When Christine Milne stepped down from the Senate and as leader of The Greens in 2015, she was proud to have her two adult sons Tom and James by her side.
Having been two and four when Christine originally entered Tasmanian state politics back in 1989, she wanted them involved in the final (official) political chapter.
Christine is now the grandmother of a toddler. And when she spoke to Georgie Dent and I earlier this month, she was hours away from boarding a flight home for the birth of her second grandchild.
She told us she was relieved to have stepped out of politics when she did — especially given everything that’s happened in Canberra since. But she’s particularly grateful to have had the time with her family, including her mother before she died at the age of 93 earlier this year.
Having just published her book An Activist Life, Christine’s long career in politics, from state to federal and later leader of The Greens, highlights just how demanding such a career can be.
Christine did not come from a political family and was not a member of a political party when she decided to run for Tasmanian Parliament. Her family at the time lived in the country, hours from the nearest city. She was a secondary school teacher and had previously been arrested (and jailed) in 1983 after participating in a successful campaign against the proposed Franklin Dam.
But having been the lead activist against the Wesley Vale pulp mill — and going into an state election that would ultimately determine its fate — she felt no other option but to enter politics.
Childcare was difficult to access, and her then husband made the decision to leave his teaching job to care for the children. Christine says it was tough on him, as there were virtually no other male parents caring for kids in the community. She was one of five Greens elected in 1989, creating the Labor-Green Accord to form government. She became leader of the Tasmanian Greens in 1993, and was later elected to the Federal Senate in 2004.
Her chosen career meant that she often missed sports carnivals, assemblies and other events when her kids were young. She concedes that at the time, she wondered and worried about whether this would impact them adversely. However, she’s since reconciled this was not the case.
“In recent years, I’ve realised in speaking to the children that in fact I missed out. They didn’t miss out,” she said.
“They developed great relationships with their grandparents, which is wonderful. They also got to see their mother doing all these amazing things. They saw their mother speaking in Parliament, speaking at rallies, meeting a wide range of interesting people. They had all sorts of opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.”
Christine believes that a mother can be a most powerful role model for young boys and girls, through her career.
Being a female trailblazer in state politics at the time, Christine also felt she had to avoid showing any vulnerability. She tried to keep her family out of the public side of her job. When her sister died suddenly at the young age of 38, she didn’t trust she’d be given a fair to go and be with her family and so kept working.
“There was a real challenge as to whether it was even legitimate for women to be in the parliament,” she said.”People may have said, ‘well if there’s too much heat in the kitchen, leave. Go home’.”
If she had her time again in politics, this time in 2017, Christine says she might be a little less stringent about separating her family from her work. She says she was proud to see former Greens Senator Larissa Waters breastfeeding her baby in Parliament, because it reinforced the fact young mothers have a place in Parliament.
However, she is concerned that female parliamentarians with kids have it tougher than their male counterparts — saying it’s women bringing their pre-schoolers to the childcare facility at Parliament House, more so than men. She also notes the number of high-profile female politicians who are stepping down when their kids go to school.
Indeed, Christine believes Parliament has to change significantly in order to better accommodate its members.
“We have to ask the question, how do we run the Parliament, so that people don’t have to be away from home so much?
“People can manage the day to day really well, but if you have to be away from home so much, that’s when it really starts to bite.”
She questioned if Parliament could be more flexible, especially when it comes to the meetings and committees that occur when the house isn’t sitting. It’s possible more could be done virtually and through remote engagement.
Climate change continues to be Christine’s key area of concern, and she wonders if we’re almost at the point of no return. She stepped away from politics at a time when she didn’t believe a Malcolm Turnbull Government or even a Bill Shorten Government would be all that much different to a Tony Abbott Government on the issue.
She believes she can now have more of an impact on environmental causes outside of politics than she could within it — and is calling on other grandparents and older Australians to get involved.
“This is a world our children will inherit. That’s why I’m determined to keep campaigning as long as I can, and to involve a lot of older people to get back to the campaigning they may have done in their youth,” she says.
She believes people who are retired or at the end of their careers have more scope to take risks, than those who are just getting started. “When we were all getting arrested and going to jail it was a misdemeanour, not a criminal offence,” she says. “it didn’t affect our careers and getting visas. Now the laws are so draconian.”
“We have a whole generation of people who stood for women’s rights or aboriginal rights, campaigned when they were younger, their values are still there … Let’s get on the bus and get over to the frontline.”
Image above: Christine Milne speaking at the Peoples Climate March in Melbourne in 2014. Photo by Peter Campbell