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Is politics personal?

Zoe Pleasants

What do a jet navigator, a community volunteer and a survivor of domestic violence have in common?

They will be vying for your vote in an expanded Legislative Assembly when Canberra goes to the polls on October 15.

I caught up with three candidates, representing the three major parties, to find out how their personal experiences have shaped their political ideas.

Brooke Curtin decided to become a candidate for the Canberra Liberals during a late night trip to the Canberra Hospital’s Emergency Department. She arrived at 1am with her seven-year-old daughter who was vomiting and suffering severe stomach cramps. “We went home at 3 am not having seen a doctor and I decided that’s it, this needs fixing! And I’ve got the business background and skills [to do it],” she says. Brooke started her career in the Air Force, where she became the equal-first Australian woman to qualify as a navigator on a military fast jet aircraft, she went on to work for Boston Consulting, Rio Tinto and the Civil Aviation Authority, and has been an advisor for the Minister of Defence.

Brooke Curtin

Brooke Curtin

Rachel Stephen-Smith’s inspiration to run came while she was volunteering with one of the poorest communities in Washington DC. She became involved in trying to get the DC government to convert a historic school building into a community centre. “Doing that brought it home to me again, having [also] worked in the ACT government, how important local politics is,” she says.

Rachel Stephen Smith

Rachel Stephen Smith

When Rachel returned to Canberra, she decided to run for the Assembly as a candidate for the Australian Labor Party. “It seemed like an obvious extension of the things that I have done, because I’ve got a background in public policy and working for government and political and public service roles, and that balancing act and understanding of how decisions are made,” she says. Like Brooke, Rachel has also been a political staffer, working as Senator Kim Carr’s Chief of Staff for a number of years.

For Veronica Wensing, overcoming personal adversity has been her motivation. “I spent seven years in a domestically violent relationship,” she tells me candidly. “If it wasn’t for the support of my family I might still be there. So when I eventually got out, I started to look at how I could give back.” Veronica became a Lifeline

Veronica became a Lifeline counsellor, and worked in a women’s refuge. From there she worked for the peak body for family and violence services, and went on to manage the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, the role for which she was awarded 2009 ACT Telstra Business Woman of Year. Throughout her career Veronica has often engaged with politicians, and it was during these interactions that she got the idea to run for the Assembly as a candidate for the ACT Greens. “I have been in meetings with Ministers and MLAs and thought, I really believe I could do [that] job. I know I’m capable,” she says.

Veronica Wensing

Veronica Wensing

Brooke has a young family and values how easy it is to live in, and get around Canberra. She sometimes lectures at UNSW Canberra and what she loves about that is that she can “walk from home to drop my kids off at school, and walk over to uni, then walk back and pick them up and take them home. I think that’s pretty special.”

But Brooke is concerned that, despite these advantages, she has seen friends decide against moving here because of the cost of living. “The cost of housing is phenomenal, stamp duty and the rates are so expensive compared with other places they’re considering,” she says. She wants to see Canberra attract quality people and keep them “because they’re fulfilled in their business careers, their working environment, and they’re not looking to go elsewhere for their work. Brooke wants “a government with a business focus on the economy.”

Brooke Curtin

Brooke Curtin

Rachel also wants to keep people here and, having recently completed a Master degree in community planning and real estate development, would like to see Canberra to this by being an exemplar of urban design. “It’s about keeping the Canberra we love and making it better,” she says. “I like the development in Braddon and the extra vibrancy [that brings]. It encourages more young people to stay in Canberra … by creating an entrepreneurial environment where we can diversify the economic base by creating new and different jobs outside the public sector.”

Rachel wants her government to achieve this through “good processes, good government and good policy with Labor values. I believe in government as a force for good in our community,” she says.

Veronica appreciates how progressive Canberra is. “It’s open and it’s willing to take risks. We’re a human rights jurisdiction, we’re also leading the way in terms of renewable energy … and we’re the only jurisdiction that has actually reduced the number young people being incarcerated,” she says. And of course, the ACT Government legalised same-sex marriage. “I live in a same-sex relationship, we’ve been together 19 years, we’ve raised four kids together. We were married in the five days it was legal. We were annulled by the High Court three and half days later.”

But Veronica wants Canberra to do better, she wants to see “a more fair and equitable Canberra where the needs of community are put ahead of the needs of developers and large business corporations.” She would like, for example, to see universal design standards introduced for new housing to more readily accommodate people with a disability and an ageing population. Rachel also wants to advocate for people with a disability and older people who, she says “face a lot of the same barriers and issues around access and inclusion.”

Despite their different political persuasions, there is a common narrative that runs through the experiences of these women. They are all hard-working, accomplished, and multifaceted.

They all value community and being professional. Perhaps this reflects the experience of serving their political apprenticeships in a political town: they would all come to the Legislative Assembly with well-honed skills. But as Veronica says, the challenge for them now is convincing other people of that. “It’s like the biggest job screening process you could ever put yourself though!” she says.

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Zoe Pleasants

Zoe is local writer who moved to Canberra in 2003 for a job in the public service. Once she got here she set about uncovering what this town has to offer, and found that a great way to do this is by writing about it. Over the years Zoe has developed a keen interest in Canberra’s burgeoning arts scene and loves watching a locally written play, or listening to a home-grown musician. Zoe is also raising her three young kids to be proud Canberrans which involves much bike riding, skiing and listening to SAFIA. More about the Author

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