THE SYDNEY METROPOLITIAN electorate of Wentworth is both affluent and very diverse – geographically much of it hugs Sydney Harbour.
The current Liberal Party incumbent is Dave Sharma, who won the seat back from independent MP Kerryn Phelps at the 2019 election.
Sharma bills himself as a moderate, but his voting record belies that.
Earlier MPs for Wentworth were former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and liberal opposition leader John Hewson.
Now Allegra Spender, a dynastic Liberal Party blue blood, is standing as one of those ‘Voices of’ centre right independents who reflect a dissident, out of Parliament wing of the Liberal Party, now under Prime Minister Scott Morrison comprehensively captured by the hard right.
Margo Kingston spoke with Allegra Spender for the #TransitZone.
Margo Kingston: Thank you so much for agreeing to have a chat Allegra.
Allegra Spender: Absolute pleasure Margo. Great to be here.
Margo: So there you are in isolation with COVID instead of on the campaign trail – what a start you’ve had! How’s the COVID isolation experience and the illness been for you?
Allegra: I feel I’ve got away pretty lightly with COVID itself, in the sense I haven’t been too unwell. I’d love to be out there on the campaign trail – I’m still able to meet a lot of people online but I can’t wait to get back out there and meet more people face to face.
Margo: What is your assessment of the performance of the Federal and New South Wales governments with this Omicron wave disaster.
Allegra: I think my personal experience reflects what a lot of the community has felt through this time, and it’s a deep frustration. When we were first exposed we were a five person household and had four tests and didn’t know how to get – really struggled to get any more. So that was a real challenge for us. And I know from listening to other people (that) there’s a lot of concern about vulnerable older parents or other people in the community who you want to stay connected to, but you’re very wary of seeing because of not being able to assess whether you have COVID or not.
Similarly you’re trying to get the kids’ vaccinations for the start of school. Same thing, I had to get (relatives) to do all the call arounds of all the local pharmacies and GPs just to try and get somebody in there, because all the typical ones we tried they just weren’t there. So I think there’s a lot of frustration in the community, particularly about the Omicron handling.
Speaking to some aged care providers this week, I think some of the greatest concern (is) where aged care workers are not able to have the rapid antigen tests that they need, so their workforces are actually being really hard hit in a time that they’re really stretched already. So these are some of the concerns that the community has.
Margo: I asked Twitter if they had any questions for you and one question was, what’s your thinking on how much reform the aged care system needs? What’s your feeling about what needs to happen broadly, to fix this disaster?
Allegra: There’s been a Royal Commission into aged care. And I think that’s really appropriate, and the big work ahead of us is making sure those things are actually implemented. And I think that’s extremely important.
Again, I was talking to someone this week about the aged care sector, but also the sector that supports not just those within homes, but also those support services for people whether they’re in their homes not in an aged care setting, like Meals on Wheels. There’s a lot of reform still needed there to make sure that those people providing those services are doing that in a safe way but also recognising the full value of what they provide – and they can do that in a sustainable way as the charities and organisations they are.
So there’s a lot to be reformed in aged care. The pandemic has highlighted that this is an incredibly important part of the community and they need to get good care.
Margo: Would you support the planned application to the Fair Work Commission to lift the base wages of aged care workers so that there’s some semblance of proper worth for that work? I saw a story last night that checkout people get more. I did a nursing degree for a little while and I’ve seen it firsthand – the physical work is huge, the emotional work is huge. And it’s 22 bucks an hour Allegra.
Allegra: This is something that I have been talking to the sector about. You see a lot of the people who work in that sector (are) women, and this is another factor in terms of women in the caring sectors are not well paid at all. Those costs are generally borne or somewhat dictated by the government. So I support that we reflect on whether we’re supporting them enough, because these workers are going to be more and more important to our community as we age, so it’s really important that we look at that.
Margo: You grew up surrounded by New South Wales Liberal Party politics. Your dad was the member for North Sydney and a Minister in the Fraser government. What is your take on what is going on now with the implosion factionally, with a direct hit at Morrison by someone in his own Cabinet at his reset? What’s your feeling about the underlying tensions that are producing this effect?
Allegra: Yeah, that’s a great question. Look, I think the major concern is that the party has lost – is losing touch with what the voters are concerned about and they’re going in on themselves with their power struggle within the Party itself. What voters are so bored of and cannot be bothered with is hearing about who’s trying to roll who and what part of the faction is trying to get power from others. It’s just irrelevant.
What we’re trying to focus on is what is important for Australians, and how to lead the best government that you can, and they’re completely distracted – that sense that focus on the party and their own performance is more important than actually what they’re doing across the government.
Margo: Do you think it’s all about personal power struggles and factions, or do you think there are deeper issues concerning – what does the Liberal Party stand for? What does it believe in? Is it correct for me to suggest that there is a fundamental battle of ideas going on between people who believe in liberalism and people who don’t?
Allegra: I think the Liberal Party are probably the best people to answer that, but certainly from the outside I would say that a lot of voters have actually asked me this very question – what does the Liberal Party stand for? Because they felt the Liberal Party stood for progressive open social values and fairly conservative economic values…
You look at Fraser’s approach to refugees, for example, versus the current Liberal Party’s approach to refugees, and they are worlds apart. So I think there is a lot of confusion there in the community about what they’re really standing for.
You look at the budget blowout – we’re about to hit $1 trillion worth of debt. And a lot of that was really on train before COVID. And so I think there’s a great deal of questioning about what is the Liberal Party standing for, and I don’t think that the current Liberal Party at the federal level is articulating that.
Margo: This brings me to another Tweep question. What is your position on the Biloela family and do you think that refugees who’ve been in detention for nine years should be released now?
Allegra: Absolutely. As a parent you go, you have one child left in detention – what on earth can you possibly do? He’s a forklift driver, he could be out there when we’ve got skill shortages making a contribution to the community, but of course you need your children and your family to be united.
I was literally talking to the Australian Asylum Seeker Resource Centre earlier today about these very issues. My position is that arbitrary, indefinite detention is a blot on Australia. People who are refugees under the UN definition of refugees are locked up indefinitely – that’s a terrible blight, and it’s absolutely unacceptable. I appreciate it takes time to process refugees, but arbitrary, indefinite detention is absolutely a blot on Australia.
Margo: I’d like to get to a personal promise that the PM made voters of Wentworth at the 2018 by election, which is that he would urgently repeal the law that allows private schools to expel students for being gay. That was October 2018. Looks like the Religious Discrimination bills committees are reporting – there’s clearly a big split in the party. What do you expect the current Liberal MP to do on this matter? Do you think he should cross the floor if the Religious Discrimination Bill is introduced without the repeal of that gay kids law?
Allegra: He absolutely should. I think the the law as it stands does not protect students and also educators (and) unless they repeal that there’s absolutely no way that the Religious Discrimination Bill should get any support from from the local member. I think he needs to be really clear on the priorities of this community and say this is the absolute minimum that the community expects. There are other concerning issues with that bill, but that is the absolute minimum.
Margo: The other big one that Morrison faces when Parliament resumes soon is the Federal Integrity Commission bill – he is refusing to even introduce his weak bill at the moment because it seems that, again, moderate MPs are almost getting to the stage where they oppose that Bill and work in the Parliament to beef it up. Where are you at with that, and what would you expect again, your Liberal MP for Wentworth to do on this matter?
Allegra: Look, you saw Bridget Archer before Christmas cross the floor to debate Helen Haines’ bill, (and) the bill that independent MP Helen Haines has put forward regarding federal integrity is a really solid one. It (meets) the community’s expectations in terms of integrity – things like having public hearings, and a wide scope of corruption…
We’ve got the courts to deal with criminal activities, it’s actually the broader corruption that the community is just so sick of that we don’t want to see in the federal parliament. So I fully support Helen Haines’ bill and I think the government’s bill is woefully inadequate. So again, if these are truly moderate liberals these are the values that they should be standing up for.
Margo: Someone said to me who’s in another campaign that a candidate announces and walks into a campaign office and you’ve got to work out the structure, the process and the implementation at the same time. Could you just take me through your experience as a businesswoman walking into a grassroots organisation filled with volunteers? How has that been and where is your structure at and how are you coping with this incredible experiment?
Allegra: Look it has been quite the experience. Particularly before Christmas, I was still the CEO of the Australian Business Community Network… So doing that particularly at the start when I was still running one organisation and trying to kick off another one was quite the challenge.
We’ve just been overwhelmed with support from volunteers, so a lot of the work is actually trying to work out how you use these fabulous skills and capabilities of people in Wentworth, and to the greatest effect, and how do you bring different groups of volunteers together?
Because that’s a key, key, key focus for us. Actually they’re more than volunteers. They’re really advocates in the community for the campaign and for change, and so getting and supporting them and giving them what they need is absolutely vital.
At the same time you’ve got media and social media and then policy, so there’s lots of different moving parts. But I’m very grateful that we’ve got so many people who’ve been committed to having an independent in Wentworth from the start, because they’ve really helped bring some of that structure in t the beginning and we’re still evolving it every single day.
Margo: Your policy framework – I’ve spoken to a number of candidates who’ve said right, the kitchen tables and all that stuff is the starting point, and as a candidate, I’m actually exploring the issues and discussing the issues and working it out as I go with the community. What’s your policy formulation structure and how is that working so far?
Allegra: It’s very similar to me in the sense that I’m listening a lot to what the community tells me. The other piece I’m really doing is seeking out experts, because with any policy issue these things are deep and often well studied. And so if you talk to a range of experts with different perspectives – you’re not trying to just have one perspective – that’s when you get the best policy formation. But at the same time understanding what’s most important from the community. So the communities are feeding into policy in terms of their perspectives, but also in terms of saying ‘These are the policies that we want you as the independent to really be standing up for Wentworth’. And that’s an evolving piece.
Margo: You’ve talked about an ‘open economy’ and all that sort of thing. Where are you at with your climate change policy?
Allegra: Climate has been one of the key things I’ve stood for, and I’ve been an advocate for renewable energy for almost 10 years. So that’s one that we’ve started with. So we’re really in the finalisation of the finer detail of that policy. Certainly the headline for me is that we know from an environmental point of view that the next 10 years is vitally important. At the same time, the next 10 years is a huge economic opportunity for Australia to be out in front in terms of becoming the clean energy superpower that we can be.
So we’ve got to stop the governments holding the economy back and also harming the environment by not taking action. So one of my first climate pieces is to say we need to absolutely have a more ambitious target by 2030 – at least 50% if not further,
Margo: I read a really interesting tweet from a regional member of the Australian Conservation Foundation recently which said, ‘Look, country and regional people are just as concerned as city people, but they’ve got a lot more to lose on the ground in some cases so how about a transition plan?’
Are you thinking about that to try and avoid this really counterproductive city versus country thing that the Coalition’s promoting on climate change?
Allegra: Absolutely, and I really reject that city versus country perspective. I think back to the bushfires in 2019, and how the entire Australian community was concerned and got behind the regions wherever those bushfires were affecting people the most. I think that a completely false dichotomy, the Country versus City.
I think there will be a lot of transition that needs to happen in regional areas, but there’s also a lot of opportunity in regional areas in terms of Australia’s transition.
And so I think we need a decent plan. We need a plan for how we are going to phase out coal in Australia? How are we going to phase in renewables, and how’s that going to affect community by community and make sure we are supporting each community through those transitions.
Margo: I’ve had quite a few dealings with Suzy Holt in Groom – there she is in Toowoomba surrounded by the Darling Downs food bowl and coal and gas – also other candidates in rural areas who want to participate in the transition but it’s going to take a fair bit to make that happen.
So I was just wondering if you’d consider sort of having a chat with a couple of the other Indies in the regional areas to get their input into your process. I know that sounds a bit weird, but would you consider something like that?
Allegra: Of course I would – absolutely. Because when I think about the people of Wentworth, (they) are a very fair group of people. They’re very compassionate. They see the economic opportunity, but nobody wants to leave people behind in this, and so I’d be very happy to be connected with those different people, and certainly will seek some of those people out myself to get the feedback into my transition plan.
Margo: I published a piece about reporting Indi this morning, and it was the day after the (2013) election and I finally asked Cathy – what’s the personal journey been like? And she talked about – ‘I read Jane Fonda and when you’re 60 you’ve got to work out your next phase’. I’m just so interested in how on earth a person like you – a private person, very successful, very well connected – just thought ‘I think I might stand and have shit thrown at me’ – which it already is, as you know.
Allegra: It’s been a real journey. I did not start 2021 thinking anything like this was on the cards.
It was a very hard decision to want to do this, to say yes. I had a job I absolutely adored, I have a young family. I’ve been barely on social media for the last 10 years, unlike the current situation, and I had an Italian passport. And so there were all these different things that were like, ‘Oh, do I really want to do this’”
But at the same time, I looked at this and it comes back to what a lot of people said to me in the community – it’s really important. We don’t have infinite time to just, you know, hope that the Coalition is going to sort themselves out on climate, hope that the Parliament is going to sort themselves out on integrity. We just actually don’t have any more time. It’s a time to act and really act now…
I said to the people who were encouraging me to do it , ‘Look, you know, just find the best person’. And they kept saying, ‘Sorry, we think that’s still you’.
And that was why I decided to do it, because I thought, ‘This is not the path that I was planning or choosing, but at the same time I think it is really, really, really important’. And so when something is really important I just can’t stand by and say, ‘Sorry, good luck but I’m not willing to do that personally’.
Margo: I might be wrong, but it struck me when I met you at your launch that you were quite a shy person, quite a private person. How has it been actually been, going, ‘Okay, now I’m public going out there for all and talking to everyone’. How has that been for you on a psychological level I suppose? It’s a step out, isn’t it?
Allegra: It is a step out. The way that I’ve worked this out is we’re keeping our kids completely out of this. I’ve got young kids, and my husband – we’ve agreed that it’s probably the best way for us to keep the family completely out. They’re too young to be able to make their own decision about participating or not, and I’ve got a huge amount of support for that.
And I’m – I wouldn’t call myself an extrovert but I really like understanding people and I like listening to people. And so the campaigning itself I’ve really enjoyed, because it’s really a chance just to say, ‘What’s important to you?’ ‘What would you like your local member to be standing for’? I think that’s a very rich conversation for me – and then it’s talking to experts across the community about what is urgent for this country. So that gives me a lot of joy. Pure social chit chat I’m not so good at, but understanding what’s important to people I absolutely adore.
Margo: One other question from a Tweep. At the Wentworth byelection Licia Heath stood as an independent and her platform was, hey, there’s a lot of people that aren’t rich and in Wentworth there’s no public school for them. I wonder where you’re placed on that?
Allegra: I worked the last four years as a CEO of a not for profit which worked with 200 government schools around Australia in low socio economic areas. Public education is absolutely vital to every single community and it’s vital to Wentworth. And a lot of people have come to me personally (about this). I think there was a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald the other day saying the average Year 12 fees for a Wentworth private school are $35,000. They’re the highest in Sydney, and it is out of reach of a huge number of people in Wentworth. We need access to excellent public education as well as choices that people want to make in private education. We’ve got one (public) high school, the Rose Bay Secondary College, and it’s a great school but it’s crammed and it’s in one part of the electorate.
So I’m a very staunch advocate for a second public high school in Wentworth. I think this is a time for everybody to reflect on what is important to them and whether the people representing them in Canberra are standing for what is important to them.
Margo: I have heard it said that you have a privileged life that doesn’t connect with ordinary people doing it a bit tougher. What’s your answer to that?
Allegra: Wow. Look I know I’ve been very, very lucky in my upbringing, and I don’t take that for granted…
Mum was an immigrant, came to Australia when she was very young in 1950, left school at 14, when she came she didn’t speak English, but then became a very successful person in her own right in establishing her own fashion business and everything that she achieved.
And she had a very strong view about myself and my siblings – that we needed to make sure we took nothing for granted, that we knew what hard work was, and that we knew that the world didn’t owe us anything – that we we had to make our mark on the world we had to make our contribution.
While I know I had a very lucky upbringing, that experience of working with Mum, and I worked in her business since I was 10 years old every single school holiday, the typical experience, but it was a very informative one.
And that’s what I took from her. and so that’s how I approached things, to go ‘I may have had a very lucky upbringing but it’s my job to make a contribution’. And that really has driven me in a lot of my choices.
So for instance I spent almost a year working in Kenya for a not-for-profit about how you help rural businesses help lift people out of poverty? Or I spent the last four years running the Australian Business Community Network, which is a network of 200 low socio economic schools around Australia and 40 big businesses. Working very closely with their principals and business leaders to say, ‘Not everyone gets the privilege that I have got, but young people in Australia across the spectrum have so much to bring, how do we make sure that every kid wherever they’ve come from, has the best chance of having a successful and life and a purposeful life in their own minds?’
Those are some of the messages I took from my mum and that’s how I’ve really tried to bring it into my own experience.
Margo: We saw in the recent North Sydney poll that the Liberals did that they are going to go in very hard about chaos, instability, hung parliament, you know, very hypothetical. If you were in a position where your vote could help determine who the government was, what would be your approach to making that decision?
Allegra: Look, I would start by what is most important to the community, and make sure that whatever Government was forming had the best chance of getting what was important to the community. And certainly people talk to me about climate change, absolutely, the environment as well as the economic risk.
People talk to me about waste, about the concern that the Government’s wasting money – we’re spending $4 million per person to keep, for example, refugees on Nauru – the sports reports and those things. People have a real concern about government waste and the burden we’re putting on young people in the future.
And people talk a lot about integrity, saying ‘We want a Parliament we can trust, we want transparency, we want accountability of our politicians’.
So those would be the issues that I would be standing for in any sort of negotiations or discussion.
Margo: And this is the fundamental dilemma, isn’t it? Because if you put to the government, ‘I’ll give you confidence and supply if you give the people a strong Federal Integrity Commission and real action on climate change’, there is a distinct possibility that the Coalition would say no.
So what do you do? Do you take it back to your constituents? Do you work it out for yourself? What would you do?
Allegra: Look, I think that you work on, again, what you have learned through the process of talking to your community over this whole period. And at the same time it’s also how you vote regardless of who’s in power – as independents you get to vote on every single piece of legislation that goes through the House. Independents, as Zali and Helen have shown, can put forward great and very solid and purposeful legislation into the House as well, and build their own coalitions to pass pieces – that’s how the Medivac bill got passed, driven by Karen Phelps.
So I think that’s the opportunity, not only in terms of who actually gets to form government, but how you as independents can actually really drive legislation.
I’ve seen some of the push polling about instability and pieces like that, and I always say, ‘Look, I’m a builder, I’ve run small business I’ve run different coalitions. I’m someone who likes to bring people together and get the best outcome balancing the different factors that people have.
So for me, whatever happens my job is to be constructive, to create a very stable government and stable environment and make sure that we can get done what is most important to the Australian people.