Transcript

A Talk with Carmen Lawrence

17 October 2008

carmen-lawrenceCarmen Lawrence

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 8 Mb].

Matt:

This is the La Trobe University Podcast, I would be your host Matt Smith, good morning, good afternoon and good evening, it does all depend on where you're standing. Joining me today would be a rather special guest. She's a former premier of Western Australia and she finds herself at La Trobe as a guest of the Politics Society, it's Carmen Lawrence. Let's give her a great big round of applause, thanks for joining us today, Carmen.

Carmen:

It's a pleasure.

Matt:

Now just describing you as the former premier of Western Australia doesn't do you justice. You've had a long career in Australian politics, it lasted 22 years?

Carmen:

22 years almost, yes.

Matt:

What would you consider your highlight to be?

Carmen:

Very hard to say actually, because so many things have happened in that time. Obviously a great honour to be the Premier of Western Australia, and though it was a difficult time, it was actually in the middle of the last recession, maybe we're heading for another one, and it was at a time when the Labor Party was in deep trouble after the WA Inc scandals associated with Brian Burke. So it was very challenging and in many ways of course it had to be handled with great diplomacy and I was probably ill-prepared in fact, to be the premier at the time. Nonetheless I have to say that would count as a highlight in the general sense. But it's often the little things that are very rewarding. Like introducing a program for kindergarten to year three students to assist them in overcoming learning difficulties when I was Minister for Education, for example.

Matt:

You came in the wake of Brian Burke, did you say.

Carmen:

There was another premier between myself and Brian Burke. Brian Burke was followed by Peter Dowding, Peter Dowding was replaced by me. The party decided that he was following too closely along the lines that Burke had established, not because he wanted to, but because there were enormous financial problems after the collapse of the Rothwells Merchant Bank and big deals that were done between the owner of that bank and Alan Bond, which were creating greater difficulties with the state with every day that passed. So we had to close the door on that and shut it down, which was what I did.

Matt:

And you would have had a bit of trial by fire when you were coming in.

Carmen:

Oh yes, there was some threats emanating from some of those same sectors, they were pretty tough at times!

Matt:

When you retired from politics last year, you said that Rudd's Labor Government will help shape a more compassionate society. What do you think of the government's performance so far?

Carmen:

Well, I was very pleased obviously that one of the first things they did was to issue an apology to the stolen generation.

Matt:

That was really quickly after the election.

Carmen:

It was done well. It was obviously heartfelt and it affected people, particularly Aboriginal people who had been part of the Stolen Generations, but I think it created an atmosphere of acceptance, because it was interesting that just before the apology was made public something like, I don't know, 40% of the population thought it was a good thing, and afterwards it was more like 65%, which just goes to show what leadership can do, and I think was a very important moment for Australia. A lot more needs to be done now, and I hope that they'll actually wind back what Howard did in the Northern Territory, which remains a very significant stain, I think on national policy for indigenous people.

Matt:

Well what surprised me about the apology is that the massive fallout that some people were scared was going to happen never really eventuated, so their fears were unjustified.

Carmen:

I think the fears were always bizarre, in fact, when you think about it. To apologise for what was clearly a policy mistake of considerable proportions. The States had already done it and nothing had happened, why would it be any different if the national government did it? There is the remaining question of compensation, and I think that remains for many Aboriginal people a live issue, and it should frankly for governments as well, because real damage was done and the consequences of it are still being seen in the generations that followed. Work in Western Australia has shown that the mental health and the drug abuse and alcohol abuse of those children of the children of the stolen generation are at higher levels then you would expect.

Matt:

What are your views of current women in politics, with Julia Gillard being our Deputy Prime Minister, and further abroad we've had Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton rising to prominence in the U.S. election?

Carmen:

Women have obviously been present in increasing numbers in politics, and I've always argued that that's a matter of justice, we should be 50%, or slightly more than that actually!

Matt:

Yes, I can see your logic!

Carmen:

So that's just a matter of justice! And it's taken a long time to get anything like that number, although I'm pleased that at a national level the Labor Party is approaching 40%, which is excellent, and there are some very talented women amongst them. Now I'm obviously pleased whenever women are active in politics because I think that's an important thing for the community, not just for the individuals concerned, but so that women can see themselves represented, they can see the particular interests that they have, probably better covered and better understood by women, because we still are brought up in somewhat different ways and have different responsibilities.

Matt:

Do you think they're coming to prominence in the right sort of circumstances though? Because there's been some sort of controversy about Sarah Palin's appointment, what the motives behind it might have been.

Carmen:

Well she's for me a bit like Bronwyn Bishop. I remember someone asking me whether Bronwyn Bishop was the sort of woman I wanted in politics, and I said it's not about what I want, it's about who is there. And Palin is obviously being used, I think, by the Republicans, well was initially as a foil to Hillary Clinton's failed candidacy for the Democratic nomination to try and grab hold of a constituency they thought had been disappointed by Barack Obama's ascendency. I think they've failed miserably because she's obviously not a very talented individual from all accounts and she's carrying quite a lot of baggage it would seem, and her incompetence on… particularly foreign affairs but just about everything that I've heard her interviewed on is obvious even to the least engaged political observer.

Matt:

If you had your time over, knowing what you know now, would you enter politics again, and would you encourage students today to enter politics?

Carmen:

It was very funny, when I went back to the University of Western Australia one of the staff there had found a poster which obviously related to my time in politics, maybe one of the downsides if you like of my political career, and it was a newspaper banner headline which said 'Lawrence Resumes Her Career' so he was obviously implying that I should stay in academia all the time and probably there was some people who would agree with that! No, I had a very interesting time in politics, and a lot of privileges most people never dream of. Getting to understand the country and having the opportunity to make decisions. But I guess I would say to anyone interested in entering politics – don't enter on the basis of the images you see in politics. That while it's called the Rudd Government, it's not actually the Rudd Government. It's a government made up of a whole group of people who work together. You don't achieve anything in politics by yourself, it's very much a collective effort. And though the media often seek to portray it in terms of the leader and the quality of the leader, the leader's only as good as the people around him and her, and I think that's an important understanding that I certainly came to quite early and I remain absolutely convinced of despite some people's view that you really need a strong leader that pushes people around, I think that never works.

Matt:

What are the best aspect and worst aspects of not being in the public spotlight anymore?

Carmen:

Well, the best aspect is that you're not in the public spotlight! And that I don't have to worry about what people think about me or how I look, or whether I've inadvertently said the wrong thing. And some of the public commitments that I got a little tired of, I'm pleased not to have to do. Important to local communities, but when you've been to the presentation of the Guernsey's for the under-12 football side for the 29th time, the 30th time does pale a bit! So that's the principal benefit. I remember when I was first elected, walking down the street in my own home community and just as a result of the publicity surrounding that election I could hear people whispering behind me, and I thought 'what have I done? I've lost my privacy, lost my anonymity.' And I'm gradually regaining it.

Matt:

What's the best headline you've ever seen concerning yourself?

Carmen:

Look, I haven't even kept track of it. There are papers around that I might have a look at, but one of the things I always felt important about politics is never to go back over what it is you've done or where you've been, except of course it's important to learn some of the lessons of your own presentation and decision making, so I've never been one of those people to look over my shoulder so I couldn't even tell you. I couldn't tell you the worst one either!

Matt:

I was expecting maybe a 'Lawrence of Arabia' sort of…

Carmen:

Oh well that did happen! It did happen in the first campaign, yes. It was actually a second hand bookshop that used that headline in their advertising!

Matt:

Okay! Carmen Lawrence, thankyou for your time today.

Carmen:

My pleasure!

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