see Scomo’s got his eyes blacked out, and there’s some ominous text making you doubt his character and policies? Well, Dee’s probably been behind some of them, and it reiterates that doubt is a powerful emotion to play on and an effective tool in campaigning.

Always involve others in decision making.

I wish every person could’ve heard firsthand this story from Tony Sheldon, but I will do my best to relay it. I asked Tony what his “pinch me” moment has been throughout his career, and his response was so passionate. Tony was advocating with the TWU and had planned for truck drivers and all sorts of transport workers to stage a protest demanding better rights and safer conditions. These truckers had taken the day off and came to form their protest, and all the while this was happening, Tony was negotiating with the Australian Government and was offered a settlement. He analysed the proposed settlement and had to hold his breath, telling the Govt negotiators that he’d have to think about it and consult with people in the TWU. When the opposing negotiators left the room, he freaking jumped up and started cheering and celebrating. The settlement was more than he expected, but he still made sure to call all key organisers and stakeholders to make sure they agreed to the settlement. It’s an essential lesson in always consulting your stakeholders and involving them in the decision-making process.

Moreover, we were talking about TWU’s advocacy for the minimum wage trial with DiDi. Lani Dumas recalled how he was in a DiDi talking to the driver about how they might be able to calculate minimum wages and make sure all factors were included. Tony explained to us the economics of this, but really cemented that having these conversations with the people actually affected by government policies and making sure they have a voice is key to valuable, effective decision-making and policies.

“Don’t cut off one wing of the plane and still expect to be able to fly it.”

Or, some progress is better than no progress.

I cannot for the life of me remember who explicitly said this, but it was echoed by so many of the MPs, especially in our conversation with Tanya Plibersek and Jo Ryan.

Chris Bowen and Wayne Swan were among those who explicitly said that, sure, diversity of thought could be valuable, and everyone will always have views that conflict, but some progress is better than no progress. It’s not effective or strategic to totally cut off, condemn or alienate those you have differences with. In Parliament, you’re seeing the people you work with everywhere; you could be lining up for a coffee at the same time or eating dinner at the same places. For goodness sakes, we even saw Barnaby Joyce in the Parliament café.

I want to send my huge thanks to those who organised this trip, including TWU, Skye Griffiths, Jake McGuinness, Joshua Bruni, and Liam Fitzgerald.

Canberra Round-Up:

Matthew Rocks – TWU SuperMem Suleyman – TWUJohn Berger – TWU Vic/Tas Branch Secretary
Wayne SwanDr Anne Aly MPHon Chris Bowen MP
Hon Tony Burke MPHon Linda Burney MPHon Mark Butler MP
Ms Terri Butler MPDr Jim Chalmers MPMs Ged Kearney MP
Mr Matt Keogh MPHon Catherine King MPMs Madeleine King MP
Hon Richard Marles MPHon Tanya Plibersek MPMs Michelle Rowland MP
Ms Joanne Ryan MPHon Kristina Keneally MPHon Penny Wong MP
Patrick Dodson MPDee Madigan – Campaign EdgeMegan Lane – Campaign Edge
Michael Buckland – McKell InstituteBen WhologanBrendan Byron

And the many others who spared time to chat with us!

Image: Zak Tsiouklas