Fiona Patten, the Victorian cross-bencher who has led change on abortion, assisted dying and drug reform, talks to Kristine Ziwica on what has made her such an effective independent politician, the need for more women of all stripes to enter politics and her high hopes for a new political movement in Australia.
Fiona Patten, a member of the Victorian Legislative Council and founder and leader of the Reason party, which she rebranded from the Australian Sex Party last year (yes, that was the name of her party, but more on that later), is in a buoyant mood as she greets me in the foyer of the Victorian Parliament and leads me into the member’s dining room for lunch.
She’s just put the finishing touches on a yet unnamed memoir to be published by Allen & Unwin later this year and she’s still buzzing from the cover photo shoot just a few days prior to our meeting.
The focus of the book: “how we got to this place and the battles along the way,” she says.
Patten, who is one of a number of cross-benchers who hold the balance of power in Victoria’s Upper House, does indeed have an interesting story to tell. She followed a very unconventional path for anyone, let alone a woman, into politics: fashion designer, community drug outreach worker, lobbyist for the Aids Council at the height of the epidemic and then CEO of the sex industry’s lobby group. And she has proven herself to be a very effective political operator in the four short years since she was first elected.
In preparation for our meeting, I read a profile of Patten in the Guardian published shortly after she was elected on the Australian Sex Party ticket in 2014. Patten had co-founded the party in 2009 as an extension of the Eros Association, the sex industry’s lobby group where she was the CEO.
Asked about her agenda at the time, the new kid on the political block mapped out a clear statement of intent: to be taken seriously on a raft of issues from drug reform to voluntary euthanasia to small business to abortion rights.
Now, four years later, Patten has some pretty significant runs on the board. She was key to the introduction and passage of legislation to create safe exclusion zones around abortion clinics, the voluntary assisted dying legislation which passed earlier this year (making Victoria the first state in Australia to embrace reform), the first Victorian trial of a medically supervised injecting centre, and the creation of Australia’s largest public inquiry into drug law reform.
What has helped this quite unconventional politician achieve her goals?
“One of the reasons we were able to achieve what we set out to was possibly naivety, that we didn’t know we couldn’t,” says Patten. “I didn’t realise that it wasn’t common for people to set out an agenda, to say we’ll introduce a private member’s bill and actually get it adopted.”
“Also, my training as a lobbyist”, she adds. “For me as an independent, this is a lobbying job. …trying to convince politicians to support my objectives or to support my mission. It’s just that they can’t get away from me as easily as they used to, and now I have their mobile phone numbers.”
But while Patten was pursuing these goals, it soon became clear that the name of the party she co-founded and led was an impediment to the “being taken seriously” aspect of her agenda. A savvy political operator, Patten took that message on board and re-branded as Reason in 2017, now describing her party as a “progressive political movement committed to delivering real change to Victoria State” in pursuit of “radical common sense”. Her bio is now filled with buzzwords like “equality”, “sustainability”, “freedom” and “pragmatic consultation”.
At a time when voters are increasingly moving away from the two main parties that have dominated Australian politics, the influence of minor parties is on the rise and Patten has high hopes for Reason in her home state and beyond. Her particular brand of politics has confounded some. Is she a libertarian? Is she a social democrat? Where does she fall on the traditional spectrum? What can voters expect?
“I feel that the binary conversation around politics is not where we are at today,” Patten tells me. “If I had to put myself on the spectrum, I would say we are very centrist.”
Some have suggested Patten would have found a political home in the now defunct Democrats, pro-business but socially progressive.
And at a time when women in politics or the lack thereof is the subject of much debate and quite different approaches in the two main parties, with Labor setting targets and the Liberal party resisting them as they feel they undercut “merit”, what does Patten make of the debate?
She acknowledges that the Labor Party has done a very good job leading change and notes that the Greens have a very gender equal representation as does her own party. “We insist on that,” say says.
The fact that the Liberal Party is going backwards, Patten believes, is “disappointing”. “I can’t believe they’re saying it’s all on merit, which is suggesting that women aren’t good enough,” she says. “That’s just not the case.”
Patten agrees we absolutely need more women in politics and diversity more broadly: “People talk about the fact that politics isn’t family friendly, and it won’t be if women don’t get involved. We need to change that.” She also believes that more women — and more diversity — would improve the calibre of debate.
On the question of quotas, Patten offers some qualified support. “I don’t think we as a society should be setting them,” she says, by which she means legislate for them. If political parties or corporations want to set them, that is a decision for them that makes “economic and social sense”.
In her view, which is not surprising coming from a woman who founded and largely shaped her own political party, joining a small independent party as opposed to a major party might hold particular appeal for women who, she believes, would appreciate its “flexibility”.
As a band of one in the Victorian Legislature, Patten is not subject to a whip; there is no one telling her how to vote. She does not have to “sell her soul”, in her words, and support the party line on issues of policy she doesn’t agree with.
If every woman seeking office follows Patten’s advice, we may indeed have a proliferation of minor parties in Australia.
“But that also creates a challenge,” she adds. “Every time there’s a piece of legislation in that Parliament, I need to have read it, and I need to have understood it and I need to have made a decision about it.”
When I joke that the thought of her reading through pages and pages of legislation speaks to the anorak in my soul, Patten bursts into infectious laughter. “I wish I had said that,” she says. “That’s the beauty of this work as well, the areas that I’ve been able to learn more about.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Patten, it’s clear she has charted a clever and effective course through politics and offers an interesting and very different political role model. Is there room on the national stage for someone like Patten? She’s determined to find out.