Possibly the most controversial inclusion in our Women in Politics series is Fiona Patten, Senate candidate for Victoria and Leader of the Australian Sex Party.
Fiona Patten is regarded by many as the face of the Australian sex industry. As a lobbyist she has represented sex workers, HIV and AIDS sufferers, as well as the adult entertainment industry, and has helped change the way the nation thinks about sexuality and sexual health. As she prepares to contest this year’s Federal Election though, Patten is interested in much more than just talking about sex.
Born in Canberra, her father’s work, firstly with the Navy then as an embassy staffer, saw Patten’s family move regularly during her childhood. This took them to England when she was a young child, before time spent living in Sydney and Washington D.C. It was to have a big influence on her sense of place.
“When you’re thrown into a new school every two years it makes the notion of home a more transitory thing,” said Fiona Patten.
Patten believes despite the disruption, moving around taught her some valuable lessons that have served her well in adult life. “When you’re travelling and moving all the time it really teaches you a lot about how to work with people.”
After abandoning courses in landscape architecture and industrial design, Patten completed a degree in fashion design at Canberra University. Graduating in 1987, she helped establish a fashion label called Body Politic supporting young, local designers.
“I had no thoughts of getting into politics at the time,” she says to any suggestion the choice of name may have been a hint of things to come.
During her time at Body Politic, Australia was hit by the recession Prime Minister Keating famously claimed we “had to have”.
“It was not a good time to be running a small business as you can imagine,” Patten quips. But it was around this time she first became exposed to the sex industry.
“A lot of my clients were actually sex workers, and in the recession they were often the ones with the most income.”
After a “few months” spent as a sex worker herself, Patten began her lobbying career with the AIDS Council.
“It was an exciting time. I had the opportunity to lobby a brand new Federal Government that was learning how to be lobbied. The Minister for Health at the time, Neil Blewett, really jumped responding to HIV and AIDS, and allowed sex worker rights to establish themselves.”
Patten went on to found the Eros Foundation in 1992, an organisation representing the national adult retail and entertainment industries. Her role as President allowed her to discuss issues like classification and censorship with political leaders. She resigned from her position in 2000, but returned to the organisation in 2006 and remains active in their work.
Patten names her great aunt, Jessie Street, as a major political inspiration and role model. Street was an influential figure in the feminist and suffragette movement in Australia in the 1950s and 60s. What is little known about her, Patten says, is that she was a pioneer on sex education and sexual health, and even spent time working with sex workers during a stay in England.
“Had she been alive today, I think she would have endorsed my position on the rights of sex workers,’ Patten says.
While Street may have provided the inspiration, it was Don Chipp, founder and former leader of the Australian Democrats, who served as her political mentor and encouraged Patten to enter politics. The two were introduced through her partner, Robbie Swann, and soon developed a close personal friendship. It was in fact advice from Chipp that prompted Patten to choose the Sex Party as the name for her political venture.
“He told us the hardest thing for a new party was being seen and heard. For that reason choosing a name is really important,” Patten says. “I’m not sure what he would have thought of the name we chose, but it’s certainly helped us get attention.”
Despite what the name might suggest, Patten insists her party has a broader progressive policy agenda including legalising voluntary euthanasia, removing the tax-exempt status of religious organisations, and improving sex education in schools. Personal tragedy has also meant she is a strong advocate for drug law reform.
“I’ve lost friends to drugs. I’ve had friends die of overdoses,” claims Patten, arguing drug use should be treated as a health rather than criminal issue.
She says a trip to Portugal, a country renowned for its progressive approach to drugs policy, was influential in shaping her thinking on this issue.
“They’ve legalised drug use, improved treatment facilities, and it’s the one place where drug use amongst 13 to 17 year olds is actually going down,” she says.
Patten founded the Sex Party in 2009 and 2013 will mark her second Federal Election as leader. She is upbeat about the party’s prospects.
“We got about 2.7 per cent of the vote in our first Federal Election but that went up to 8.7 at the last Melbourne by-election,” she says.
This impressive change of fortunes, she believes, is the consequence of the major parties no longer reflecting the views of the majority in the community.
“We’re one of very few countries in the world with a two party system,” she says. “Having smaller parties like ours in the Senate can really get the ball rolling, especially on social issues important to the community.”
The party will field 52 candidates across all states and both houses of parliament, up from just ten at the last election.
Whether or not she is successful in getting elected to the Senate on the 7th of September, one thing is for sure. From inside or outside the parliament, Patten will continue to advocate for those things she is passionate about: the rights of sex workers and the need for better sex education in schools.
“Having been an advocate for most of my adult life, it’s in my blood and I can’t imagine ever stopping it.”
For more information visit the Australian Sex Party website: www.sexparty.org.au