Zali Steggall isn’t comfortable having her photo taken. Standing on the corner of a leafy Northern Beaches street outside her local cafe, she smiles for the photographer but her arms are firmly crossed. It’s clear she wants this part of the story over and done with as soon as possible. Onlookers do what they do best: look. One man strolls past shouting, “Good luck Zali! You’ve got my vote.” With that, the candidate seems to remember why she’s here and responds warmly. The federal election is mere weeks away.
On January 27, Zali Steggall, former Olympic skier-turned-barrister, announced she would contest the seat of Warringah, against former prime minister and current sitting member, Tony Abbott. Only weeks before she was having another coffee with another woman, trying to tackle the seminal question for anyone who considers overhauling their life to pursue a career in politics: ‘Is it really worth it?’ The woman who Steggall sought advice from was Doctor Kerryn Phelps MP, another newcomer to the parliament, and her answer was a resounding yes.
“She was so overwhelmingly enthusiastic about how rewarding an experience it was and just how exhilarating [it is] to be in parliament, where legislation is debated,” Steggall says. She asked other questions, of course. What does it take? How did Phelps approach the campaign, on both a personal level and professional one? Were their values aligned? Could the pair work together in Canberra? The answer to the final question was of course, another yes. So if Steggall’s bid for Warringah succeeds on Saturday, she will be an independent MP but won’t be alone in Canberra.
“It’s much harder to be a pioneer on your own, but when you have the numbers, it makes it a bit easier,” Steggall says. It also helps to see elements of yourself in your ally. “What Kerryn showed was someone with experience in her own field, she’s been a leader in many ways for many years and she’s been outspoken” explains Steggall. “She hasn’t ever shied away from the difficult topics or taking responsibility for things, so I wasn’t surprised that she was prepared to step up and do that. I think how she handled it and the outcome, and her work since she’s been elected – which is really the important part – was really motivating [for me].”
“For some people, they need to pick a fight, because they get pumped up. So if you can recognise a strategy, it’s already less powerful.”
To say there was a single moment convincing Zali Steggall to throw her hat in the political ring would be a lie. However seeing Phelps win did seem to be a tipping point. Before that she had developed a long list of political frustrations: the lack of action around climate change; the lack of female representation in Parliament; the rotating list of prime ministers; and ultimately, the Liberal Party’s inability to see their deputy leader of 11 years, Julie Bishop, as a viable candidate to run the country. “How Scott Morrison could be considered more prepared for the job than her was beyond me,” Steggall says. “It was getting to the end of the year and I thought there was no point, as a professional woman, to whine about the lack of women out there if you weren’t prepared to step up yourself”.
This year, there are a near-record number of women running for election. A new report released by the McKell Institute last month revealed 110 women will run for office from the major parties; a record 37 per cent of candidates for the Lower House. Zali Steggall is one of the many women independents whose candidacy is not included in this data. She is running her own solo – but very public – race against Abbott, a man who has comfortably held the seat for 25 years.
Abbott has publicly admitted he’s in the “fight of my life” this election. He currently has an 11 point margin against Steggall but she has emerged a viable option for disenfranchised Liberal voters and others who are looking for a fresh voice. She is forcing Abbott to fight for it. In February, a poll commissioned by GetUp showed Steggall leading Tony Abbott 54 to 46 percent. Recent internal Liberal Party polling, revealed by the Sun Herald, suggests a massive 12 point swing away from the former Prime Minister. While this is Steggall’s first foray in politics – and many in Canberra have questioned her policy experience – one thing is without question: Her campaign deserves to be taken seriously.
Zali Steggall’s story is worthy of purchase by Disney Corporation. And titling a movie version of her life as ‘Overachiever’ would be an understatement. The 45-year-old is a champion Olympic skier who retired in 2002 to study law part time, raise her two boys, and come out the other side a successful family law barrister. After separating from her husband, former rower David Cameron, Steggall became mum to three step-daughters through her second marriage to Tim Irving. Steggall owns the story of her blended family. It’s one many Australians connect with. She also owns an Order of Australia Medal and Australian Sports Medal. Not so relatable.
Steggall has a local story to tell about the electorate she is campaigning to represent. Born in Manly and spending her early years there before moving overseas, Steggall returned to Australia aged 15. She attended Queenwood School for Girls in Mosman, before leaving to train for the Olympics. Each time rebounding home to Sydney’s leafy northern beaches, a place that she well and truly calls home.
Since announcing her candidacy Steggall has dedicated most of her time to speaking directly with locals. When chatting to her, the voice of every woman and man who enters politics for the first time, comes through. It is one of palpable frustration, endearing enthusiasm, and a frank honesty you hope remains with them in Canberra. It likely won’t. Having been in the media spotlight before, Steggall is surprisingly guarded for a first-time candidate. She is someone who hasn’t wanted to put a foot or word wrong as the attacks from all sides grow thicker and faster.
Zali Steggall has been positioned a darling of the left, despite actively positioning herself in the “sensible centre”. The Liberal Party claims she is in bed with left wing campaigning group GetUp, which she strongly denies. Tony Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster called Steggall “an agent of Labor”. Steggall insists that she’s never had contact with them, either direct or indirect. By contrast, Labor has dubbed her “Mrs Abbott”, talking up her political similarities to the current member, which Steggall found amusing.
When you press Zali Steggall on her political priorities, climate change emerges as a primary motivator. She supports Labor’s climate policies over the Liberal Party because “they have none”. However she doesn’t think either of the major parties are doing enough. Her progressive stance on this particular environmental issue is obvious but her departure from standard conservative politics goes further than that. Steggall would have supported Kerryn Phelps’ ‘Medivac bill’, she criticised the reopening of Christmas Island detention centre and says she holds Scott Morrison responsible for any future boat arrivals.
On the economic front, Steggall is more conservative. She would like to see lower taxes, more support for small business and a crackdown on multinationals who don’t pay their fair share. When pressed on the nitty-gritty, she replies: “For me, as an independent, I’m not going to have the opportunity to drive the agenda when it comes to the main areas, but I do think the crossbench will have the opportunity to hold the major parties to account, and ensure policies are moderated to represent everybody.” Steggall’s political ethos comes down to two words: forward-facing. She wants this country to evolve and move forward, rather than be left behind.
“For me it’s an unusual race because there is no second place.”
If elected, Steggall also hopes she can help the discourse in Parliament evolve to something more civil and less closed-off. She wants to restore transparency and integrity in Canberra. She advocates for a national version of ICAC to monitor corruption within the political system. She also hopes to address the perceived mistreatment of women in the corridors of power. “If there are people behaving badly that needs to be called out,” says Steggall, “They need to be held accountable.”
The 45-year-old is well-acquainted with calling things out. Last month, her ex-husband spoke out against Steggall, and a conservative “satirical superhero” was filmed gyrating a photo of the Independent candidate. Her ex-husband later apologised and the film was taken down by conservative lobby group, Advance Australia, after being slammed online. The morning we meet for coffee, a photographer is parked outside Steggall’s house. She took a photo of the journalist’s number plate and would be “calling them out” later that day. “I think that’s what’s going to happen in parliament,” she says, of calling things out. “I don’t intimidate lightly.”
Steggall knows the nature of the beast. “For some people, they need to pick a fight, because they get pumped up. So if you can recognise a strategy, it’s already less powerful,” she says. “You can’t change what someone else is doing, but you have to run your own race. So at the end of the day, win or lose, you ask yourself if you gave it everything and if you gave it everything, that is more than anyone else can do.”
The election is a kind of race that’s different to any other Steggall has run. “For me it’s an unusual race because there is no second place,” Steggall says. “The winner takes it all.” Nonetheless, her biggest fear doesn’t lie in losing. “It would probably be feeling that I hadn’t given it a proper go, that I’d given it a half-hearted effort. For me, it’s not always about the outcome, it’s about what I put into it. If I can walk away from any event – I would always think about this with the ski races – knowing I’d done everything I could, then I’m okay. I can’t control the outcomes, but I’m okay because I did myself justice.”
Whether she proves the polls right or defies them on May 18, one thing is already decided: Zali Steggall has mounted a credible challenge to someone once thought unbeatable. Tony Abbott. She has forced Tony Abbott, previously a comfortable sitting MP, to engage with his electorate in a new way. Steggall has found powerful allies in Canberra, who she will work closely with should she be successful. And perhaps in the future she will be one more woman who a potential political candidate can take for coffee and ask, ‘Is it worth it?’
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