Crushing On… Sarah Hanson-Young

If you didn’t know it already, The ENID Network was named after Dame Enid Lyons, the first woman to be elected to the Australian parliament. 77 years on, Sarah Hanson-Young is also playing a critical role in paving the way for women in the political ecosystem. This is our interview between the Senator Hanson-Young, with words by Alice Waight.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m a senator for South Australia.  I live in the Adelaide Hills which is about 20 minutes from the centre of Adelaide and I’ve just clocked over twelve years in Parliament! At the age of 25, I was the youngest woman ever to be elected, but I’m really hoping that I get to hand that mantle over to somebody else soon. Twelve years on, we need another young woman to be elected. 

After all this time, I still love politics. Despite it being a really tough space, if you have clear convictions and the adrenaline of parliament excites you, then you can work with it and last a long time. 

I feel more passionate every day that we have to improve both the working and the social environment for women. We’ve come a long way when it comes to equality but we’re still not all the way there. There are still many challenges that face young women that we can’t pretend don’t exist. Social media, the very casualized workforce, feeling as though women have to choose between wanting to be all things to all people. We have to be a bit upfront about the pressures that these put on young women. These are the things that occupy most of my time. 

My daughter is 13 now. She was born on my first campaign in 2007 and as she’s grown up in the world, I’ve grown up as a politician. I don’t think about it as just my last 12 years in politics, it’s our last 12 years, which has been wonderful. 

Seeing her now as a young woman, she’s so passionate about the world. It is a constant reminder of why I do what I do whether it be making sure that there is a planet here for her and her friends to live on or helping her as a young woman going into the workforce.

Picture this, it is a Thursday night during lockdown, what were you reading, watching and listening to? 

Lately, I’ve been watching the series Borgen on Netflix. It is about a female Prime Minister in Denmark. She’s managing being the female leader of a minority government while supporting a young family. These are all issues that we also have to deal with back here in Australia so I’m really enjoying that. You shouldn’t watch it if you don’t want to think about politics, but I believe that politics isn’t a job, it’s a vocation. If you want to be good at it, this is how you need to frame it. 

During lockdown I started ‘Live with SHY’ which is a weekly live chat on Instagram between me and interesting individuals. I’ve been doing quite a bit of them. I was the first politician on Twitter in Australia, but I’ve really shifted to Instagram during lockdown. It’s a nicer space, with fewer trolls and I really just love the fact you can just be a bit more yourself. 

So yeah, that’s a Thursday night for me – a bit of Instagram Live and a bit of Borgen. I’m also a runner so if I’ve done a run, then I might have a glass of Chardonnay or Pinot or something – from the Adelaide Hills, of course.

What has been your biggest career highlight? 

There have been so many moments throughout the last 12 years. 

I must say that both the hardest, but also one of the best moments, was when I stood up for myself in the Senate chamber, and everything that flowed from that. The defamation case against David Leyonhjelm was difficult and it was traumatic. At the end of it all, however, I felt assured that I had done the right thing because this wasn’t just for me, this was for every girl and woman who may not have the same opportunity to speak up. I’m in a very privileged position, I have a platform and an ability to speak up. With that privilege, comes responsibility. 

I’m so glad that it wasn’t in vain that women like yourself, and many others, have found it empowering and reassuring that if you do have the ability to speak up, that you’re not alone. Even if you don’t have the ability to speak up and call it out, you are not alone. 

When I was in the midst of the court case, there was an increase in the number of letters and messages I received from women who told me their stories. I felt like I had a responsibility to do something about it, and to not back down. I did it for women who had told me the horrific things that had happened to them, far beyond anything I had experienced. I also did it for other women who were told: “just don’t rock the boat”, “Just shut up”, “Yes, it’s not nice but don’t say don’t make it worse for yourself.” I had to do it for all these women who were told to stay silent for “their own good”. I think that that would have to be the highlight.

The ENID Network was named after Dame Enid Lyons, the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives and to serve in the federal cabinet. Albeit 77 years later, there are still significant barriers for women entering parliament and local government, along both structural, institutional, social, and informational lines. What is your advice for a young woman endeavouring to break down the barriers to enter into a career in politics?

There are two important elements. Over the years, I’ve often been asked as a woman interested in politics, should you put up your hand to be a candidate? The truth is that we need more women involved in politics across the board, not just as the political candidate.  We need more women as advisors, as active members of political parties, as leaders of campaign teams and as political commentators. This is because it is the ecosystem that allows for a genuinely safe and effective space for women to get elected, and then once elected, succeed in their roles. If all the structures that should support women are male dominated, we won’t get the results we need. 

You may be someone who thinks I couldn’t possibly put my hand up and run for parliament, but you can have an important role to play without necessarily being that person. It’s essential to support all women who are prepared to put themselves forward, who do have these abilities, but also those who might need to hone their skills. In all, we need to create an effective ecosystem of equality within the broader political spectrum.

77 years later and how far have we really come? It’s disappointing that there are still very few women in the Cabinet. Finally, for the first time ever, the Senate is now 50/50 women and I think that’s pretty sad that we’ve got to 2020 and it has only just become 50%. But you have to take wins where you can get them. 

Every political party needs more women, but the Liberal party really struggles with this. The young women that I speak to inside the Liberal party struggle with the culture and we have to be upfront about that. However, there are issues in all the parties so the more women that get active, the greater the chance we have of increasing the numbers from party officials through to women sitting around the cabinet table. I don’t really care what political party. Obviously, I’m a member of the Greens and I’m a progressive politician. But if we want genuinely good outcomes for all women, Australia and world-wide, we have to work across party lines to advance the feminist cause. Whether that be quotas in parties when they haven’t been able to reach these things for themselves. 

We need more women in parliament to advance the cause for childcare and genuine paid parental leave. It frustrates me that the paid parental leave system we have here in Australia is still far short of where other countries are. Our childcare system is the same. These are female dominated industries that have been exposed during COVID-19 as being underfunded, under-trained, under-supported, highly casualised and therefore, workers don’t have access to sick leave. The pandemic exposed all of this. These are all sectors that are heavily dominated by women and there have been a combination of both the hardest hit, but also the most reliant on. As we’re coming out of all this, the solutions being put on the table are so ‘bloke-orientated’. Infrastructure, which is a more male-dominated industry, is about hardhats and high-vis vests and, as they say, being “shovel-ready”. The tax cuts that will arrive in a fortnight’s time, most of that benefit is going to go straight to men. Meanwhile, the majority of people who have lost their jobs, who’ve had to carry the burden of caring, and the health response, are women. This is a pink recession that we’re in. If we had more women in Parliament, around the cabinet table and across the ecosystem, we wouldn’t be we wouldn’t be facing a pink recession.

Pink recession…so well put. It’s heartbreaking.

I was listening to a podcast the other day, it was more UK-centric, but they spoke about the UK beauty industry, how it’s a highly feminised workforce, but  it’s also one that hasn’t received any government support. The language used is very blasé, and there was no willingness to commit support despite it being a huge industry, and one which contributes a significant amount to the economy. I imagine this would be the same in Australia. 

Of course, here in Australia, not only is the industry female-dominated, but a lot of women in insecure work within the beauty industry tend to be migrant women with nothing to fall back on. These women have no family here and there is a flow-on effect for their immediate families. Maybe her children are here in Australia, but because many of them are on migrant visas, they haven’t received any government support.

The world is in the midst of what can only be described as political polarisation. Social, economic and environmental issues are becoming increasingly pressing, and yet political change is often so incremental. Despite this you have shown tremendous courage, resilience and strength throughout your career. Who and what continues to inspire your strength?  

So many things do. I’m an optimist, and I think that, in and of itself, is very lucky. It helps to be an optimist in this world, and particularly in politics. But I would also argue that I’m a pragmatic optimist. 

I’m a big believer in understanding a) why those who disagree with you disagree and b) whether there is something that you can find common ground on. This is the only way we create social change, and that’s the business of politics, particularly progressive politics. You have to help people change their minds and their hearts and you can only do that if you’re prepared to speak to people who don’t, in the beginning, agree with you. I take encouragement from speaking to people, hearing their stories and then thinking about the relationships between their stories and the issue at hand. I love hearing other people’s stories, where they’ve come from, their motivators, their values, and then finding a way to connect with that. This is a huge driver. 

My daughter, of course, is a big inspiration to me and keeps me grounded. In the midst of this climate crisis that we’re in, it’s young people like her who are rallying around the country and participating in the students’ strikes for climate. There’s nothing more inspirational than that. If we can’t get this sorted as the adults in the room, we’re doing a huge disservice to our children and the next generation, and it’s just not good enough. 

I grew up in country Victoria and my parents didn’t really have much money. If you wanted something, you had to go and work it out yourself, be resilient, be resourceful. My dad is the kind of person who could make something from a pile of scraps; he was very resourceful. So I was taught from an early age to be resourceful. 

Let me say there are some people who are just assholes, so have to know where your line is. If you are honest with yourself and you know what your principles and convictions are, then you shouldn’t be afraid of compromise or reaching out across, metaphorically, the chamber divide. That’s a good principle for life in general. If you know who you are, and then you shouldn’t be afraid of talking to people who may not see things exactly the same way as you. If they turn out to be an asshole, just move on and don’t waste any energy on it. Move on to the person who is open to the conversation and willing to listen. 

Because of COVID-19, global warming, environmental degradation, issues of racial justice (and many other issues), young women feel overwhelmed and exhausted with the importance of each issue. Being an activist across all these issues and spaces is becoming increasingly difficult. How can we all be better activists? 

One of the best things we can do is accept that in order for change to happen, people have to change their minds. So campaign hard, find the issues that resonate and live by example. Be clear about why you care about the issue and then reflect that in your own life. 

In order for people to change their minds, they have to be congratulated, and you have to soften the path for them to change their ideas. The truth is we can’t beat people up for changing their minds because we need people to change their minds, hearts and behaviours. 

In an activist world, sometimes we can become so passionate about what we believe in and frustrated about the pace of change, that you ostracize and punish people for coming along. I say this knowing that I’m constantly having to remind myself of this. When people start to change, it’s very easy to say “but you’ve always been on the side of the coal lobby [for example]”. Their reason for change might be different to yours. Maybe it’s the realisation that the market is changing, and the money has moved away from fossil fuels. But that doesn’t make their change wrong. Ultimately, [we must remember] what’s the end game? The end game is we have to decarbonize the economy and there are a variety of different paths to get there. 

As activists, recognise and be open to the fact that not everyone’s path is going to be the same. 

I guess what’s important is that we all get to the right place when it comes to issues like climate change and moving away from fossil fuels.

That’s right. The end game is what you need to be really clear about. Why do we want this to happen? Well, because we’ve got eight to ten years left to make a real difference and that is devastating. I’m an optimist but I’m also realistic, and all that I can think of is how the hell are we going to do that?

 Thankfully, we have all the answers we need to make it happen – but we still need to make it happen. Different people are going to do it in ways that perhaps I wouldn’t, or you wouldn’t, but as long as we are heading in the right direction then that’s what matters. That’s why I am frustrated with the current government’s response to not putting [an emissions]target in place. 

A target is important not because it gives us something to politically argue about, but because it gives us an endpoint.

What are your plans and goals for the next year? 

If COVID-19 hadn’t happened, I would be in Canada this week. But that’s obviously not happening. 

There are a couple of things. You’re right about the state of the environment at the moment, and it is devastating to see the environmental degradation that’s occurred directly because of big mining and development projects that haven’t taken into consideration the rapidly declining number of native species. The bushfires, of course, were confronting for people last summer, but it did put climate change on the agenda. Side note, I’m very clear to call these fires ‘climate fires’ for a reason, because that is what they are. 

My goals for the next 12 months are to find ways to connect with people’s concerns. COVID-19 has been really interesting because people have become more aware and appreciative of the environment. I was talking to an indoor plant specialist the other day about this and indoor plant sales have quadrupled. That’s because people are worried about the state of our natural environment and want to bring some of the natural world inside with them. Also, when people got out of lockdown, they spent it in nature. This in and of itself is a really good thing. The more time people spend in nature, the more passionate they will become about wanting to protect it. 

On a personal front, I’m also a runner, and I’d really like to do a half marathon before this time next year. I haven’t done a half marathon yet and that is something I would like to achieve!

Thank you, Sarah!

Make sure to follow Sarah on Instagram and check out her Live with SHY series. 

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