An Interview with Kate Ellis
Kate Ellis is a former Labor MP, starting her political career in 2004 at just 27 years old. She’s served as a minister in a variety of portfolios, and recently ended her time as member for Adelaide in the recent federal election. Kate is a Flinders University alumnus, editing Empire Times in 1999 and then serving on student council as general secretary. In March, current ET editor James Watson sat down with Kate to talk about the magazine, politics, and what she hopes to do next.
What was it like being at Flinders and editing Empire Times? Has that experience helped you in later life?
It was a bit funny because I started off being very anti student politics. Every year when there were student elections I would kind of grumble and… actually in some ways the way I got into politics was because I was really thinking about a career in journalism and I wanted to edit the student newspaper. And of course we had to run for election in order to do that and I guess in some ways that’s how I became involved in the student’s association. But once I was there covering the issues of the day and what was going on at the university, what was going on with government decisions affecting universities, then that’s when I realised that I was actually really passionate about all those issues. So I think editing Empire Times helped me in a number of ways. One, in many ways it led to me becoming politicised, but also it made me realise that I’d be a horrible journalist and I had to think of something else to do.
Why did you choose to get involved with politics? Why specifically join the Labor party?
Well, I chose to get in involved with politics because I’ve always been passionate about education and access to education. And so my first year at Flinders was the year the Howard government were elected and that’s when they announced a whole load of cuts to not only university funding but also student support and I was just really passionately of the view that anyone who has the ability and the desire should be able to go on and study and it shouldn’t depend on your background or your parents’ wealth. My mum has been a public school teacher my whole life so I’ve always been really passionate about education. And then I guess once you get involved with one issue you open your eyes to a whole load of other issues as well.
So was it a reaction to the Howard government that made you join the opposition?
I think that my values line up with the Labor Party. I believe in strong public education, strong public health system, looking after the community, not focusing on just the individual. It’s a bit interesting, my father died when I was a teenager and it wasn’t until I was elected I had all these people saying ‘you’re your father’s daughter’ and I said ‘what are you talking about?’ and they said that he was a huge Labor supporter. And I didn’t know that because we didn’t talk about politics, but I think it’s just the values that you’re brought up with and mine line up with the Labor party.
What do you consider your biggest achievements during your time in politics?
I think there were some big reforms that I was really fortunate to get to introduce and see through as a minister. Particularly reforms of early childhood and how we view the child care sector. But I actually think the things I’m proudest of are… [when] people come through this door and they’re having a problem with the NDIS that’s cut off some sort of support they desperately need, and you get to step in and make some phone calls or write some angry letters and make some demands and fix it and it actually changes their life. Or I’ve had people sit at this table and tell me about the domestic violence they’re experiencing but they feel trapped and don’t know where to go and you can connect them with services. That’s actually the stuff I’m proudest of, and it’s not going to ever been in a newspaper or get any headlines but that’s the really important stuff about our jobs. It’s the thing I’ll probably miss the most, it’s pretty rewarding and you can change people’s lives.
As a woman in politics, and having been Minister for the Status of Women for a time, how do you think you’ve improved things for women in politics and women in Australia generally?
I think that every woman in politics has made it easier for there to be more. I used to think that even though we had some women in politics you had to fit a certain mould and you had to be a certain age, of a certain background and experience. And so I think each time we elect someone who doesn’t fit that mould you actually make it easier for there to be a diversity in the women that come through. So I look at the parliament now and we have indigenous women, we have a Muslim woman - this is all in the Labor party - lesbian women, we have a whole lot of different women and all different ages and different backgrounds. So I think that’s a good thing. In terms of being the minister I had the absolute privilege of introducing the first ever national plan to reduce violence against women and children, and that’s still going today.
You were also the youngest person to be a government minister (30), beating Paul Keating’s record (31), what was that like? Was there any adversity you had to overcome being a young person there?
I think that you get underestimated a lot, and I think you have to work a bit harder to prove yourself. And that has its pros and cons. I think that particularly when I first became a minster I was the minister for sport and it was a particularly blokey portfolio, especially back then. I was so excited to call together the heads of 45 Australian sports so I could introduce myself and have a chat with them, and I remember standing up and starting my speech and looking around and realizing that I was actually the only woman in the whole room. So I think that being young and being a female was a bit confronting for some people. But I also think that it means that in some ways you stand out and are a bit different and have you own niche as well. So there’s been pros and cons to all of that.
So after this election you’re leaving politics, why is that?
I’ve just made the decision that after fifteen years it doesn’t really work for my life anymore. If Labor wins the election then I would be a cabinet minister, and having served as a minister previously I know what it’s like. It’s not just the 20 weeks you spend in Canberra but it’s also traveling all around every state and territory, speaking at conferences, meeting the stakeholders… you’re away more than you’re home and I guess my life’s changed. I have two young children, two older step-children… it just seemed too hard and I just really want to spend more time with them... I don’t really know what the plan is next, I’ve only got a few weeks to think about that now. I’ll have a little break and see what I come up with.
So you’re not really sure on a direction yet?
No, I think I just want to focus on the job that I’m doing at the moment for the next few weeks until the elections called and I’m ousted – send back my office keys and the like – and yeah I’ll have a little bit of a break for a few weeks or so and hopefully come up with something.
Why did you go to Flinders? What did you study, and how was your overall experience there?
I went to Flinders, first of all, because my mother decided to buy a house at Hallet Cove and I didn’t have a driver’s license and I really wanted to do journalism but it was at Magill and I couldn’t see myself getting from Hallet Cove to Magill every day, so Flinders became the convenient option. And I studied international studies, and I’m so incredibly glad I ended up going to Flinders because it was just the best environment. It was the - it sounds like such a cliché from an old person – but it was the best years of my life, I made my best friends that I still have today and I love Flinders. And I wouldn’t want to have gone anywhere else.
Do you have any regrets from your time in politics?
I’m not really into regrets. I think there’s things that if I’d had my time again I’d probably do differently. I would have, for example, not left my maiden speech until the very last minute to write. It was very stressful. And there’s a whole lot of things in hindsight you’d do differently or perhaps go harder on or an issue you’d pick up and run with more. But I think you learn from all those things. So no, I don’t really have regrets.
What did that involve?
It came from the prime minster and all the premiers agreeing that they wanted to make domestic violence a priority issue and I was the minister at the end of that process. So it involved one; focusing on prevention, not just focusing on services and helping people at the end, but actually focusing on changing attitudes. Running programs about respect in schools, amongst a whole different rage of people, so focusing in prevention. Focusing on changing culture and having a look at where there were gaps in these services. So that’s pretty great. That’s a pretty important first step, I was really lucky to have got to play a small part in that. We also set up the workplace gender equality agency, which I think is really important in looking at how we can change cultures within our workplaces and make sure that we’re promoting pay equity and a whole range of other things.
Do you think there still are difficulties for women in politics?
I think there are. I think that, not trying to get party political about this, but I think the culture in the Labor party has changed. After the next election we’ll have 50% women for the first time ever in the federal parliament on the Labor side, which is pretty huge. And I think that once we’ve got more and more women coming through the culture changes. What acceptable changes, the kind of jokes, the kind of blokey atmosphere, the kind of stereotyping… all changes. But we’ve got the flip side happening on the other side where their numbers of women are actually going backwards, and that’s really sad to see because it does lead to a culture where there’s been a number of women on the other side who’ve pulled out because there’s bullying, because women aren’t respected enough, aren’t promoted, aren’t listened to. So yeah there’s a lot of change that still needs to happen.
You’ve also been the Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth (1/07/2013 – 18/09/2013), Minister for Employment Participation (14/12/2011 – 18/09?2013) and Minister for Sport (3/12/2007 – 24/06/2010). Can you tell me a bit about your time in each of those portfolios?
I guess as the minster for early childhood and childcare, we’d been elected on a platform of making some really big changes and trying to change the way the childcare sector was views as kind of a babysitting service as opposed to being viewed as the first form of education and a part of the education system. So we introduced huge changes for the first time, introducing national standards on the quality of services, a national curriculum for babies and young people, we massively increased the amount of support we were giving to parents, and we introduced federal funding so all four-year-olds could access kindergarten. So there were some really big changes which are really important when you look at the research and the evidence that shows that the first five years of a child’s life are the most important and that it sets them up for the rest of their life. So it just seems like the smartest investment we could make is getting that right so I’m really passionate and really proud of a whole lot of those reforms.
I guess as the minister for sport which is where I started off, well I got to play a part in the ill-fated world cup bid for Australia to host. But that was a pretty eye opening experience for me as well and seeing how some of those big international sporting bodies operate was pretty interesting. I was really proud to fight for, and get to deliver, the biggest increase in funding for sport in Australia’s history while I was minster as well. I’m actually a big believer in the importance of sport in terms of building communities and having a positive impact. So that was pretty great.
The employment participation… I was the minister in that portfolio during and following the global financial crisis, so it was really important that where we saw unemployment skyrocket across the world and we knew that there would be people who might fall out of the workforce who might never get back in. We really put a focus in trying to support people so they weren’t out of the workforce for a very long time, introduce some new wage subsidies, and that’s been really important so we’re not still seeing the consequences of the downturn in the global economy.
Interview conducted by