A new generation of MPs is in Canberra this week, attending their orientation into parliament. The influx of independent representatives who are women has sparked a strong sense of hope for progress on critical issues, including climate change and integrity in parliament.
A life in politics requires courage, confidence and grit. It calls for those who are driven to lead through a desire to serve the community. Critical thinking and high-level skills in communication and collaboration are essential. Add to this an expectation of humble and graceful leadership.
So what are the skills and experiences that have helped elevate some of these independents into political life? Hint: The answers vary.
North Sydney’s newly elected MP Kylea Tink grew up in the NSW country town of Coonabarabran. Kylea’s personal circumstances meant that she used negotiation, a practice at the heart of democratic decision-making, from an early age. “As the eldest of four to parents who both worked full time, I was the one making sure we didn’t all kill each other while mum and dad were at work!” she tells Women’s Agenda.
Having teachers at Coonabarabran High School who identified Tink’s strengths, and who believed in her, opened up key opportunities. “In Year 7 there was a teacher called Don Harvey who identified and put me into the senior debating teams.”
Tink went on to compete extensively in debating through school and with local clubs. “Ultimately it was about developing the capacity to think on your feet, to listen actively to what other people were saying, to process that, and to make a counterargument.” Golden skills for a life in politics.
Kate Chaney is the newly elected Member for Curtin and is also the eldest of four. Kate attended co-educational Catholic schools and recalls powerful programs teaching about professional life. “In the Young Achievers Program, we formed a company and all had roles – I was the CEO. We designed a product, produced it, and sold it,” she says.
“We then wound up the company. At that age (15) you’re not really sure what you’re capable of, so having extra-curricular experiences that put you out of your comfort zone was quite formative.”
Important lessons about leadership have carried through for Kate. “I didn’t have a formal leadership role in Year 12 and I remember being quite devastated [about this]. But it was good for me because I continued to contribute and realised that contributing to your community, without the official role, is its own reward. It’s not about the glory.”
Dr Sophie Scamps (pronounced ‘Scomps’) is the new Member for Mackellar and is the youngest of four. Sophie sees years of rough-and-tumble play with two older brothers as largely responsible for building the courage required for new and challenging situations. “I didn’t really have a fear of things. I think that’s because my older brothers normalised a lot of [adventurous] behaviours.”
The family’s involvement in little athletics led Scamps to become a highly competitive athlete. “I think that’s what helped me step into this [political] race – a lifelong history of stepping out onto the track and putting myself in the race. It’s something I was used to doing.”
Scamps also sees a connection between being a GP and a doctor and the move to federal politics. “Being a doctor is a role of service. I was looking after my patients, concerned about their health and wellbeing…. Climate change is the biggest threat to health. So if I was really concerned about the health and wellbeing of my community, and of Australians, [running for federal parliament] was the next step.”
Indeed, independent MPs tend to bring professional experience into the role which career politicians don’t. Zali Steggall is the re-elected Member for Warringah and credits the solo nature of her major life roles (as an individual sportswoman and later as a barrister) for building the skills that equipped her to run as an independent.
“I’ve never been intimidated by the idea of being on my own, or solely responsible. I would argue that the things learned through [sport and professional life] give you the tools for public life,” she says.
Steggall’s family was a tight unit and spent a lot of time together engaged in sports, mostly skiing. For a decade in her early life (from age four to fourteen), Steggall lived with her parents and elder brother in France. It was there she skied at an Olympic level.
“Sport taught me certain things from resilience to determination to public speaking. You learn to train hard and work hard – you know that it [success] doesn’t come easy.”
Of course, there are many ways to make a female independent MP – these are the experiences of just a few.
One thing we can be sure of is that fostering self-belief early on is key. “From a very young age,” says Tink “I was pretty much told by my parents that you could be or do anything that you wanted to be or do.”
Steggall agrees. “I grew up with a strong sense of trust that whatever I wanted to have a go at, I could. My parents instilled in me that you don’t look for reasons why you can’t do something. You look for reasons why you can.”