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Friendship across party lines

Emma Macdonald

What are the chances that two brothers would date two women who would go on to be elected to the ACT Assembly – but would represent opposing sides of politics?

In Canberra, it turns out those chances are high. And that is the story of Tara Cheyne and Elizabeth Lee.

In early 2016 – an ACT election year – each had made the momentous decision to devote her respective talents to representing the people of Canberra – Tara for the ALP and Elizabeth for the Canberra Liberals.

Tara had decided to move from her role as President of the Belconnen Community Council to run for a seat in Ginninderra.

Elizabeth, a former lawyer, had meanwhile set her sights on the seat of Kurrajong.

Despite entirely different party affiliations and electoral boundaries, the pair were destined to meet as a result of their respective relationships.

Now you might think it would have been an awkward first meeting given both Tara and Elizabeth hold true to the values of two parties who have fought valiantly to overthrow each other for the entirety of Australia’s modern political history.

Not these two.

They met, they chatted, they liked each other, they became friends, they stayed in touch, they became politicians and today, as they sit opposite each other in the Legislative Assembly, they remain firm friends.

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Elizabeth Lee and Tara Cheyne.

“We met for the first time at Whisky Live at the UC,” recalled Tara.

“There was no judgement by any means and I had actually admired Liz from afar as someone who was smart and genuine and who I thought was going to be a real asset to politics no matter the party.”

“We had a pretty powerful connection given we had a lot of common ground, and we both wanted to make a difference in our own way.”

Also, it was totally therapeutic for the two to share some of the more “interesting” stories of campaigning in the ACT and door-knocking complete strangers for days on end through a long and bleak winter.

According to Tara, “it is such a strange thing to do, to stand at a shopping centre with photos of yourself being a candidate and trying to engage complete strangers. Few people could really understand it so it was really good to share our experiences together and we built up a lot of trust that way.”

“Yes it was a bit of a psychological release and we asked each other a lot of questions about what do you say in this situation, or what do you do when this happens?” Elizabeth said.

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Canberra Liberals Member for Kurrajong, Elizabeth Lee. Photo: Martin Ollman

At the very least, they had a lot of laughs.

On Election day, Elizabeth texted Tara good luck and Tara texted back the same wishes, remarking on Elizabeth’s good grace to have been so thoughtful.

As the ACT elected a majority of women for the first time, both Tara and Elizabeth won their respective seats. There were celebrations all around.

They both amassed significant brand recognition during the campaign and were touted as having leadership potential.

Psephologist Malcom McKerras predicted Elizabeth would be the next female Liberal Chief Minister while Tara was almost immediately promoted to Government whip.

Through those heady first days, they maintained their friendship – Tara mouthing “nice dress” to Elizabeth when they took their seats in the chamber for the first time.

They have been careful to maintain a professional distance in their conversations regarding policy and politics.

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Tara Cheyne, ALP Member for Ginninderra. Photo: Martin Ollman

“We are not colluding nor are we undermining each other –  we have a strong and supportive friendship,” said Tara.

“But we have also been elected by the people of Canberra and we have a job to do. Ultimately, we are both professionals,” said Elizabeth.

Neither woman can predict the sorts of strains the friendship may come under while their political careers progress. It’s still early days and both are determined to listen and learn in the Assembly while they find their feet.

But they have considered it may not always be so straightforward. What if they both move into leadership positions? What if they get the same portfolio and have to argue directly with each other from opposite political sides?

“Well, that’s the thing about this place, it never really gets reported but the vast majority of the work that goes on here is done collaboratively and there is not as much combat as you would think,” said Elizabeth.

“It could be a little bit tense if we ever had to argue against each other in the chamber, but I also think we are both professionals and it’s about the policy, not the person,” said Tara.

Their personal political philosophies are closer than you might think despite being on opposing teams. Tara is a member of the ALP’s Right faction, while Elizabeth’s political views are moderate centre right.

“We haven’t hit any big policy disagreements so far,” said Elizabeth.

“I really think it is possible to be true to our politics but remain friends,” said Tara.

Meanwhile, they are still in regular contact outside of work hours, as much as their busy schedules allow. And it’s always reassuring to know that in those crazy late-night sittings, a friend is also in the building.

Feature image: Martin Ollman

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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