Former UWA student and current ALP member for the federal seat of Perth since 2013, Alannah MacTiernan has lived and served at the local, state and federal level in Australian politics. This February, she announced she would not be recontesting her seat at the next federal election. MacTiernan talks with Brad Griffin on her time within the ALP ranks, her key battles, and what it means and what it takes to be a woman occupying a powerful leadership role in a field still disproportionately represented by men. Oh, and there’s a lovely aside where the interview is briefly interrupted by Ms. Peggy Wilkinson too.
BG: So let’s start off with talking about your time in state politics – things you’re proud of, things you could have done better, and the factors that ultimately led to your decision to resign to contest Canning in 2010.
AM: I was in state politics for 17 years, got involved in a whole range of areas, and had the opportunity to really make some major changes and contribute to making the state and our communities a better place. Everybody knows about building the Mandurah rail line, but we always saw that as an urban shaping project, not just a railway line. We did a lot more than that in every major town – thinking “what is it we can do in this town to really turn around its economic fortunes?” With places like Geraldton we put together a whole suite of projects – including deepening the harbour and pulling up the old railway line to develop a direct rail-road link into the town, which transformed it into a much more liveable place. In terms of the transport and planning agenda, we made a big effort to achieve a cultural change within the government agencies aimed at getting them to understand the sustainability issues and letting them know that these were real priorities for government. We wanted real stuff and I think that was enthusiastically embraced. Unfortunately I think when we left, a lot of that went backwards.
BG: So what were the key factors that motivated you to contest Perth in 2013?
AM: Well the primary one was concern over the direction where a person like Tony Abbott might take this country – particularly his approach on climate change. It was just so deeply appalling that in this day and age we would have a leader of this country who didn’t actually fundamentally understand how serious the problem was and is. Now, there’s always going to be a problem about whether or not people have got the political courage to do what is necessary to deal with this problem, but at least you’ve got to recognise there’s a problem. The fact that you had this person that was prepared to put this to his own political advantage, and who seemed to me to have no moral interest in taking the country forward – it was about politics as a blood sport. I wanted to do what I could to stop the march of ‘Abbottism’.
BG: Do you think Turnbull is taking more of a serious approach to climate change?
AM: I think clearly he is a different calibre of human being – he’s not a psychopath. I think it is deeply disappointing that he has not been prepared to make any radical changes in policy. There’s certainly a difference in tone, and that in itself is important. But it’s not enough. You really do have to have the guts to say we need to do stuff differently; and unbelievably it’s still official Liberal policy to dismantle the remaining architecture of our climate change response that we know Turnbull actually believes in, like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. So he’s clearly not doing enough. I don’t think that the demise of Abbott is the end of history, but at least it’s not the same craziness.
BG: I want to ask you about being as woman in politics. To what extent do you think sexism at a state and federal level is still holding back female politicians, and what’s your experience of this?
AM: To some extent being a female has been an advantage for me. I think there have been aspects of affirmative action that have helped me get pre-selection, not because I wouldn’t have got it on merit, but that it’s helped break down the ‘boys’ club’. I don’t believe affirmative action elevates women who are less meritorious; it means that people have to start recognizing that they’ve got to put women in.
BG: So what about a 50/50 quota?
AM: It’s a very interesting development, and I think it’s probably a good one; but it does mean that the party has to be prepared to go out, support women, and encourage a wide variety of women and be prepared to tolerate diversity of style and diversity of perspective.
BG: What words of advice would you have for women who are thinking of entering politics, and in terms of breaking down the ‘club’?
AM: Well first of all you have to be sure that you’ve got the skills and the knowledge to bring something to the table – just being a woman is not going to be enough. I would urge people, if you are serious about getting into politics, you must not just mix with a narrow social band. It is incredibly important to have a broad understanding of the community and acquire a range of skills in terms of knowledge of how our economy works, how our society works, what the big issues are. Enthusiasm is not enough; it has to be backed up with skills and experience. Work in the public and private sectors, and bring a wealth of diverse experiences to politics.
BG: Stephen Smith. He made his fateful bid for leadership of the WA party recently – what are your opinions on that? Did you have a good relationship with him? Did he talk to you at all about this?
AM: No, Stephen didn’t talk to me about this. I think from the statements I made when I had decided I was not going to recontest I made it very clear that I would not stand for any lower house seat of state parliament – again because I would not want to be seen to be destabilizing a leader who was doing well. I made it very clear that I thought we should all stand behind Mark McGowan given that he was actually kicking goals. So I would imagine that Stephen would have understood what my position was. There’s no doubt that there are people who saw Stephen’s abilities would have been utilized in the state parliament – and there might have been some case if Labor had not been able to cut through, and if Mark hadn’t been consistently cited as the preferred Premier. The talk of this started a couple of years ago and I think it wasn’t a wise thing to do, particularly given the last six years in federal politics where we’ve had coup after coup. Stephen of all people I guess would know that this has led to a great deal of toxicity in politics. And, just then the practicality of actually making that Campbell Newman scenario work in Western Australia was I think going to be massively difficult. But I do say this: Stephen recognized the situation pretty early in and made an extremely dignified retreat that I think will go a long way to ensuring that there will be no permanent damage to his excellent reputation.
BG: Could you shed some light on your decision not to re-contest Swan at the next election?
AM: If I had had the opportunities I’ve had in the past three years earlier on in my political career I would have been incredibly excited and invigorated by it. But I’m not going to be around federal parliament for ten years and for the sort of personal sacrifice that taking on the job involved, I felt that for this point in my life I needed to be doing more than I was doing. I was not in a faction and so I’ll move over and let someone that can start a political career and build up all those alliances and get themselves in the pecking order.
BG: So you mentioned you were not in a faction. Do you think that factions are more damaging than helpful in these sorts of terms?
AM: When WA became factionalised I joined the centre-left – which was the faction you joined when you didn’t want to be in a faction. From my experience, problems start to occur when factions become too rigid. I don’t think everything should be decided on purely factional grounds. And I have to say, just looking at what happened at the national conference last year, in terms of coming to common sense decisions in terms of policy – some of those factional boundaries have broken down in terms of sharing the spoils of office. I advise anyone coming in and going over to Canberra, particularly from Western Australia: join a faction. You don’t have to be too orthodox. And I think it’s interesting to know there are people in factions that don’t always toe the factional line on policy, and they are tolerated. I do think it’s very hard from here to operate outside a faction.
BG: So as you know I’m representing Pelican Magazine What other run-ins or experiences with pelicans have you had before, both in print and of the avian variety?
AM: The avian variety?
BG: Yeah, big ol’ birds. Had any bad experiences?
AM: No I’ve always felt extremely happy when I see pelicans.
AM: No I do, I do.
BG: They’re very majestic.
AM: They are very majestic, there’s a sort of wickedness about them, you know you bring to your experience of a pelican all these stories from children’s literature. I think it’s amazing when you’re driving up to UWA, and often you’ll see the pelicans sitting on the up on the lightpole. And it just tells you that birds are truly incredible, how they have adapted to the urban environment, how we have these incredible creatures that have totally learnt to live with human beings and with our engineering infrastructure. But I’m very pro-pelican, no bad experiences.
BG: I was fortunate enough to see you at Magnolias Late Night live during the 2016 Fringe Festival and there was a lot of talk about McDonald’s and KFC.
AM: I am not a McDonald’s fan, I don’t think it’s food. Do you know the founding story?
BG: No I don’t.
AM: Okay so you had this guy and he was a multi-mix salesman in Des Moines, Illinois. Anyhow he gets his biggest order ever from the McDonalds brothers –
[At this point in the interview, Alannah is stopped by an elderly lady by the name of Peggy Wilkinson].
AM: Hi, how are you going?
PW: Who are you going to get to replace you?
AM: There’s a guy called Tim Hammond.
PW: And what’s he do at the moment?
AM: He’s a lawyer
AM: But he’ll be good, he’ll be very good.
PW: Will we be able to get rid of this state government?
AM: I would imagine so. We’re very focused on that task, so I think we’ll do that. What’s your name darling?
PW: Peggy Wilkinson. I know Lisa. We just have to get rid of them.
AM: Well we’re very focused on doing that, through good policies. We’re working hard on that Peggy.
PW: Good. Goodbye.
AM: See you later Peggy, have a good day.
AM: Anyway so he gets this order for nine multi-mix. Now each multi-mix makes four milkshakes at one time. So he said they’re making 36 milkshakes at any one time if they want nine multi-mixers, this must be incredible. So he goes out to this place in California, and he said their burgers were richer, the meat was meatier, the chips were fatter, the milk was creamier than anything anyone else did, and he said, “What you guys have is absolutely incredible! I’m going to capture this!” And I’m thinking well, how did you end up with what you’ve got, like the little stringy chips? I always thought it was a tragedy – it’s just such a great founding myth. But, somewhere or rather, the whole thing that made the McDonald brothers does not seem to have translated into the current product.
BG: It is a great tragedy when you tell it to me like that.
AM: It is! It’s always so, when you think of how things can be seemingly turned on their head. But I really do like KFC, those 11 herbs and spices.
BG: So I wanted to know, who is the biggest louse in Australian politics, and why?
AM: Well I had a particular dislike for Tony Abbott. But in terms of the person whom I have the least regard for in the federal parliament, that would be Jamie Briggs.
BG: We actually published an article online on the website in January on the Jamie Briggs affair. I can send it through if you like?
AM: Yes, please. I was not surprised to hear this because he was nasty, he was misogynistic. Now I don’t say that easily about people, but he was a nasty piece of work, incredibly up himself, and so I don’t think it has been a disadvantage to public life that Jamie has been moved on.
BG: That’s a very diplomatic way of saying it.
AM: There’s an enormous hubris you can get when you’re in government and there is a certain type of person like Jamie that becomes incredibly arrogant. The public are incredibly smart how they detect things about people, and they detect that this is not a person whose motivations are good, so I think hubris brought him down. Sometimes you feel sorry for people that have had an incident, but maybe in this particular case I think there were underlying systemic attitude issues that were very evident in the parliament and in the way that he conducted himself.
BG: Yeah absolutely.
AM: So you wrote an article about him?
BG: One of our contributors for politics, Cailin Molinari wrote about the affair – the scandal and basically the sort of underlying culture of misogyny that helped create the situation as it exists.
AM: I would say that the last thing I would want you to think Brad is that that kind of behaviour is the predominant culture in the parliament because it’s not. But there are people – and in particular those people that were excited around Abbott – who were. Briggs was one of those; just a nasty smart ass, and I don’t think they do their party any good because the public actually sees them for what they are. But it’s not the prevailing culture. I couldn’t comment on the senate though.
BG: Elizabeth Quay. What do you think of the name, and would you propose an alternative? Do you think it’s representative of the state?
AM: I have supported the development of the Perth waterfront – we had indeed planned a similar thing and committed financially to it, and I think that we have to acknowledge that the Barnett government changed that somewhat, but there was much of the fundamental concept of developing a high energy space right in the heart of the city on the waterfront. But I cannot believe in this day and age that we would want to call our prime 21st century redevelopment after an ageing British monarch. It doesn’t encapsulate what Western Australia is about and what the vision for the 21st century is, and it makes you think you know there’s some powerful semiotics in this that. Have we got a leadership that are really focusing on where we’re going? I find it extraordinary – it’s embarrassing in Barnett’s attempt to ingratiate himself.
BG: I’ve been talking with quite a few people about a proposed different name for it, and we’ve come up with Derbarl Yerrigan.
AM: The name of the river.
BG: Yeah exactly, Derbarl Yerrigan Quay, would you support that?
AM: Well I do believe that there should be a name change, and I would like to see us have a really genuine community consultation about it, rather than it being ‘me’ saying what I think. Ultimately a decision would have to be made, but I think it would be very interesting to have a real community dialogue about what it could be called, and I think Derbarl Yerrigan is giving recognition to the name as part of the Swan River. This is being said, it’s not being disrespectful to the Queen – but the whole zeitgeist of our country is about equal opportunity for all and to me, monarchy is the most inappropriate symbol.
BG: Plans for the future, Alannah? What’s next?
AM: None really, at the moment. None really. We’re just going to sprint to the finish line and then we’ll see what happens then.
BG: Excellent, well I think that just about wraps it up. Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, thank you very much.
AM: Thank you.
Interview by Brad Griffin