“If I’m totally candid, I often smile that I am there. I’m often surprised when I see myself in the mirror. That’s the truth.”
These are the words of independent MP Helen Haines, who says she still feels a sense of thrill and excitement every time the Speaker in the House of Representatives calls her name in the chamber.
“There’s just an enormous sense of privilege and responsibility and that’s an extraordinary feeling. I know that it comes to so few people.”
Helen Haines, who is the federal member for the electorate of Indi, is the latest guest on The Leadership Lessons podcast, where she tells Shirley Chowdhary why she thinks her background in nursing and healthcare has held in her such good stead to be a politician. But also, that politics was never something she’d imagined in her life plan.
Haines notes she is just one of two people in the current federal parliament that has a background in nursing, and as far as she’s aware, she’s the only midwife. “Ged [Kearney] and I are the only two nurses in the parliament and we’re not aware of anyone who has come before us as nurses,” she says.
As someone who was engaged in healthcare for more than 30 years, first as nurse and midwife, and later as a healthcare researcher, Haines believes many of the skills she’s brought with her from her previous career are essential to her achievements in parliament.
“I had a pretty good capacity to communicate with people in all sorts of situations and from all sorts of walks of life. I think that’s a really important skill for a member of parliament. You really need to be able to meet people where they’re at and engage with them in a way that is really compassionate, and that recognises people,” Haines explains.
“When people finally come to meet with a member of parliament over an issue, they’ve usually tried everything. And sometimes they’re very angry or very sad or feeling very vulnerable. So, I think my background in health really helped me.”
In the podcast, Haines shares that as someone from a rural, farming community and with a career in health, for most of her life, she’d never considered entering politics. It wasn’t something that had ever seemed to be in range.
“I had never seen myself as someone who would be putting my hand up to run for parliament, but I did so. I did so because, as a community person, I became highly engaged in seeking something better in our electorate,” she said.
In 2012, a group of people in Haines’ rural electorate came together in the backroom of a library and started discussing how they could improve the state of their local democracy. It led to the formation of the community group Voices for Indi and the subsequent election of independent MP Cathy McGown in 2013, when she defeated incumbent Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella.
Haines was later selected by Voices of Indi to replace the retiring McGowan, and she was elected to the parliament in 2019. She made history, becoming the first independent to ever succeed another independent in the same seat in federal parliament.
“Becoming a member of Parliament is deeply and inextricably connected to my lifelong desire to be a useful person in a rural community,” Haines says.
Haines attributes some of the confidence she now has in her role to having watched McGowan do the job before her, and says it helped her understand what to expect of a career in politics.
“It was having that role model of Cathy. A woman I knew in my own community who had a career very different to mine, but again, steeped in her local community. And then when I saw her take on that job with such confidence, I thought, ‘Yeah, okay. They’re the kind of skills that can work very well in the political sphere’.”
In parliament, Haines is focused on issues of integrity, climate change action, improving democracy, and representing her local community in a consultative way. In 2020, she introduced a bill into parliament that would create a strong and independent federal integrity commission.
“I have a sense of a place in history, which is a great privilege. And I know that I’m only in the House because the people of Indi have given me their trust to be there, and I just take that so very seriously,” she says.
“I like to have a team around me who I trust and whose knowledge I respect and who I’ve recruited for their skills and expertise. I very much like to let them get on with doing their work and bringing their recommendations to me. I delegate them to do a lot of work on my behalf, to do the research and to come back to me with recommendations. That’s how I lead.”
You can catch Helen Haines’ full conversation with Shirley Chowdhary on the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, a podcast made possible thanks to the support of Salesforce.