Tara's Thoughts

2 years as a politician: the surprises and the challenges

October 15, 2018

Today marks two years since the 2016 ACT election – or halfway through my term as an MLA. It's been nothing short of an amazing two years and I thought I'd mark it by doing a bit of an overview of what I didn't expect, what I've learned, and some common questions people have asked over the last two years.

WHAT I DIDN'T EXPECT

One of the most common things I’ve been asked since I was elected is, “Is it what you expected?”

I always struggle to answer this – or at least answer it succinctly! Here are a few things that I didn't quite expect.

The impact of not having an office in the electorate

In the ACT each elected member only has one fixed office - in our parliament located in the city - while in other jurisdictions it's common to have an office in the parliament and an office in the electorate. Not having an office in the electorate isn't particularly well known - I'm asked fairly regularly where my Belconnen office is located. We've got a pretty good set up in the city, but there are definite downsides to it. I described it early on as a bit of a vortex - once you're in the building it's hard to get out. Or, put another way, it's hard to get back out into the electorate and interact with constituents. It's one of the reasons so many of us make a concerted effort to keep in touch through regular doorknocking, calling and 'mobile offices' - but it's still easy for the business of the office or the parliament to keep us physically tied to the city.

Staffing is lean (genuinely)

While I didn’t have it in my head that the halls of parliament were exactly swarming with staff, one of the early surprises for me was how lean each parliamentarian’s office is. Ministers have a handful of advisers and one or two staff from directorates who act as liaison points between the directorate at the Minister’s office. And that’s it. Non-executive members (members who aren’t Ministers) have even less. On all sides I’ve been impressed with the efficiency and output of offices.

The definition of Minister versus Member isn’t well known to the public

I'm often called Minister Cheyne. This is a very nice promotion but it isn't correct. Everyone in the ACT parliament is a Member but not every Member is a Minister. The governing party or parties elect who will be the Ministers and those Ministers have responsibilities for different aspects of Government (basically they're in charge of different departments or directorates). Shadow Ministers are members of the Opposition who come up with alternative policies and pay close attention to what the actual Minister is doing. 

The work is more varied than I could ever have imagined

Of course there's variety in the work. But the breadth of issues - and the breadth of issues I come across each day - can be staggering. I get (and seek) an enormous amount of constituent contact (which I love) and while there are some like issues, I might get 20 people e-mailing on the weekend and no e-mail will be about the same issue or interest as another.

The days I find trickiest is where there are a lot of different things going on - there are days in my diary where I've had a public hearing, numerous constituent meetings in and out of the office, briefings, a private committee meeting, a mobile office, and a late night meeting, all about vastly different things, all in the one day. This is de rigueur, particularly for Ministers, but it's taken a lot of getting used to.

The special relationships I'd forge with constituents

I knew I'd meet a lot (a lot!) of people. I knew I'd get to know a lot of people very well. But by the very nature of this job I've met the most extraordinary people of all ages and all backgrounds. Many have become my friends. 

But the nature of the job also means that I might see people often and then not see them for a while. I've known one couple since the election campaign and seeing them at Jamison on a weekend was a highlight for me; I'd visited their house. I saw the husband this past weekend and we spoke about how long it had been and he revealed his wife had died in that time. I didn't know and, while by no means did I know them well, it has played on my mind the last few days how I didn't get to say goodbye and wasn't able to offer him my condolences at the time. Indeed, there are other constituents I've got close to who have died and that's been even more affecting.

I know this is not unique to my experience - all members form these close relationships. 

How awkward your personal life can get

It may shock some, but politicians still have private lives. Well, kind of.

As a politician I've been in a long-term relationship, single and dating (... not all at once). I was in a long-term relationship when I was elected and something a politician and their spouse has to do when they're elected is declare all their interests. When we were fully separated all of these then had to be deleted from the declaration of interests - and all these updates are available for public viewing. 

I've had to declare potential conflicts of interests to my colleagues and to other Members based on the profession of the person I've dated  - and equally let my colleagues know when I have no longer been dating that person. It is as awkward for everyone as it sounds (but everyone is very professional about it which I've been very grateful for!). 

And the brutal truth is it's hard to meet people. 

How much time committee work takes

Committee work is something I knew existed, but didn’t comprehend just how much time it would take up. Committees are powerful bodies in the parliament, made up of members of the different parties, and they conduct inquiries into issues which are of public interest. I’ve been on or am on the Public Accounts Committee; Planning and Urban Renewal Committee; Environment, Transport and City Services Committee; Employment, Education and Youth Affairs Committee; Inquiry into the 2016 ACT Election Committee; End of Life Choices Committee; the Budget Estimates Committee; the Administration and Procedures Committee (made up of the whips and the Speaker who determine together how the parliament operates); and a Privileges Committee (established for a short time to investigate the behaviour of another member or members). Committees make recommendations to Government and the Government is required to respond to these.

Still smiling after 11 days straight of Estimates hearings

I’ve enjoyed the Committee work. It’s a good chance to get to know other colleagues who I met not get a chance to work with otherwise – particularly those in other parties – and to work together. We’ve done a lot of important work and made some important recommendations. The downside is Committee work doesn’t get a lot of media attention and it can be hard to get people to engage. (We’ve been working on how we can get more public interest and had some success – the End of Life Choices Committee had a record number of submissions with almost 600, and the inquiry into the mammal emblem had a survey which had thousands of submissions.) It can also distract from other work – the Estimates Committee is two weeks’ full time in public hearings, which makes it tricky to get out in the electorate and keep on top of office work.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED

I am now an expert in dress codes

Casual, smart casual, business, formal, semi-formal, cocktail, lounge suit, black tie - I am a lot more well versed in what this means than I was when I was elected (or at least turn up under- and over-dressed a lot less).

Every speech can be shorter

Almost every speech can be shorter. Especially politicians’ speeches. Especially my speeches (and I’ve been trying to practise what I preach).

(Also blog posts can be shorter...)

Speeches with no notes are better than speeches with notes; speeches with dot point notes are better than full speeches (mostly)

People pay a lot more attention when you're speaking if you don't have big sheets of paper in front of you. Speeches just naturally have more feeling without speaking notes. Shane Rattenbury is particularly good at this.

I've given some very good speeches with few notes (and one particularly not great speech). This is a speech I've particularly proud of on something that was very emotional. 

How to take good group pictures

These look the best when you stand as close to each other as possible. Shoulders should be touching. If you feel uncomfortably close you are probably doing it right.

The public attention is both weird and wonderful

This is hard to explain, but I don't expect that people recognise me, and it's usually very nice when they do - particularly if someone stops to chat or thank me for something; those are some of the loveliest moments. But sometimes people recognise me and want to chat in the toilet paper aisle (this has happened more than once). I have also had numerous people tell me they know where I live because they have seen me walking my dog in the area. I've come to expect this, but it has meant I've learned that people are noticing me even if I 'feel' anonymous. 

In short - if you ever see me and wonder if you should come up and say hi, please do! (Even if it's in the toilet paper aisle.)

The way constituents contact me is changing

I committed to being available, and personally available, as much as possible during the election campaign. I knew that social media was playing a bigger role in terms of contact, but I've learned how important it can be as a communication method (not just a broadcast one). While e-mail and phone contact is still how most people contact me, Facebook and Instagram messages are also featuring more and more. Having so many in roads of communication can be a bit tricky in terms of keeping on top of and keeping a record of, but I want to be contacted in ways that work for my constituents, not ways that just work for me. 

The hardest part can sometimes be comments on Facebook. I try to respond to most comments, but some comments do not have an easy answer and can take me more than a few hours to find the right advice. Facebook has fortunately made it much easier to find past comments and respond to them, but I'm still not sure it works the best for everyone.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

How do you manage work/life balance?

I worked out about nine months in that if I wasn’t feeling refreshed and like things were going well in the ‘life’ side of the balance, the work stuff suffered. I force myself to do the life stuff – to make time for friends, to spend time with my dog, to walk a minimum 10,000 steps a day, and to watch the Bachelorette when I can (I'm hooked, don't judge me). These things keep me grounded and mean I've got a lot more energy and focus. 

What’s the difference between an MLA and an MP?

MLA stands for Member of the Legislative Assembly (what our parliament in the ACT is called). MP stands for Member of Parliament. They are basically the same thing.

Once the computer is on and you’re logged in, what’s the first thing you do in the office each day?

Drink a Pepsi Max (Vanilla).

Seriously.

What do you actually do when the Assembly isn’t sitting?

When the Assembly isn't sitting is as busy if not busier than when the Assembly is sitting. When the Assembly is sitting there is quite a lot of structure to the day and, apart from the lunch break, we can't leave the building! When I'm not sitting (and sometimes when it is!) I'm:

  • meeting with constituents - at my office or at a mobile office 
  • responding to inquiries
  • attending events - either as a guest or to launch something myself. Events can go anywhere from half an hour to a whole evening or a full day
  • preparing for sitting weeks, including motions and speeches, as well as tactics for how we want the weeks to run
  • attending committee meetings
  • preparing for and appearing at committee hearings
  • working on policy areas or passions with the relevant ministerial offices
  • meeting with organisations or ALP sub-branches 
  • doing media
  • doing social media!

Did you have to have lessons before speaking in the Assembly?

No - and it's been a real learning journey. We had 'MLA school' over 2.5 days before our first sitting day and part of that included when to speak and what the cues were in the chamber, but that's about it. 

How do you decide what issues to bring into the Assembly?

There are a lot of issues I'm passionate about and formed reasons why I was elected and I've been pursuing those. But there are a lot of things that have been raised with me or I've become aware of and realised there's an issue and something needs to be done. If you've ever thought something needs fixing - big or small - raising it with a politician is a great idea. We are just one person and while we get a lot of advice and support, the community being our eyes and ears and letting us know where there might be an opportunity to improve policy can be the first step to result in change.

Is there a position description?

There is no position description but if you're ever after a job with variety, being a politician (or working for one) is it! 

What does the whip do?

The whip job means pretty much what the title is - whipping or, more politely, organising the party membership and (less well known) being the party's representative for the administration side of things in parliament. There's an Opposition whip (Andrew Wall), a Government whip (me), and a Crossbench whip (Shane Rattenbury). We organise our members' attendance at parliament, as well as absences, and organise speaking lists and orders. I work closely with the Manager of Government Business (Mick Gentleman) who decides the Government business that's conducted in the Chamber and what order it's conducted in. In addition to Government business, there's parliamentary business - opportunities for non-executive members to bring forward motions or for committee business to be brought into the Chamber, and this is something that the whips decide with the Speaker. 

In terms of the admin side of things, the Speaker (Joy Burch) takes advice from us in determining how the parliament runs and she's also the precinct manager - so she makes decisions about things like accommodation and security (again, with advice). 

Can you take your dogs to work?

Sadly, no. But I’m working on it!