Rebecca White is a Member for Lyons and the leader of the Tasmanian Labor Party. She recently took time out to chat with The Hobart Magazine about her busy life.
You were only 27 when you were elected to the seat of Lyons in 2010. How did your first day feel?
It was really exciting. The chamber seemed smaller than I imagined. You feel very close to one another, which in an adversarial system like we have it can sometimes be quite confronting. I remember the first time the parliament was in session, being in an environment that small and shouting at one another. It wouldn’t happen anywhere else. It can be a bit of a ruthless place.
How do you get used to that?
For me, the more I do something the easier it gets. It was the same for me with public speaking, which I found terrifying and it took a really long time to feel comfortable doing that.
I’m sure now it feels you can do it with your eyes shut.
Yes. And I think people probably wish that I would stop talking!
You studied Journalism and Politics. Do you think that has helped you navigate both the pressures and the value of the media?
It does help me understand more about what it means to be in front of the cameras, and what people behind the cameras are trying to elicit from you. I studied commerce too, it’s a balance between understanding how our society works, how I best represent the people who elected me and how I convey to them those messages in a really concise and sensible way so that they understand what I’m talking about.
During your most recent campaign it was hard not to draw comparisons with New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Adern. I hear you reached out to her. Are you still in contact?
I haven’t been in touch with her for a little while. She’s a very busy world leader and doing a magnificent job. I could only wish to be good as Jacinda. I think she’s inspirational. She’s stayed true to her values and does a wonderful job of explaining why things matter to her and what it means for her country to pursue those particular agendas.
Are you a naturally organised person?
I’m a lists person. I like feeling organised and having a sense of predictability about what’s to come. Particularly in politics where it’s so unpredictable—day to day you really don’t know what’s going to happen next.
You were elevated to the party leadership when your daughter Mia was under one. Every parent knows how hard the juggle is at the best of times let alone in a role as public as yours.
She was four months actually. It was a bit of a crazy time. You can’t choose the timing for these things so when an opportunity presents you just have to take it. And I have no regrets. Trying make sure she’s included in as much as possible is really important. Mia will come to weekend events where it’s child friendly and she loves it. She’s very sociable. She’s adaptable and we’ve got terrific family support. My husband has his own business so he has pretty flexible hours but getting busier, so it is a juggle.
He’s a chef right, and operates a catering business?
He does, Wattlebanks Catering is his business. We are very grateful to have family close by who help out a lot and amazing educators at childcare who provide support as well. One of the first questions I was asked when the leadership change occurred was, “How are you going to balance having a baby and a job?” Because apparently I’m the first woman to ever do such a thing! We still have very gendered stereotypes that need to be challenged and I’m no different than any other woman who has a job and a family. I feel obligated to always answer those questions by stating I’m very well supported by family, I’m no different than any other woman or we’re no different than any other family because there needs to be a push back of those questions being asked of women in leadership positions.
I felt it would be remiss of me if we didn’t discuss parenting. It’s important to ask to get across that it’s actually not an unusual situation.
A big change for the Labor Party and this parliament since the election is the number of working parents who have been elected. The parliament has shifted from being a place for people who have had children already or had another career and then been elected, to more accurately representing our population. There are so many more working parents in the parliament now and they’ve got children ranging in ages from just a couple of weeks right through to adults. That’s a true representation of the population and the general workforce.
Why do you think it’s escalated in the last few years?
I can only speak on behalf of the Labor Party— we’ve actually sought to preselect candidates to run who are reflective of the community. We’ve actively sought to encourage women and younger people. We’ve done that because they haven’t been present in these roles and I think that’s an issue if decisions are being made on behalf of people when they’re not in the room.
Traditionally many young people leave the island to train or work and on the flipside migration here has been heavily represented in the older demographic. Things are changing and there’s a stronger growth in the 25 to 50 age group migrating or returning. How can we use this population growth to Tasmania’s advantage?
It’s a good thing to see people returning to Tasmania. Living on an island, there’s a natural curiosity about seeing what else is out there. People do choose to travel or work interstate or overseas, but I think they also want to come home when the time is right. And especially for my age group or your age group, I see more of that occurring. So, how do we encourage that and take advantage of the opportunity that’s presented? I think comes down to how we plan for growth in Tasmania. Population growth is, I believe, to be welcomed and encouraged. But it has to be supported by investments in infrastructure so we have livable cities and places, so we have job creation, so people can move back to Tasmania, find housing and have confidence the public transport system is going to support them, that the education is going to be provided for their children, that there’s going to be work for them and their partner and for their children when they grow up.
Inevitably this puts pressure on the health system, which feels broken right now. What do you think the government should do in the short and long term to make us feel confident in our healthcare again?
Gosh, how long do you have? Short term we need to be easing the pressure on the hospital. Tasmania has one of the lowest rates of bulk billing in the country but about 25 percent of our population are in the lowest quintile for income. There’s a huge shortage. Supporting access for people to health services in their own community would be a great start to take pressure off the emergency department, which is where people feel they have to go now because they’ve got no other option.
At a federal level, women in politics are calling out sexist and misogynistic behavior. What has been your experience in the Tasmanian parliament and Labor Party?
I’ve been supported and encouraged from the moment I joined the Labor Party. 70 percent of our members in the parliamentary Labor Party are female. We’ve had a really strong focus on affirmative action for a long time in the Labor Party, deliberately to encourage women to stand and to support them. In the parliament I’ve never felt intimidated or treated differently because I’m female. There have been attempts made, I suppose, to point out that I’m female and I’m younger, like references made to me being inexperienced and calling me “Bec” rather than “Rebecca” which is how I prefer to be known in politics. In case anyone didn’t realize already that I am female and younger, I think it’s pretty obvious for people! I do remember door knocking as a first-time candidate when I was 26 and people asking me what does my husband think of me doing this? I wasn’t married then and if I was, it’s my decision! Or commending me for having a go so soon after finishing school! There were lots of funny remarks made.
If you weren’t in politics what do you think you’d be doing?
That’s a good question. When I was at college I was desperate to become a vet but I realised it wasn’t just about loving animals, you actually had to operate on them and sometimes euthanise them. That wasn’t quite as attractive to me! I honestly couldn’t tell you.
How do you navigate your constituents and a two-year-old? What are your tips for keeping he entertained and engaged?
She’s still at an age where she can be easily distracted. But her attention span is very short. It’s a matter of finding lots of different distractions. She really enjoys reading, colouring in and animals, so if there’s an animal somewhere that she can have a chat to, that’s great! She’s a very outdoorsy kid which is nice because we spend a lot of time outdoors, so I’m pleased she is happy to run around and just play. She does a lot of singing and dancing too which is highly entertaining. All those things are just so beautiful.
How did you meet your husband and how does he go as ‘first bloke’ of Tasmanian Labor Party?
We have a very typical meeting story. It was the last week of work in December and we met in a pub in Salamanca. I wouldn’t say it was particularly romantic but it was instant for me. He’d only just returned back to Tasmania after being overseas for about five years. We spent a lot of time together that summer. It was the same year the Dunalley bush fires occurred. That’s part of my community where a lot of people I grew up with are and my family live. I was quite involved during that process and he was working in Bicheno then and he would drive down and help. We’d only known each other for less than a month and he was incredible and supportive, so that was a pretty good start for him in my eyes. He’s a local boy—grew up in Rosetta and Dodges Ferry. We knew of each other when I was at uni and we met again in 2012.
What do you like to do outside work?
I love horses. I’ve always had horses in my life. Growing up on a farm we had them for stock work and then Mum got me involved in competitions. I still have a horse and I’ve got a horse for my daughter—a pony—but I really haven’t had very much time to ride over the last 18 months and I do miss that. I’m hoping this summer to be able to get out and see my friends in the riding community, who I miss very much. We have just moved house so there’s a lot to be done in the garden, which I enjoy, and just catching up with my girlfriends. I’ve got the best friends and we’ve all got kids who are about the same age. I love spending time with them because they don’t have anything to do with politics and they’re a really good barometer in regard to what actually matters day to day in people’s lives. ■