Anne Aly is the current member for the federal seat of Cowan. She worked as a senior policy advisor in the public sector before completing a PhD studying audience constructions of terrorism. She took to a career in academia, having found a passion for writing, something she couldn’t pursue in the public sector. We had a chance to sit down with her and talk about her views on Australian anti-terror laws and women in parliament.

MIKE ANDERSON: How do you feel the current Australian anti-terror laws are working, from a policy perspective?

ANNE ALY: Australia has some of the broadest and far reaching anti-terror laws of any western country. When compared to countries like France and the US we haven’t seen a large-scale terrorist attack on our soil. About 7 years ago I wrote my first book looking at how countries define terrorism. Australia had this very narrow definition of terrorism, meaning it was quite specific. Saudi Arabia, which is known for its human rights abuses, have such a broad definition that any dissent against the monarchy can be classified as terrorism. Our laws are increasingly broad, taking away that specificity we had. You can argue how necessary they are, but my argument is that it’s all well and good to have hard law enforcement approached but they need to be balanced with prevention. Prevention works on the root causes.

Do you think the national discourse around de-radicalisation and counter terrorism are damaging to marginalised groups in our society?

We use de-radicalisation as this umbrella term, but with no real clarity as to what it is. In reality de-radicalisation does not work. I’ve not seen a program around the world that works. If somebody is radicalised to the point of being highly engaged and ready for violence it is extremely difficult to bring them back from there. The programs I’ve seen are 3 week courses, they get released and go straight back to Al-Shabaab. Well hello, if you’re releasing them back to the same environmental conditions, then of course they’re going to go back to the group that gave them meaning and security. We push for one line answers, it’s really damaging. Media and other commentators are highly complicit in this. Simplistic one liners like “they were radicalised online” only feed into a certain impression and perception, but do nothing to clarify how we address it. It creates a situation where we incorrectly focus on individual psychology, as if they were part of a cult. When really there’s a whole raft of other issues. Terrorism and violent extremism are also very much social phenomena. Simplistic answers and focusing solely on individual psychology are never going to work.

Is there any merit in having a minister for counter-terrorism?

There have been some talks to introduce something like what the US had, but we aren’t the US we don’t need a department of homeland security. We have agencies that work quite well together. I believe a year or two ago that we introduced the officer of the counter terrorism coordinator, who kind of oversees everything. I think that was a really good move. I’d like to see us do better at what we’re already doing, rather than introducing new structures that try to resolve the gaps.

What inspired you to run for the seat of Cowan with the Labor Party?

That’s a good question, I’d worked with both Liberal and Labor governments, and with governments overseas, but never had political aspirations of my own. At the end of 2015 I was at the height of my academic career, having been to on about 20 overseas trips in a single year. I remember attending Club de Madrid and the UN 3 weeks apart, leaving both thinking that nothing was going to change. I was going back to Australia, where nothing would change because there was no political will. I got a call from Labor about a week later asking me to run for the seat of Cowan. I asked family, and they all said I should go for it. I’d read about Noel Pearson saying he’d been asked to run 15 years earlier, and regretted not doing so. What if I did that thinking I could make more change from outside and regretted it? It’s really just a different way of trying to make the change I want to see.

At the last election we saw a fall in the number of women in parliament, how can we act to ensure there are more women in parliament?

The key point is getting women selected for safe seats. Even if there is a strong representation of women running, they’re often in marginal seats. Women of colour are often placed even lower. The thing we need to understand is that politics is not a meritocracy, you can have very talented people left on the backbench, that’s the reality of politics. I think we’re at a stage in world affairs where politics is struggling to attract good people. That said, I do believe we had a strong cohort of candidates in Labor. You’re asking someone to give up their career, which probably earns more, to be a politician, constantly scrutinised and working 7am to 10pm in Canberra.  Even though I wasn’t sure what to expect in becoming a politician it’s an honour to represent my electorate, I work hard to represent them. We need to rebuild the trust and respect for politics that people have before we can start making change. When we do that we make politics a noble profession, it becomes valuable and interesting. If we do that we’ll attract a more representative, higher calibre cohort. That said, I’m all for quotas, they’re great, but they need to be for a purpose and not just for the sake of a quota.

As a woman of colour, do you feel that you are in a position to encourage greater diversity in politics?

I hope so. When I was first elected people were telling me I was the first Muslim woman in parliament. Which was never something I’d had in front of mind. After I won my seat I had calls from mothers of diverse backgrounds, they told me they had always told their daughters they could be whatever they wanted, and thanking me for making it real for them. Last year I won an award from a magazine, I was their woman of the year, the theme was “disrupter”. At first I thought that I wasn’t a disrupter, but when I thought about it breaking the norm, it makes people stop and think, and that can be disruptive.

What advice would you give to young women that want to get into politics?

I would say learn what it’s about, volunteer, find out what it takes. There’s really two ways you can go, join a party, work your way through hoping to get preselected, or you can build a name for yourself and having something to bring in. That’s not to say those who come through the party have nothing to bring, they’re just two different options. I would also say contact someone already involved. I mentor some young people, they come in and work one day a week, I’ll mentor them, show them what this job is about, give them a taste. Also, follow your heart and get really good at that. People get into politics to make change, to give back, to add value. Politics isn’t the only way you can do that. Some routes can be even more effective. If making change is your passion, politics is one option, but not the only one.

As you know our magazine is called Pelican, have you ever had any interesting encounters with pelicans?

I’ve not had any encounters with Pelicans, though I do find them beautiful, but I did have a rather bad encounter with a Chicken. I’ve been scared of them ever since. I do love birds though, I have ceramic birds all around my house, I don’t keep real birds because I don’t like caging them.

Words By Mike Anderson

This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 1 HEAT