Christine Milne on women, politics, power and purpose

Christine Milne

On June 22 last year, Greens senator Larissa Waters moved a motion on black lung disease while breastfeeding her weeks-old baby on the Senate floor.

For former Greens leader Christine Milne, it was a moment of clarity.

Retired from parliament, but watching her former colleague from afar, she realised that the image of Ms Waters holding baby Alia Joy to her chest and defiantly staring down the room while cameras snapped them from the press gallery, crystallised just how far societal norms around women and work have come.

In the Tasmanian Parliament of 1989, politicians children weren’t even talked about, let alone allowed on the floor.

“I thought, this is just…on one level, you think things haven’t changed very much since I was elected in 1989 and then you look at it and you think, actually, they’ve changed enormously,” Ms Milne said.

“There is just no way that the Tasmanian Parliament would have considered for a single moment that notion. That baby would have been considered a stranger under the standing orders and would have been removed at the earliest opportunity.”

As a young girl, Ms Milne was aware of the fact that her mother, a former teacher, was forced to leave the workforce when she married. When Ms Milne became a teacher herself, she continued working after marriage but voluntarily stopped contributing to her superannuation.

She had received an official government letter that advised her to do so, telling her that her husband’s superannuation would be sufficient to take care of them both.

“As a 22-year-old I stopped contributing to super,” she said. “I can’t believe it looking back. What was I thinking?

“But we were all thinking like that – that was the norm at the time.”

It was not long after that that Ms Milne began breaking norms as a matter of course.

Now, economic equality for women including equal access to superannuation, is one of the things that she fights for.

She became the first female leader of a political party in Tasmania in 1993, and the first female leader of the Greens at the federal level in 2012.

However, the historical nature of those milestones were not on her mind at the time. Looking back, she is proud to be the one who created a blueprint for future female politicians and activists to follow. But decades ago, the positions that led to her first female accolades were simply practical steps on her path to achieving her personal mission conserving the environment and acting to halt climate change.

It’s what continues getting her up in the morning, and she said that any woman looking to achieve success in any field should hold onto their own personal mission in the face of bias.

“Go and get the qualification or start the business or do whatever you want to do, but make it purposeful,” Ms Milne said.

“Not just about making money and employing people, make it purposeful. Because the only way we’re all able to be happy is to lead a purposeful life.

“So that’s really the thing. What is your purpose? What are you going to dedicate yourself to?

“And frankly with global warming…that’s what gets me up every day, to just keep on working on it because it is so overwhelming for the future of humanity and every ecosystem and every species on the planet. So, purposeful, be purposeful.”

Dealing with a torrent of sexism was part of the job as a female politician in the late eighties and through the nineties, continuing to the present day, and Ms Milne has been subject to it as much as anyone.

She can recall one slight in particular, during the successful campaign to stop a pulp mill at Wesley Vale around 1989.

Federal Health Minister Graham Richardson was in Tasmania, and unbeknownst to the press at the time, was holding regular closed door meetings with Ms Milne.

She was not a politician yet, but she was the leader of the farmers’ campaign to stop the mill – a position that won her Richardson’s respect, but not the medias.

A journalist dismissed her out-of-hand with the following question: “Why do you, a housewife from Ulverstone, think that you can influence the federal minister?”

“It was as classic as that,” Ms Milne said, almost 30 years later, and certainly more of a household name now than that journalist.

“You’re a housewife. Why do you think you can influence this numbers man in the ALP? You just smile to yourself and think, you are missing out on a scoop here.”

She said she had a simple strategy when she came up against those who thought she was less capable due to her gender, and treated her as such – to visualise them in their proper place in history.

“You have to be very much aware that that is the problem, they are the problem, you are not the problem,” she said.

“So, to actually stand back from it and say, they are the vested interests of the old order. And to recognise that they are fighting to hold onto an old order which advantaged them.

“When I would look across the chamber [as a senator] I would look at a whole lot of men in the parliament, and I’d think, they are not there because of any meritocracy. They are completely hopeless, jumped-up, self-important, self-descriptors for the fact that they are well connected. I don’t know why people cant see it.”

Milne often meets young women who want her advice on how best to achieve their goals.

Her advice to them is always the same get good at something, and then use those skills to work towards a purpose. She believes hard work in a chosen field is of more practical benefit to a cause than the best of good intentions.

For her, that purpose is working towards environmental sustainability, which can be a factor in any profession.

“We need you in every profession,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist, an architect, a doctor, teacher, whatever, do the ecological end of it. Do sustainable building materials, do the connection between environment and public health. We need every one of you bringing your professional skills to the challenges.

“People who believe in the new order very often only do so in a lukewarm way, because humans find it really hard to imagine that things can be different.

“Whereas if you are purposeful about it and you can imagine that things can be different, then get on and make them be different.”

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