The Hobart

From Miss Tasmania to the Parliament: Politician Sue Hickey

by Stephanie Williams
From Miss Tasmania to the Parliament: Politician Sue Hickey

As the city ramps up efforts to help the less fortunate, politician Sue Hickey has placed herself firmly in the centre of the debate. Not one to shy away from controversy or hard work, we discovered what has shaped Sue’s drive and determination to help.

Some readers might not know but you were Miss Tasmania. Did that shape your interest in public life?

With reflection, it was a blessing I didn’t understand at the time. Everywhere the Premier or Lord Mayor went, Miss Tasmania was expected to go. Having that experience gave me a lot of confidence and poise and all of those things you need for public life. I’m still opening flower shows all these years later! That started my interest in the not-for-profit sector and being aware of people, who for no fault of their own, were suffering disability and disadvantage.

You’re not scared of hard work. Is that born from 30 years as a small business owner?

Definitely. Also from having hardworking parents. We were raised that if we wanted anything in life we had to work for it. So from the age of 15 I was working at the very first Kmart in Tasmania. It instills a lot of things – discipline, working in a team and responsibility. I don’t think hard work hurts anybody. In fact, I rarely have any time off. I read something that said, ‘the time you choose to waste is not waste of time’. I have to actually enforce that for myself, otherwise I’d be going 24 hours a day.

You were Telstra Business Woman of the Year in 2007 and completed your MBA in 2012. What advice do you have for people carving out their careers or creating a business at the moment?

Never stop learning. Never assume you know everything. Try and find yourself a mentor when you need it and put in. Anyone who thinks you can just cruise through small business is kidding themselves. When I started out, there’d been many a times I was working through the night. I have one daughter but she might be sick in the office, and I’d still be banging away quotes at 3am in the morning. That’s what I had to do to survive because I couldn’t afford stuff. I was the cleaning lady, did the quotes, sold the goods, packed the items.

You created the business, Slick Promotions?

Yes. With $1,000 borrowed off my father. 26 years later I had to sell it to go into Parliament. It was a really good career and I learnt an awful lot about management which I didn’t have when I went into it.W hen I finally could afford the time off, I did the company director’s course. And then I had always wanted to go to uni. I was going to run for parliament and found that I couldn’t do it. So I thought, well, I’m not going to waste the next four years feeling sorry for myself. I’ll make sure I’m the best qualified politician I can be! I loved it. I learned a lot of different ways of thinking. Suddenly I had this expanded bureaucratic understanding. I decided to run for Hobart City Council and the MBA was so beneficial to being able to understand the high-level thoughts.

You spent four years as Lord Mayor of Hobart. What are you most proud of there?

Changing the governance. It was critical to me that we had full accountability of what the Alderman were costing, that we had strict rules around behaviour and things we were doing. I had pet projects – I loved to see the rollout of solar panels, energy saving mechanisms, the beautiful parks we were creating, and the toilets. The toilets became an absolute passion because some of them were the most hideous things I’ve ever seen! I used to say to the staff who built the parks and the footpaths, ‘one day you’ll be proud, you’d be able to bring in children past this and say, dad built this’. And that’s what I do now. I go around and have a secret little chuff. People always referred to ‘my’ toilets at Salamanca, which is very funny because one day when we were about to open them, I was standing outside – I had my pearls on and pink pair of gloves and a toilet brush for a photo shoot. A tourist said, ‘the third one is a bit dirty’. I said, ‘no worries, I’ll go and fix it right now!’

How did it feel when you took your seat in the Speaker’s Chair?

That’s a day that was very surreal. It was my first day in Parliament. I didn’t know where the toilets were! All my life I’ve stepped up to an opportunity. When I look at my path, although it was never intentional, one opportunity would lead to another and each one enhanced my skillset. So whilst I know it was a shock for a lot of people and people want to attach some mischievous meanings to what happened, I think it’s a bit of divine intervention because I’ve landed in space where I can help contribute to a better Tasmania. I suffered quite a bit of abuse for the first six months. People wanted to call me a ‘traitor’ and ‘the rogue speaker’. I think now that I’m earning a bit of respect, they can see that sometimes having an independent speaker might be healthy. Once you’re a member of a party, they have a caucus and they’re bound by whatever the majority is. I’m not restricted by that now. I stood for Parliament to make a difference and as the member for Clark I intend to.

“If we all pull together, and by that I mean tripartisan support and community support, hopefully it will get us back to a place where we're proud to say that we take care of our own.”

As Speaker, you sometimes hold the balance of power. How do you navigate that and what does it look like behind the scenes?

It can be quite stressful. Decisions come up that you know the public will not understand fully. Most people read the headline and make a judgment just on that. Whereas I have read all of the data, listened to the debate, consulted widely, and come to a decision after I’ve heard the last person speak. That’s a skill I learnt in local government. Of course you’re going to have an opinion. It might’ve been one of the Greens members, because they taught me an awful lot to change my thinking, one of them would say something and I’ll think, oh, I haven’t looked at it like that. I think we should be prepared to listen. Now, sometimes it’s also a matter of saying is that the biggest fight? Can I get a better outcome by agreeing with this one and going for the jugular on the next one? But I put my own compass over it. Is this the best outcome? Is this the best law? Will this harm people or will it add to their livelihood or lifespan? The thing about local government was that it was all about enhancing the community for the wellbeing of people. In Parliament, it’s about life and death decisions and things that affect people’s livelihoods and their families. It’s a much higher bar, and there have been a couple of things that have really pushed my parameters. You go home and you’re quite worried about.

What has stayed with you?

There was one recently about the climate emergency. I really do believe we should be dealing with a climate emergency but the government was fairly convincing that it was addressing a lot of issues. I probably wish I had it voted for that because I do think it’s an important statement to make to the world. Other things have been more confrontational, like the gender one. Actually meeting parents and meeting transgender people and doing lots and lots of consultation in this space, I believe we came up with a much fairer law to recognise people as individuals and to give them the rights they deserve. And in that case, my decision opened the door for that legislation to go upstairs. It was thrashed around, they altered things and then we had a much better outcome. I was very satisfied with that one. I felt that’s a law that probably affects less than two percent of Tasmanians, but gee, what a difference it’s going to make to them.

It’s life changing.

And the interesting thing is the younger generation couldn’t see the fuss. The media were pretty positive about it because they are young journalists.

You’re a strong advocate for the homeless and disadvantaged in Hobart. Why is that so close to your heart?

I had a very typical middle-class upbringing, but I went to Catholic school. We were told to look out for the less fortunate. I can’t walk past somebody who’s suffering, so I do what I can behind the scenes. It’s not just a ‘feel good’, it enriches my life. When I first became a member of Parliament, there was the Showground issue and I got involved and helped two different families get housed. I happened to know a friend who had two properties. So that friend and I painted and scrubbed and bought everything they needed. In one particular family, the young girl was ashamed of living at the Showgrounds and was studying in the ferret shed there, then she’d go to school. I thought, oh my God, something’s got to happen. So the more I got into it, the more carried away I got. There were fresh flowers, food in the fridge, every toiletry, everything. I wanted it so that when they walked in, they went to bed for the first time in weeks in a warm, clean bed and got up the next morning and started their lives. And people said, oh they won’t last. Well there’s still there! I just wish I could do it for everybody. I don’t think we can ever neglect our less fortunate who are falling by the way. And there’s always been a hardcore group but now we have got the working poor, they might be a cleaner or work at Shiploads or something like that and two incomes just won’t pay the $600 a week rent.

But even someone on a normal median income, that’s still a lot of money.

There’s no way people can afford it. There’s been decades of under investment in social housing so that’s added to it. And then we’ve had social housing that hasn’t been maintained. I am concerned where we’re hitting at the moment with the homeless and begging and things like that. But I think if we all pull our resources, we’re going to address it faster. That’s always the perils when the city starts to be revived and grow, which I saw as Lord Mayor. We were suddenly getting buildings and it was all very exciting. The city had been in a little coma for 25 years and then suddenly took off, and we could do brave things. We could put in Morrison Street and do a lot of the parks, the toilets, all of those things. We ended up with a huge influx of workers – there were estimates we had up to 5,000 workers extra in the city on any one day, which adds to traffic woes, means more accommodation required. The Airbnb thing took off as the hotels weren’t available. That’s a base we can’t pull back, and unfortunately we lost a lot of rentals through that. And then of course the prices of everything skyrocketed and the rentals that still exist are huge, they’ve just doubled.

People want to help. What do you suggest?

People now are increasingly concerned as we shine a torch on this issue. The best way we can help is to help the professionals. Hobart City Mission need nonperishables. I know groups of people who are going to do little fundraisers where everyone brings a couple of tins of food. Nobucks is a wonderful organisation (offering free weekday lunches and showers). This weekend Mum and I put together 40 toiletry packs and people have been dropping stuff off to my office, which is wonderful. Volunteer too if you can, if you feel emotionally up to it because it’s pretty tough.

"All my life I've stepped up to an opportunity."

Are there any practical small wins we can make in the short term?

Local government really need to be able to provide the toilets to be opened earlier because people sleeping in a car need to be able to wash the kids faces and get them to school. We need to weather this next couple of years of growing pains. If we all pull together, and by that I mean tripartisan support and community support, hopefully it will get us back to a place where we’re proud to say that we take care of our own.

What does downtime like for you?

Downtime? That’s a funny one! I have some really close girlfriends I love to catch up with. That’s a bit of escapism. Downtime is going home after a full day with a heavy bag of reading, then not opening it! And remembering that you still need to talk to your mum, your family and friends for that sanity. I really like to potter around the house. At the moment I’m gathering things for homelessness or fundraising for friends.

Where’s your favourite place for coffee, drinks and dinner?

I love to go to Daci&Daci for coffee. Contrary to what it might sound like I’m not out much, because you have to eat here (at Parliament House) so often and to do all the entertaining. I’m not a drinker but I might have a champagne if I’m out or something, anywhere along Salamanca is always good. The Astor Grill is always nice but that’s a rarity. Take away Chinese in front of a movie is probably as good as anything! ■

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May 2024

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