VIP mum: Natasha Stott Despoja

 

While many of Natasha Stott Despoja's peers were talking about changing the world, she was actually doing it.

The youngest woman to enter Federal Parliament, she has blazed a trail through the Australian political landscape since her election to the Senate in 1995.

A strong advocate for improving policies to assist Australian families, Natasha retired from politics in 2008 to spend more time with her family.

When Natasha retired, her son Conrad was three and she 38.

Although she expects she will be a working mother for many years to come but does not rule out a return to politics sometime in the future.

Natasha became the youngest woman to enter the Australian parliament when she was appointed to the Senate to fill a casual vacancy at the age of 26. She has been elected twice since.

In 2001, she became the youngest person to lead a political party, when she was elected leader of the Democrats at the age of 31. When she retires, she will be her party's longest ever serving senator.

Throughout her career, Natasha has made a significant contribution to a number of policy areas, including: social justice and human rights, publicly funded education and student income support, privacy law, genetics, biotechnology, stem cell research, the status of women, work and family and the formation of an Australian Republic. For many years (and before she had a child), she has advocated policies to help Australian families better balance their work and home lives, including paid maternity leave, flexible hours and more affordable and accessible child care.

Before returning to the national capital in February, Natasha spoke to us about how motherhood had affected her career and shaped her future - and what a difficult decision it had been for her not to re-nominate for pre-selection when there were strong signs that she would be re-elected - meaning her term would continue until 2014.

There is no doubting how much Natasha loves her job. In a column that appeared in Adelaide's The Advertiser in October 2006 she wrote, "I love the cut and thrust of the parliament, the opportunity to change laws and lives for the better. I enjoy the nitty gritty of policy-making and law- making: analysing laws, drafting amendments, arguing the case as well as writing private member's bills and participating in committee work."

"I knew I wanted to travel less and I did not want to miss key milestones in Conrad's young life: dropping him off at his first day of school, having the flexibility to be there after school and so on."

"It was not an easy decision, but after having time to think [following sick leave], it was clear to me what I wanted to do and that it was the right decision for my family."

With a wry smile, she admits that after 16 years in the Senate (first as a staffer and for more than eleven years as a senator), the ensuing dissection of her decision to retire wasn't a huge surprise.
"Immediately, there were different interpretations of my decision," she says. "On the one hand, there was a lobby saying, 'See, you can't do it. You can't be a mother and a politician', and then there were young women saying, 'Well, if she can't do it none of us can'."

"I don't want to send a message that you cannot do it - because I did and you can. I also strongly support women having and using their choices (in so far as women have choices), and this is my choice for this stage in my personal and professional life."

"On the one hand, there was a lobby saying, 'See, you can't do it. You can't be a mother and a politician', and then there were young women saying, 'Well, if she can't do it none of us can'."

"I've been an advocate for work and family and better opportunities for women, and it would always be my role as a legislator and public policy advocate to do so. It would never occur to me to criticise or to question another mother's decision about her child and her family."

In hindsight, the frenzy was the logical conclusion to the way her Senate career had begun. The rush of interest in her shoes and hair, a breath of fresh air in a world of fusty suits and receding hairlines, at first got as much attention as her abilities and determination to make a difference to people's lives.

The passion and idealism Natasha felt when she was first elected to the Senate are still evident.

"I believe that we have a responsibility to make the world a better place," she says. "I feel passionately about issues like education, environment and women. That always has been a driving force for me, the issue of equality of opportunity for women."

"I had a chance and took it: to be a voice for equality, for human rights, to remind government that education is an investment not a cost, to be a strong feminist and advocate for women's rights."

Reflecting on being a relatively young woman - especially when she was first elected - in politics, Natasha says, "I think I've had benefits, as well as some of the obvious disadvantages and stereotyping of being a younger woman in politics. I've only in recent times looked back and realised the extent to which I was growing up in the public eye, living my life and job in a very public sphere."

"The notion that if you appeared on a light-hearted television show then somehow your IQ had dropped or that you can't be blonde and a leader because of the ditsy connotations; it was hard to be pigeonholed according to age and my sex as opposed to being judged for my legislation or policy work of which I'm really proud. Occasionally, I have struggled to say to people, 'This is what I'm about, not the mainstream media's perception'."

But, she says, the positives have overwhelmingly outweighed the challenges.

"It is an enormous privilege to be in a position where you can actually make a difference in these sorts of areas - by changing legislation you can change lives. And I have seen many examples of that over my time in politics. I have also been fortunate to have a job that I love, where I can delve into issues that matter to me and my constituents. The law can change lives. It's a wonderful tool."

Reflecting on her marriage to Ian Smith, the executive chairman of an issues management company, Natasha said she felt lucky that she's found a great friend and partner.

"I always assumed that, at some point in my life, I would have children if I was lucky enough to do so. I didn't always expect that I'd get married. It was not necessarily on my radar during my twenties as a young professional, career woman," she says.

Being pregnant was an experience Natasha enjoyed.

"I loved being pregnant with Conrad. It was one of the most enjoyable emotional and physical experiences."


She laughs. "Like many working women, I worked full time, and as a federal politician in an election year I also travelled extensively. I traveled until I was 36 weeks pregnant. I recall giving the keynote address at an international symposium in Sydney on stem cells when I was nine months pregnant and feeling, for the first time in all those months, I was ready to go home and work from my electorate office in Adelaide."

Most mothers have stories about the unsolicited advice and opinions they received. One, in particular, enraged women in the community.

"One newspaper showed me speaking at an education rally in Melbourne, as I stood on the back of a truck. The newspaper said that I was 'teetering on the back of a ute' in 'high heels and a figure hugging top', 'with one hand resting on her belly'. This was incorrect; I have the picture of me standing, holding a microphone, with this big belly and no high heeled shoes. And I'd love to know what's not figure-hugging when you're six or seven months pregnant! I am very proud of that photo!" Natasha's decision to work up until the week before she had Conrad was not an issue for her.

"I think in retrospect I pushed myself very hard, not because I wanted to be super mum or superwoman, but I suppose I thought, 'This is how it is: I do my job and I'm pregnant at the same time'," Natasha recalls.

"I was not actually up for election, but I worked hard for my party and my colleagues. The expectations of me were high and I know I met them."

"I think in retrospect I pushed myself very hard, not because I wanted to be super mum or superwoman, but I suppose I thought, 'This is how it is: I do my job and I'm pregnant at the same time'."

Natasha took 11 weeks off after Conrad's birth, but as a politician she was not eligible for maternity leave per se.

"There is still no official maternity leave in the Australian parliament, but you can claim personal leave or sick leave. For maternity leave, you have to write to the president of the Senate asking permission to take leave." Natasha was smitten by her baby, Conrad, and her new role as mother. She admits his birth changed her outlook.

"I was surprised at how instantly I loved being a mum. Even up until the last minute - like many friends - I was thinking, 'I don't think I can do this. I'm not ready for this. I'm not sure what to do and, oh, I forgot to read that book on breastfeeding'. Then immediately I was surprised, stunned, by that overwhelming sense of love. Ian and I say each day, 'Have you ever loved anything as much as Conrad?' I suppose everyone says that, but it's so true."

She was also a little surprised by how the perspective of her political peers shifted. She has little doubt the opinion of her changed, firstly when she was married and then when Conrad arrived. While her opponents may have expected her to lose her edge, Natasha says the opposite was true.

"There was first of all a sense, particularly among conservative politicians, that I wasn't the same threat that I'd been. I think that some people saw me in a different way: somehow less ambitious, less ferocious, less of a feminist, or that I was going to work less."

"I work smarter, I work hard. If something is really important to my work of course I'll do it, but given the choice between dinner and going back to the hotel, feeding Conrad and putting him to bed then it's a no-brainer."

"It was quite the opposite. I think I've worked harder in the last two years than ever before. I think being a parent has made me an even better legislator. The perspective it has given me is great. It does not mean that people without kids have any less ability, but for me it just made me think, 'I want the world to be a better place for a whole range of reasons, but partly because I've got a little investment in the future too'. And my commitment to women and their needs remains paramount."

In between making headlines and policy, Natasha was learning to manage the issues that affect every working mum: routines, breastfeeding, child care and work/family balance.

"No, I did not breastfeed Conrad in the Senate, and I had no intention of doing so," she laughs. "I think that there are probably few worse influences on a child than some of the behaviour in that place! Contrary to the images on the television, we are not always in the senate chamber. We're usually in our offices, or in meetings and committee hearings. If I was at a committee and there was a morning tea break, while other people had their Scotch Fingers and their tea, I'd run back to my office and feed my child or I'd put him on my breast and discreetly feed him during breaks."

She's delivered a speech with baby poo on her dress, the standard issue 'not-so-child-friendly' hard marble coffee table has been replaced, and sometimes you would see a cot in the office particularly during long sitting weeks when after hours child care ran out.

While her workload hasn't changed, her expectations have. She has full-time help when she's working and like all working families, child care costs are large.

"I work smarter, I work hard. If something is really important to my work of course I'll do it, but given the choice between dinner and going back to the hotel, feeding Conrad and putting him to bed then it's a no-brainer." Bearing in mind, the parliamentary sitting day can start at 7.45am and finish around midnight (the Senate sits until 10.20pm on a Monday night at least!).
Natasha is a strong believer in what she calls "sisterhood". She believes women must stick together to eradicate "mother guilt" and feelings of inadequacy.

"Trust yourself and your instincts. Perhaps by creating a less critical questioning environment maybe then we will get rid of mother guilt altogether."

"I think it's wonderful when women sit around and talk candidly about pregnancy and motherhood, and not trying to be a super mum. Be honest without being discouraging and support each other. Respect other people's lifestyle choices and decisions. Don't be critical of other women's choices."

"Society has very strong views, whether we acknowledge it or not, that it's still a woman's responsibility to be at home or look after the kids. It's what gives institutions like governments the excuse not to act on issues like working families."

"I think last year [2006] was the first time I missed parliament because Conrad wasn't well. Some of my colleagues said, 'Can't someone else look after him?' That was probably one of the first times in my life I decided, 'I'm not going to feel bad about this. I'm going to be with my son'. It's funny. I wondered if a male member of parliament had made that decision would people have said, 'How good of him. He's such a good dad'."

Natasha's decision not to re-contest her Senate spot this year [2007] was not easy.

"Running and losing wasn't the problem, because that would have meant I would finish in 2008. It was the thought of running and winning that I really had to weigh up, because it would have meant an additional six-year term until 2014 when Conrad will be 10."

As to what Natasha will do next, she has not yet decided. "I've been in this job now for more than 11 years, and spent just over 16 years in the same place and doing comparable things. So I'm very
nervous. On the one hand I get excited about the possibilities, but I'm also a little sad because I love my job, I love legislating. I'm excited about the next 18 months because I've got all this work that I want to do. My focus is on cramming as much into that time as I can."

"When I decided not to contest the next election it was on the understanding (and Ian and I made these decisions together), that we would both make life-changing decisions about work so he too could spend more time at home with Conrad. He's taking long service leave at the beginning of this year, so that he can be a father at home with his son while I'm working the last full year of my senate career. We can share parenting when our child goes to school. I was very upfront about that, but so was my husband."

Natasha feels strongly about choices for women and families. She believes women in particular are resigned to a heavier burden of responsibility and more government help for working families is essential.

"Society has very strong views, whether we acknowledge it or not, that it's still a woman's responsibility to be at home or look after the kids," says Natasha. "It's what gives institutions like governments the excuse not to act on issues like working families. Governments should have to make changes to provide better support, whether it's child care, parental leave or flexible working hours. I think at some point governments will have to grapple with that but, overall, I see women juggling as never before."

"There's a whole group of women in parliament now with children and babies. It's a very different landscape now and hopefully as these people move through the system they will start to have an impact on policy."

"My choice was to become a member of parliament. I chose to become leader. I've been a senator for South Australia. I chose to become a mother. Now I'm choosing to do something else with my life, which will continue to involve me as a completely multi-faceted human being. I'm sure I'll be working in some capacity. I'll be spending time with my child, and I will not to travel as much."

"I'm really proud of the way that I've managed and my family has managed over the last two years. Obviously there were sacrifices and difficulties and challenges involved and I'm sure that I could keep doing it, but my choice is to change my work/life balance. But that doesn't mean I'm giving up on being a working mother, or even giving up on politics."

Natasha hopes that her experience has made it easier for women of different ages, experiences and backgrounds to find a voice in politics. She hopes that she has inspired both women and men to be active citizens.

"Politics is a living, breathing, important thing. It affects every part of our lives. Hopefully younger people can see its relevance and believe they can influence and be a part of it. It's not just the property of older men wearing suits."

What sort of future does Natasha want for her son Conrad? "I want Australia to be a place where he has a future, not just his generation but beyond. I want to know that his grandkids are going to be able to breathe relatively clean air and value the forests and waterways that we've got."

"The concept of intergenerational equity is very close to home now."

"He's fortunate to have two happy, healthy parents with incomes and a loving family. I want to know that his chances in life are going to be reflected and mirrored by the kids around him regardless of their income, their background, their sex. I want to know that when Conrad goes to school the girl next to him will have the same opportunities as him."

"Of course, I want him to have a great education, because education is the great equaliser in life. If you've got a good education everything is so much more available to you."

 
Banner