Sally Talbot: Life and Politics

Life and PoliticsAt the Labor Party state conference on June 2-3, the Hon. Sally Talbot was named the President of the ALP in Western Australia. In an exclusive OUTinPerth interview, she discusses her career as an out politician and the issues facing the GLBTI movement today.

OUTinPerth: How did you come to be President of the ALP in WA?

Hon. Sally Talbot: I have to go back quite a number of years. I grew up in a family where everybody did politics as an everyday activity. I assumed that people talked politics and took part in political activism as a normal part of their daily lives. I thought what people did on weekends was go letterboxing.

I’ve had seven other professions along the way, but I’ve always come back to politics. Somewhere around 2001 I became Assistant Secretary of the Party. It was when I was doing that job for 4 years, 2001-2005, that it became evident to me that a large component of the health of a party of the left is its rank and file activities. By engaging ordinary people in the practice of politics, you could actually work towards making society a better place to live. I had been to university and studied politics, theoretically, and I had been involved in short-term campaigns, but that 4 years at party office showed me that in a healthy democracy, you need healthy, vibrant political parties. It then became a semi-inevitable track to become the president. It’s not a terrifically powerful position, in the sense that I’m only one person and I still only have one vote, but I certainly have a role now in being able to ensure that measures are put in place and our practices continue to be as inclusive as possible.

OiP: What are your goals for the ALP in the coming year?

ST: 2007 is hopefully going to be the year we win back government at the national level. It is great that we have state and territory Labor governments. It is great for a whole range of reasons, not the least of which is even when we get right-wing labor governments, we still get issues on the agenda that simply don’t surface when you have conservative governments. But to get back into power at the federal level is the biggest priority. That is where you can actually start changing the culture of a country.

So, the task of the person who is at the head of the Labor Party in West Australia is to make sure we stay on track to win. If you are just looking at a national trend, we can not win unless we pick up Stirling and Havelock. We also have to retain the two seats we hold by this many votes [pinches fingers together] – that’s Swan and Cowan. I’ll be doing my bit to make sure that’s happening. That is a huge task in Western Australia because this state has a default position to the right.

[After federal elections], we move into a concern that is much more locally based. At the end of this month, we will get a whole new set of electoral boundaries which will create two extra seats in the assembly and two extra seats in the council. Most importantly, it takes seats out of the bush where there are fewer people and putting them into the city. Now that’s very significant for a party of the left because urban populations tend to shift to the left. We are going to have many months in Western Australia where we are looking at a very different political landscape leading up to the next election. So, October-June we will be going through a process of laying the foundations for the next Labor victory in early 2009.

OiP: In looking back over the course of your career, how have you seen the political climate shift? What have been some of the notable changes?

ST: The most notable change has become almost a global one for the left and that is the success of the right in being able to commandeer the language of politics. The right has invented this phrase ‘family values’. So, the right believes in family values. How do I, on the left, argue against that without making it sound as though I don’t believe in family values or I believe in values that are anti-family? The right has been so successful in commandeering that language that they have almost left the left without the language to fight our battles with. I think the major challenge of the left is to be able to articulate what we believe in, our values, in terms that will actually be heard by the general community.

We have to encourage people to start articulating what they believe. Their disenchantment with politics means people are effectively disenfranchising themselves when they say, ‘that’s not for me.’ You have to be able to show people that this [politics] is actually something they are doing every moment of every day of their lives. All their decisions they make are highly political. What course am I going to study? What car am I going to drive? Who am I going to sleep with? How am I going to have children? How do I relate to my parents? How do I relate to the refugees down the road? They are all political questions, and we’ve got less skilled at helping people frame political answers.

OiP: How have you and your partner Wendy been able to support one another in your careers?

ST: It’s basically just an understanding of the lifestyle. It is very difficult to be partners with someone who is in politics if you don’t know the world. Living with anyone who is absolutely driven to do anything is a challenge, but somebody who is driven to do something that effectively commands their attention about 99% of the time is very difficult. She was in federal parliament for 13 years and she retired in 1996. So, she knows why I take phone calls on Sunday morning and disappear late at night.

OiP: Is being an out politician easier now than it was in the past?

ST: Well, we had openly gay politicians 20 years ago, so I guess your question is whether it took more courage than now…

[Wendy and I] have always been very open about our relationship because we figured right from the beginning it would be courting disaster to be otherwise. That’s never meant to me that you had to turn up at say a citizenship ceremony wearing your ‘I’m a dyke’ t-shirt. I know that’s controversial. I would have that argument with other gay parliamentarians who would say, ‘No, it is your obligation to do that.’ That’s an argument I’ll have with anybody.

If people want to know they can know, but I figure that exactly the same set of provisions would apply to a heterosexual couple. There would be some contexts in which it’s relevant and some contexts in which it is not. My partner is retired, and she really does not need to come and partner me at some of the functions I have to go to. If she wanted to do that, I would have no hesitation about taking her. The reality is she has her own life, and she doesn’t need to do that.

That attitude towards my professional and my personal life is actually based on my belief that it [sexual orientation] isn’t that important. If I could address some of the homophobia in our community, I would say, it isn’t that important. It is about relationships; it is about caring; it is about how we support each other; it is about how we can make our community a better place, a safer place, a place where kids can thrive, a place where we can address some of the spiritual poverty that is around. If it is all within that context, it doesn’t matter. We can all get on.

OiP: Could you comment on the relationship registry policy resolution that was passed at both the ALP state conference in June and the ALP national conference in April?

ST: The important thing with something like the relationship register is that it doesn’t force people into pigeonholes. It doesn’t say, ‘If X, then Y.’ It’s about opening up branches of possibilities. And I think this is one of the strengths for the LGBTI movement, very much as it was a strength of the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s. It is the tolerance, the opening up of options and the willingness to say ‘that might not be for me, but it might be for you.’ I think what we are seeing now is a seeping out of that attitude away from the left where it has its genesis and where it has been nurtured for 7 decades into some of that soft right area. If we had tried to put that up 10 years ago, we would have gone down in a screaming heap both nationally and in the state. If you followed the debates here, it was obvious we were going to win right from the beginning. I think that reflects a general acceptance of identity.

OiP: What are your thoughts on same-sex couples parenting, in light of the recent gay adoption?

ST: I think the challenge to parent is absolutely monumental. If we were a better society, then we would put more effort, more time and energy, towards supporting people through the years in which they are parenting and that would apply to same-sex parents equally.

I don’t think same-sex parents are any different to different-sex parents, and the evidence around says it makes no difference. There are correlations with economics, bring a child up in poverty and their options are going to be reduced, but bring a child up without love and you have got a real problem. Who loves the child is very secondary to the quality of that love and the constancy of it, the unconditional nature of it. If you have a couple of people who can give unconditional love to a child, you got a reasonable chance of getting it right and it doesn’t matter what their orientation is or their gender. That’s my belief, and I have seen nothing to suggest that is not the case.

I think children see the gender of their parents as being very secondary to whether their home is a nice place to go into, whether you can have a sleepover that is fun, whether you have a couple of adults around who will yell at you if you don’t do your homework or whether somebody will sit down and help you with it. I think that’s what it is all about.

My son was born into my relationship, which is a same-sex relationship. I think he is perfectly healthy and happy. Certainly, all through David’s growing up – he has been independent now for a couple of years – our house always seemed to be a place that people wanted to come to.

My son when he was about 14 said, ‘Mum, there is one thing you should know. I can’t defend you at school when the conversation becomes homophobic. I can’t defend you.’ And I said, ‘I would never expect you to. My lifestyle is not something you have to defend.’ I think that was quite sophisticated of him to have actually teased out the difference between joining in the current attack and not defending. To have defended me I think would have been entirely inappropriate. I would have been distraught if I thought he had taken up my case as something that he had to defend. The fact that he had carved out a way through it and emerged with a sense of his own integrity was all that mattered to me.

OiP: If there are GLBTIs interested in politics, what is your advice to them?

ST: Join a party. It doesn’t matter which party. There are lots of gay people in the Liberal Party, and if that is what you are interested in, then go and join them. No use being outside, go and be inside.