Transcript of #TransitZone podcast interview with Zali Steggall on THURSDAY, 2 September 2021 lightly edited for clarity.

PETER CLARKE: As we record another #transitzone podcast our two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, are still in lockdown, with rapidly rising locally acquired COVID Delta cases. Victorian new cases today are up sharply, and, in New South Wales, still well over 1000 cases each day. The intensely infectious Delta variant has pitched us, and the rest of the world, into another much more challenging phase of this pandemic, where elimination of community transmission seems more out of reach for many communities, including across the Tasman in New Zealand, the home of “go early go hard”. And other variants are starting to appear in Coronavirus world, especially in high density population, high infection rate locations. Meanwhile, the ravages of climate change are hitting home globally. The United Nations 26th Climate Change Conference will be held in Glasgow, and virtually, scheduled for the first two weeks of November. So our guest for this edition of the #transitzone is the federal independent member for Warringah, the Sydney seat she won from the Liberal Party incumbent, the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, at the 2019 federal election – Zali Steggall.

MARGO KINGSTON: I’d like to start with something I wrote for an anthology in January last year:

“I see with clarity, as I watch the Sydney Harbour Bridge fireworks on a 2019 apocalyptic New Year’s Eve, that those who rule us are fiddling as Rome burns. Does the political class have anything to offer us at a time of existential crisis? For me, Zali Steggall is the natural leader of an alternative unity government on climate change. She’s the true liberal representing a wealthy Liberal seat that expelled climate denier Tony Abbott in emphatic terms, She’s drafting a National Climate Change framework bill to put to Parliament, which would set legislative goals to transition to a decarbonized economy, like the UK, Ireland and New Zealand have done, and Australians need to mobilize to help. As I write this the Australian Catholic Bishops have backed Zali’s bill, in principle.”

So since then we’ve had COVID, we’ve had a gas led recovery, we’ve had a government grant to a gas explorer, we’ve got the government trying to subsidize old coal fired power plants to stay open longer, and now we’ve got the Government trying to (get the AEC to investigate) these poor little Voices groups that are that are trying to find a solution in safe Coalition seats. So what was the fate of your bill, Zali, and where do you reckon we’re at right now? 

ZALI STEGGALL: Obviously the government has not acted on climate change. We’ve had the recent IPCC report give us a very stark and important warning of what needs to be done, especially over the next 10 years.

But the bill is very much alive. I am re-presenting it to Parliament. We’ve had a very extensive inquiry into the bill and that was really important because it allowed the business sector, industry, health, environmental groups, unions and obviously many individual Australians to have a voice in explaining how this sector was challenged by climate impacts, and what they needed from the government to actually help address that. And 99.9% in support of the bill, the framework and the certainty that the bill provides for forward planning. So taking on board the outcome of the inquiry – unfortunately the Coalition refused to support the bill or make a recommendation that the bill be debated.  

I will be reintroducing the bill to Parliament because I do think it’s important that all MPs be put on the record for their stance on this. We are entering a phase to the next federal election; climate change policy must be the number one issue of this election and all MPs of all political persuasions need to be held to account for their voting record. I think that’s incredibly important because we get a lot of spin across this from both sides of politics, and MPs’ voting record matters.

MARGO: I remember Helen Haines’ federal ICAC bill, she got the support of the whole crossbench and Labor to suspend standing orders to debate it and she only needed two Coalition MPs to come across. Are you in that position, have you got that full support, apart from the Coalition to suspend standing orders to at the very least debate it?

ZALI: Well obviously Craig Kelly on the crossbench probably not and Bob Katter probably not, but the Government only has a majority of one. So we have to be very clear that this is a very tight Government and the Australian people absolutely have the power to change the course of climate policy in Australia. As we enter into a phase towards the next election – and we have got COP 26 coming up in November – it’s really imperative that Australia get on with the job and the Coalition under Scott Morrison are simply not willing to do that. There’s a lot of rhetoric and spin but there is no action.

We are still subsidising fossil fuels at a rate of 80 to one compared to renewable technologies in Australia, so it just is absolute rubbish when there is talk coming from Coalition and that we are acting, that we’re doing our job or that we’re world leading. And the frustrating part is there is so much opportunity for Australia to be on the front of this wave towards climate action and renewable energy, and this race to net zero, and the government is simply not putting Australia in a position to take advantage of the opportunities.

PETER: So from your experience actually inside the building, how strong, how muscular, is the fossil fuels industry pressure within the corridors of power? How does it actually work for us outside trying to discern how it works inside? How does it truly capture politicians – and of course we’ve seen the COVID Commission gas led recovery outcome as well – try to describe for us how the fossil fuel industry actually captures politicians.

ZALI: Well as you can imagine I have not been invited to the fossil fuel events, that’s probably not a surprise. There is a lot of lobbying that goes on in Parliament by a lot of groups, and it is not all bad, it’s a very important part of our role as members of Parliament to represent our communities but to be aware of all the issues so we meet with a lot of groups.

But what is clear around climate policy and what’s happening with these lobby groups around the fossil fuel industry is they have a sway over the decisions that happen behind the scenes. It’s in the party room. So what happens is you have policy decisions that are being made behind closed doors, where there is a huge level of influence via donations, but also via staffer appointments. If you look at the staffers of a number of ministers in the government, including the Prime Minister’s, they have all come from fossil fuel industries – they do not have the impartiality required to ensure good decisions are made.

Unfortunately the Climate Change Authority has now been really tarnished by appointments that have come from fossil fuel-based industries. We see that from Minister Taylor’s Technology Roadmap Advisory Committee that is again heavily dominated by fossil fuel and gas executives. We saw that with the COVID Coordination Committee.

There is no doubt that the government is not willing to make it an open market situation of how we meet our energy needs, and how we transition. They are absolutely putting the handbrake on our transition.

MARGO: Malcolm Turnbull said recently that the only way to force reform in the Coalition parties is if power was threatened and I get the feeling – I’m interested in your view – that they do feel under pressure in those traditional safe liberal seats. I’ve heard Josh Frydenberg say ‘look we’re talking behind closed doors, we’re going to come up with a commitment we think, can’t say too much’.

I’m just thinking I wonder if we got a big stunt coming up before November, either an election, or ‘Oh, look, here’s my spin, yes we commit (to net zero) but we won’t tell you how’. What’s your vibe about how he’s gonna try and get out of this mess.

ZALI: Well what we need to remember is there is no transparency on how the Coalition works. We do not have the details of the deal that gets done between the Liberal Party and the National Party informing government and how they allocate ministers and the policy positions. And what we know is we have Barnaby Joyce, who has made it very clear that he does not believe Australia has a duty or can act on climate change and significantly reducing its emissions.

And we have to remember the Prime Minister is the man who walked into parliament with a lump of coal, so he is not ideologically committed to reducing our emissions and moving away from fossil fuels.

The problem we have is yes, there is likely to be spin coming up before COP 26. The international pressure is huge. And obviously the domestic pressure is huge because voters have had enough.  Voters do want action on climate change. We’ve seen it firsthand, we experienced it during the 2019 bushfires, we know the impact is going to have on us, our children’s lives and future generations.

So I agree with Malcolm Turnbull – we absolutely have to challenge power to enable change to happen. There’s no doubt about it. And what we’re seeing is, I believe, the independent movement really rising up in traditionally Liberal seats. And of course, the incumbent Liberals are all complaining that this is a move by – they made these allegations that this must be coming from the left – but the reality is there is no alternative. The Liberal Party has moved so far to the right to ‘conservatism; that there is no one representing the sensible centre, and that’s where the independents come in.

If you are in a traditionally Labor seat you have an option of voting Green if you want more climate policy, for example. But if you’re in a traditionally Liberal seat they are not alternatives, but what we’re seeing is moderate liberals, sensible center, people who want sound, merit-based, credible policy based on experts and facts. They are turning to the independent movement because there is no other alternative coming from, or no credible alternative, coming from the major parties. 

MARGO: I’ve noticed that a lot of groups are having trouble getting the right candidate. I remember Malcolm Turnbull told us that in the old days when it was a Liberal Party you would be a star candidate and immediately accepted, but of course those days are gone. I’d like to know why you felt a duty to stand, as someone with a successful, happy life, and why you think so many successful people of integrity just don’t want to get involved.

ZALI: Yeah, and that has to change. Again, you can’t be a bystander of life, and you can’t sit on the sidelines and bemoan the status quo, bemoan the lack of action, and not be prepared to step into the fray and take action, whatever action is within your power to take, and that’s being an advocate, being a voice.

If you are at a point in your life where you have achieved in your career, and you are able to give back to your community by representing them, I urge professionals out there, people who are really dedicated and focused on issues, to consider this. There used to be a day where politics was about that, it was about people who have had a successful life in their business or chosen field and then they got to a point where they felt it was time to give back to the community by representing their community in government or in politics. We’ve gotten in the last 15 to 20 years to a situation where politics have become a career choice, and we have young advisors who have no other experience who go straight into political offices. They go up the chain as advisors, they get handed seats. They have no life skills, they have no integrity and no conviction beyond their party position, and that I think is really detrimental to democracy.

So my call to professionals out there, no matter what your field of expertise or what your career has been, if you are in a position to give back, I urge you to consider running in politics to give back to your community, to be a voice for reason and for sound governance to ensure your children and your grandchildren’s future is safeguarded.

So that’s why I ran. I’ve had a successful sporting career, I’ve been a barrister for over 10 years. I am capable, willing, and I felt strongly that it was not okay for me to sit on the sidelines any longer.

MARGO: So Zali, give me your pitch about what’s enjoyable about the position you’re in. I mean, I noticed you and Rebecca Sharkey and Helen Haines seem to be a very productive and collegiate sort of team. Apart from duty, is there an upside in seeking to serve? 

ZALI: Oh absolutely. It is incredibly rewarding to have the opportunity to serve your community, to help your community. This is an incredible privilege to represent your electorate in Parliament to debate issues, to bring their voice into the chamber, into the debate, to try and bring common sense and good legislation forward, to bring solutions forward. For me it’s been very important not to be a divisive voice, I’m trying to be a constructive voice that brings forward sensible solutions. It is incredibly rewarding to have this opportunity to make change, to impact the future of our kids and future generations to ensure we have a safer environment, better laws that protect women. We need (a) sexual discrimination amendment, incredibly important that we get rid of sexual harassment into workplaces and protect all women and men that are exposed to that. There’s so many areas we need to improve –  areas of integrity. We need a National Integrity Commission, we need a professional code of conduct when it comes to Parliament.

 We need truth in political advertising. I’m introducing a Bill to try and stop the lies in political advertising. There are many areas where it’s incredibly satisfying to be trying to bring about change and represent the views of my constituents.

There’s the practical small bits that are really satisfying, like when I’m bringing grants and assisting community groups to get the help they need, obviously, through COVID, representing local businesses and pushing the government to do better on their support packages. I’ve had the incredible privilege to help people in really disadvantaged situations get better service from the government, and be brought out of very dangerous situations as well. And so not all successes or public, many happen below the radar in the course of the everyday.

And of course it’s about a whole team effort. I am only one of a very productive and very committed team here in my office, volunteers and paid staff. It’s incredibly rewarding – it’s the best job to be doing.

MARGO: Zali, you’ve been very active talking to ‘Voices for’ groups and rallying them, what’s your take on the Liberal Party’s move to try and get the AEC to investigate them? It just seems to me that there actually might be a bit of momentum out there that it’s, that it’s not all hot air.

ZALI: Well there’s a lot of momentum, and there’s a lot of grassroots movements really developing in every area of the country because there is a frustration with the traditional parties. They have lost touch I would say with most ordinary Australians –  the party room politics, the power deals, the lobbying, all that is very removed from the everyday priorities of Australians.

The attacks and the fears by the Liberal members – is it surprising, not at all. But I can assure you, as an independent we are held to a higher level of scrutiny than any political party. As an individual, the level (of) scrutiny we are under is far greater. And so I welcome any call to increase the AECs powers to look into donations. We know there are millions and millions of dollars of donations that go to the major parties, and in particular the Liberal Party, that are not accounted for, that fall through the cracks of the legislation.

So really these calls around investigations of the groups is just desperation because they know they are under threat. It shows how disconnected they are from their communities, because it ignores the fact that these groups are from their very communities. So the more they disrespect and disregard these groups and try to label them as something else the more they actually galvanize those groups to get rid of them.

PETER: Here’s a question you asked the Prime Minister recently, apropos of what you said just a few moments ago about truth in political advertising.

“To the Prime Minister. Over the weekend we saw thousands of text messages and emails sent to constituents of many electorates by the United Australia Party spreading misinformation about vaccines and lockdowns. The past two federal elections have been influenced by misinformation and deceptive political advertising from each of the major parties. Do you support politicians and third parties having the ability to lie in political advertising, and if you don’t, will you do something about it?”

What was the Prime Minister’s response, and your appraisal of that response? 

ZALI: It was the usual spin and avoidance of the real issue that I was putting to him. This is a really important issue because we have seen huge levels of misinformation. We’ve seen it for the last 10 years around climate impacts and global warming, but now we’ve also been seeing it in the last 18 months around COVID and vaccination. Misinformation is incredibly dangerous because it does put Australians at risk from a health perspective, but it also puts at risk our democracy.

So I was putting very clearly on the Prime Minister – will he act to get rid of the loopholes that we currently have which mean political advertising is not held to any factual standard. In business, if you’re selling a good or service you are held by laws that you cannot mislead or deceive as to what your service or goods can do, or you are liable. But in political advertising you can lie to your heart’s content. There is no legislation – the powers that (the AEC) currently have are only in so far as misdirecting someone as to the nature of their vote, and even then to get over that threshold you need to be able to show months after an election has been held that the result of the election was impacted to such an extent that it is voidable.

So what it does is it ignores the influence of these ads over a course of time and just how many voters they might be influencing and how it changes the discourse of the debate.

So we need to change that. The Prime Minister only engaged with the idea of misinformation around COVID. It ignored completely the fact that lies in political advertising have been used by both sides of the political divide. The Coalition certainly have used them and so has Labor and it needs to stop. We absolutely need to make sure we prohibit that kind of advertising.

MARGO: And now we’ve got Clive Palmer with megabucks spreading misinformation about vaccinations and so-called horse worm cures and all the rest of it. If I remember rightly, in Craig Recussel’s film Big Deal you actually appeared with Jason Falinski, the Liberal MP for MacKellar, to call for truth in advertising legislation? 

ZALI: I did, and in fact Jason Falinski and I sent a joint submission to the parliamentary inquiry after the 2019 election, raising concerns about truth in political advertising and around deep fakes.  But this shows the hypocrisy – when I announced the ‘stop the lies bills’ around political advertising I had Jason Falinski call it out like somehow this was not necessary and this was a ridiculous move. So the hypocrisy from a member of parliament who on one hand positions himself as caring about this, but on the other fails to act and really is shown up for a very empty position.

And these are the things that voters need to be aware of, because a lot of promises across a lot of issues get made at election time. And there’s very little that gets followed up by a number of members once they are actually in Parliament and in the Chamber. Essentially once you have voted for some of these members, you have handed over the vote of your electorate by proxy to a party room that will make the decisions regardless of the views in the electorate.

PETER:  Zali the ABC television Annabel Crabb series “Ms Represented”, I’m sure you watched every one of those and some of the historical stories were just gobsmacking. As a strong professional woman in Parliament House today, what’s your perception of how things are going in that area now? Are there green shoots of improvement so things for women in politics are perhaps improving, or is it so entrenched it’s not going to shift?

ZALI:  No, I think things are improving. I think 2021 has been a watershed year for changing, for ripping back that curtain and talking about this problem and exposing toxic masculinity and bullying and harassment. I don’t think anyone could look past the allegations of Brittany Higgins and the shocking treatment she’s received from the government, by senior members of the Coalition. But also the idea that such a thing could allegedly occur in Parliament House (which) should be a workplace of best standards, yet it appears to be devoid of standards – it’s 20 years behind the corporate sector. So that’s scary.

But look, there has been improvement.

I think if there’s anything positive that’s come out of the horrendous allegations and the incredible bravery of people like Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame in coming forward, and all the women that marched on Parliament for the March for Justice walk is that we are having the discussion and we are pushing for change.

We’re seeing the Foster Review implement some changes to our workplace arrangements. We’re waiting on the Jenkins review in terms of the Parliamentary workplace. We have finally seen some changes to the Sex Discrimination Act – not enough, the government has failed to implement all the recommendations of the Respect at Work Report, which is insulting to women and men who are impacted.

We need to continue making more amendments, but I would say small changes have happened, and I think no small reason because we have got more strong vocal women in Parliament, and it does bring us to the point that we need more women in federal parliament, in particular in the House of Representatives.

I look at the crossbench – I have strong women around me, Helen Haines and Rebecca Sharkie are fantastic. I have good relationships with female members of Parliament on both sides of politics, but we need more who are prepared to speak up.

MARGO: Zali, why do you think it’s women who are leading and largely engaged in the ‘Voices for’ movement in safe Coalition seats?

ZALI: I think because the party selection process, especially in Coalition seats or in Liberal seats, is absolutely patriarchal by nature and has a huge amount of unconscious bias – actually probably conscious bias really but I will give them the benefit of the doubt by saying unconscious bias.

We know the vast majority of positions within the parties are held by men; this is long held positions of power and decision making. And I think the whole pre-selection process, the fact that it’s so behind closed doors, this is a system that is there to maintain the status quo, and the status quo is to keep women out. So I think women have had enough, and personally, as a professional woman, I’m not going to wait to be tapped on the shoulder. I was very willing to put myself forward to be an independent, and to give my constituents that choice. At the end of the day it’s ultimately each electorate’s choice at election time to vote. But the problem is, you can only vote for the names that are on the ballot paper, so there’s no point wishing there were better options or better choices and alternatives. (There are) so many people in elections really frustrated that they don’t actually see people on the ballot paper that represent the views that they really want to vote for, and they have to look at the least worst option. So my call is for professional people to consider running to give people a better choice.

PETER: When you were a champion, and Olympic slalom skier – and I’ve been watching that Nagoya YouTube footage of you at 23 ripping down the hill in the slalom, just great to watch again – the focus and the grip required was really intense. And (at the bar), really tough cognitive demands put upon you, how has that background of real focus, real grit, served you now as you navigate the obstacle course in politics? 

ZALI: I think I’m incredibly lucky that my professional background actually offers a perfect training ground for life as a politician. My life as a professional athlete meant I had to be dedicated, to persevere, you have to be very goal focused. You have to be open to criticism – the media never takes kindly to people that lose a race. It prepares you for the life in the public eye, of being a politician, but also as a barrister, the challenge of having to deal with the adversarial nature of our court system, thinking on your feet but also really thinking through merit based sound arguments, (and) looking for expert advice is really important.

 As a member of parliament (our) ultimate role is to debate and pass legislation that will regulate the lives of millions of people around Australia. It will set the path for your opportunity, your freedoms, your choices in life, how you will be supported through your health, your education, how you will be kept safe. There is a huge responsibility on Parliament and on government to do the best they possibly can for the Australian people. So it’s really important to have all those skills, and we need a broad base of skills in Parliament to ensure we have that really well rounded debate.

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