In the lead up to the Federal Election on 7 September 2013, Australian Women Online will be profiling women from the major political parties in both houses of Federal Parliament.
First up is Anna Burke, Federal Member for Chisholm (ALP) and Speaker of the House of Representatives. She campaigned for the introduction of the Do Not Call Register. She doesn’t agree with her party’s tough stance on asylum seekers, including the recently announced deal with PNG. But you won’t see Anna Burke crossing the floor of Parliament.
As a young girl Anna Burke and her sister would stand outside the auditorium at Chadstone Shopping Centre in Melbourne, selling fairy floss and popcorn during school holidays. That girl, never dreamed that one day she would become a Member of Federal Parliament, let alone the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Anna Burke was one of five children raised in a working class family where everyone had to pitch in to help mum and dad to make ends meet.
Speaking from her electoral office in Syndal, one of Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, Anna Burke, now 47, describes growing up in ‘downtown burbs ville’ otherwise known as Ashwood. With its mix of housing commission and low density housing, Ashwood’s main attractions were open spaces and yabbie fishing at Gardner’s Creek.
Her father, an electrician, supported his five children by opening up a news agency in the early hours of the morning before going to his day job at the Commonwealth Bank. On weekends, he took electrical call outs and worked in the drive-through bottle shop at the ‘local’ Matthew Flinders Hotel.
Anna’s mother, a kindergarten teacher, did casual replacements and studied while raising three girls and two boys. She later returned to work as a teacher-librarian. Her mother also baked cakes for the Burwood Boys’ Home while her father volunteered with St Vincent de Paul.
Anna Burke did her secondary schooling at the Presentation Covent at Windsor. She remembers the nuns who taught her as being “great feminists” and “there were some amazing role models” among them. She says her teachers instilled a sense of independence in her.
After graduating with an Arts degree in English Literature (with Honours) at Monash University. Anna Burke completed a Masters in Commerce at Melbourne University, before going to work for VicRoads in land acquisitions.
“It was good experience in how to make tough calls,” Anna Burke recalls. “It is quite traumatic telling someone ‘I’m going to take your house. You have no say in it’.”
Moving on to the industrial relations department of VicRoads, Anne Burke had to handle dismissing employees for fraud and negotiating with road workers over their much prized ‘dead dog allowance’ (for burying dog’s killed in car accidents).
Later as a national industrial officer with the Financial Sector Union, she observed the impact of redundancies on middle managers. But she proudly relates that in enterprise bargaining negotiations she was able to protect rostered days off and introduce maternity leave.
The impetus to join the Australian Labor Party came in 1986 after Anna Burke attended an International Year of Peace Conference in Melbourne. It was the era when activists were heady with thinking they could solve the world’s problems. But her optimism soured when extremists groups ensured the conference “ended in a brawl”.
“I thought, I could get despondent or I could try and change things,” said Anna Burke. “I could become involved in something where I could make an actual change”.
She chose to make that change by joining the ALP’s Ashwood branch becoming local delegate to the State Conference and to the Youth Conference, branch secretary and finally branch president. She also sat on several ALP policy committees.
“I’m a bit of an organiser – poll booth rosters, fund raisers, all the glamorous things.”
The proverbial tap on the shoulder to stand for ALP preselection came in 1996. But she failed to be selected. “It was horrible and I said I am never doing that again.”
Two years later she was asked to put her hand up again. Anna says she only did so because the party didn’t have anyone else to put up for preselection in the seat. “I was standing to wave the ALP flag. [But] I was not long married and we were renovating a house at Newport. I was [also] trying to get pregnant.”
Although she won preselection she didn’t really expect to win the seat. But win she did and Anna Burke has held the seat of Chisholm ever since.
At times she has found herself in conflict with party policy, particularly on offshore processing of asylum seekers, the Malaysian solution and now the PNG deal.
“I’ve spoken out against live animal exports and think that we should ban that practice. I’ve certainly been outspoken over the years on the asylum seeker debates across the board which is both my personal view and reflects very much what my electorate tells me,” said Anna Burke.
“I do stand as Anna Burke member of the Labor Party. I am passionate and proud about the Labor Party. But I think you have to follow your own conscience and represent your electorate.” She acknowledges “the party at times hasn’t been rapt about it.” But she doesn’t believe she has suffered any lost opportunities as a result.
“I think people respect that both in and out of the party, that you are prepared to speak up and not just toe the party line. [Asylum seekers] is a complex issue. It is not a black and white issue.” But Anna Burke is adamant she won’t be crossing the floor to vote against her own party.
In 2010, Anna became only the second woman in history to become Speaker of the House of Representatives. (the first was Joan Child in 1986). “I am fascinated by the process and I have been grateful for the opportunity to do it and to have been elected in my own right,” she said.
She is passionate about the role. It entails all aspects of management of the House from security to meeting visiting heads of state. She speaks of Parliament as “a magnificent institution” with Question Time governed by standing orders and precedent.
It is not difficult making rulings against fellow Labor Members, she says matter-of-factly. “I think it is fairly easy. The rules are the rules. “Ignoring procedure is discourteous to the Parliament and to the nation.”
“More difficult sometimes, is sitting through Opposition speeches when they are being outrageous about the Labor Party and I have to keep my mouth shut about policies. While in the chair, you can’t have an opinion and I don’t.”
Another downside is having comments flow into her office about her appearance, particularly hair. “I was channeling Justin Bieber for a while apparently” and one outfit, a striped jacket, “flared” on TV. Her unflinching response is: “I’m here to keep order in the house. They see it as daytime TV.”
Anna Burke had her first child (now 13) the year after she was first elected to Parliament and the second (now 11) in 2002. She was only the second Federal MP to carry through a pregnancy while still in the job.
“I went back to Parliament with a six week old baby,” she said and balancing family and career is a matter of “just managing and surviving.”
After her first child was born, her husband Steve took twelve months off work and on returning to his job, he swapped shift work for regular hours. She bonds with her children by sharing their reading and is currently reading Skulduggery Pleasant.
“When I’m gone I leave my husband to look after the children. When I am here [in the electoral office], I have some flexibility. If I have a sick child I can go and pick them up from school. Other people don’t have that flexibility.”
Anna Burke has only once faced barriers as a woman in her career. That was when she applied for a union job and was informed a male was wanted. But she has noticed more subtle hindrances.
“A woman has to be outstanding as opposed to mediocre. I’ve seen a lot of mediocre blokes progress. I think women are judged more harshly. What you need is a good sense of self-belief.”
“I have left behind the legacy of the Do Not Call register. You can register your telephone number so that people don’t call you. I started a private campaign for that in Opposition, a private Members’ Bill. It has made a huge impact on many people’s lives.”
What she hopes to have contribute most during her time in office is to have been “a really good local member,” helping her constituents with issues such as housing, Centrelink and aged care.
“I can walk away and say I got to hold one of the highest offices ever in Parliament. That is an incredible achievement for a girl from Ashwood.”
For more information visit Anna Burke’s website: www.annaburke.com