ON November 11, 1975, the dismissal of the Whitlam Government not only changed the course of our nation but also the direction of Ursula Stephens’ life.
At the time, she was a primary school teacher but when she received a phone call from her fiancé Bob that the Governor General had sacked the democratically elected leader of her country and handed power over to his political opponents, she felt compelled to act.
She left work early and drove to the national capital with her husband to be and joined the thousands of angry youngsters who were congregating on the steps of Parliament House.
At a little after 2.30pm, Gough Whitlam addressed the crowd and encouraged people to maintain their “rage and enthusiasm” and prepare for a hard fought election campaign - one he would later lose.
That afternoon, Ms Stephens joined the Labor Party. Thirty-eight years later, she is standing for her third term as a Senator for NSW.
She served on the administrative committee of the ALP for 22 years, worked for the Premier’s Department, helped get both Wran and Carr elected and was eventually appointed the state president.
In 2001, she was elected to the Senate and appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector after re-election in 2007.
While she isn’t often in the public eye, the senator works tirelessly behind the scenes. She currently chairs Defence and Foreign Affairs Trade Committee and serves on both the Joint Intelligence and Human Rights Committees.
The policies she helps shape don’t often find their way onto the six o’clock news but that doesn’t bother her.
“It’s not the frivolous 30-second grab on the news that gets me involved in politics,” Senator Stephens said.
“It is how you can underpin really substantive change working in not only the country’s interest but also in people’s interest… I think it is possible to work for the country and look out for the little guy as well…
She described her biggest achievement as the establishment of the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission. She also does a lot of constituency work, serving the electorates of Gilmore, Hughes, Riverina, Farrar, Hume and Dobell, and says she gets most satisfaction from helping ordinary people negotiate a fair outcome with government.
THIS year, Senator Stephens will occupy the third spot on Labor’s Senate ticket, behind Doug Cameron and Foreign Minister Bob Carr, and says she is realistic about her prospects of re-election.
She believes it is possible but it will be an uphill battle and she doesn’t expect to know her fate on election night.
She will spend the coming months trying to secure favourable preference deals with other candidates and shoring up her support base, which includes rural people, churches, charities and not-for-profit organisations.
Senator Stephens believes the economy will be the biggest challenge for the government in the coming year, especially given the instability in some foreign money markets. But she also thought the last six years of governance had produced continued economic sustainability and productivity.
For Labor coming into the election the challenge would be selling its economic credentials.
“The one thing Paul Keating did was educate people about economics so now everybody seems to think they are a great economic guru these days but (coming into the election year we have to) remind them of how tough things are in the world and how reasonably well Australia is performing…” she said.
“We have the lowest recorded proportion of debt of any country in the western world. We are the third best performing country in the world in terms of debt percentages and we have one of the highest average incomes in the world. We have trillions of dollars of national savings which provide sovereign debt guarantee. We have bank regulations that are the envy of the world. We have had 12 interest rate cuts in the last decade and we have a Triple A Credit rating. Australia is performing very well.”
On the policy front, Senator Stephens believed the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) would be a deciding factor.
“The problem is that we’ve never really thought about disability in the same way as we have work place injury…It is definitely long overdue.”
In the coming months the government will need to decide how to fund reform. Her preferred method is an increase in the Medicare levy.
The Senator also advocates finding alternatives for young people who are inappropriately placed in nursing homes, a cause she has long championed. In addition, she champions greater investment in education by funnelling more funds into both teacher and school support services.
She also wants to see a stronger focus on languages in schools to break a single language cycle.
This would open up our economy to the rest of the world and give greater opportunity to the next generation. Like her political idol, Gough Whitlam, she believes education is the key to prosperity and greater productivity.
ASIDE from being a career politician, Senator Stephens is also an academic. She has a PhD in Public Administration and a Masters in Adult Education. She believes in sensible and informed public debate and said the political atmosphere in the parliament last year was ‘toxic’. She said the divisiveness had to stop and that MPs had to ‘lift their games’.
Senator Stephens told the Post leadership had to be demonstrated and the electorate was rightfully sick and tired of it.
“My way of operating in politics is you go the issue not the person… I never sledge anyone in the parliament… I think the challenge is to have an intellectual debate,” she said.
“I think if you firmly believe in an argument you should be able to articulate it intelligently and formulate a case without being lowered to the point of abuse.”
The Senator said internal party politics spilling over into the public domain had an impact on the electorate but believed the anti-Labor narrative being pushed by some conservative aspects of the press simply wasn’t true. She argued Julia Gillard had strengths her predecessor did not possess.
“I think there was a massive campaign to destabilise (Julia Gillard’s) Prime Ministership because it wasn’t seen to be legitimate. So, that happened, but now what I think is that she has delivered outcomes that weren’t able to be delivered before,” she said.
“The business about the mineral resource rent tax or the carbon trading system, changes to health, changes to education, the NDIS, are a handful of examples. So there was a lot of stuff on the table being negotiated but there were no outcomes.
“They couldn’t get to the end game and I think Julia Gillard is a consummate negotiator. She is amazing and she is able to see where you can give and take...She has a lawyer’s mind and I think that is the difference between her and Kevin (Rudd).
“Kevin is not a lawyer. He is more of a big picture policy person so he was the perfect person to lead us in to government. He was the big agent of change. He had the grand vision and then the challenge for him was how you convert that vision into real change on the ground. He is a micro manager and he wouldn’t let people get on with the job and I think that was the frustration.
“I always supported Kevin because he is a man with a big heart and a smart brain and I believe in being loyal to him. We’ve been friends for many, many years, but you have to concede that she won the election, she negotiated the minority government, which was something Tony Abbott couldn’t do, and she has managed to deliver. There has only been one piece of legislation that hasn’t got through the parliament in that time and that is the NDIS.
“So I think that the shock jocks, the Alan Jones of the world, who constantly harp about her and say that the government is paralysed and can’t accomplish anything, it is simply not true.
“It is a narrative that is anti-labor, anti-government and certainly anti-Julia Gillard…but she is a very warm, personable, savvy, strong, determined person.”
Senator Stephens has already begun her re-election campaign in a number of electorates and said she would ramp up activity in Hume next month after Labor selected a candidate.