Next up in our Women in Politics series, is Senator Bridget McKenzie. Tall and blonde, Ms McKenzie gained unwanted media attention last year when fellow National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce referred to her in the Senate as “a flash bit of kit.”
FROM the age of five, an eager Bridget McKenzie would wake up at 3 am and accompany her father as he delivered milk to darkened houses in northern Victoria.
“I loved that work, the cool still mornings, everyone asleep in town and you dropping the three litres of milk on the doorstep and going away quietly,” the National Party Senator recalls.
Her family lived in Alexandra and her father had a morning milk round in nearby Eildon and an afternoon round in Benalla. “I learnt very early that you’d get your $2 for four hours’ hard labour. That was a really good grounding in terms of valuing hard work and valuing rewards for effort”.
Bridget McKenzie’s family line runs deep in country Victoria. Her father’s family owned the iconic McKenzie bus company that operates across northern Victoria. Her father was president of the Dairyman’s Association, a member of the Benalla branch of the Country party (National Party) and a keen sportsman. Her mother was active in the community.
“I saw from a very young age, that that was something that you should do, contribute back, whether it is being secretary of your golf club or involved in your industry associations,” she said.
“While it probably wasn’t a political family, politics was something we talked about. Watching them get involved in issues they cared about was just a natural thing in our family.”
At Tintern secondary school in Melbourne’s outer east, a young Bridget was swimming captain and house captain. The school provided an induction into agriculture life. It had its own farm and she was in its Young Farmers Club. The students cared for its steeds and entered them in the Melbourne Show.
She was just eighteen when she joined the National Party, motivated by what she saw as the great inequality in the urban and rural divide.
“I fundamentally disagree with the assumption that geography should matter in your participation in your democracy. “There are inequities in outcomes for educational attainment, for health, for access to telecommunications,” she says, citing the mobile service black spots around her area of Ballarat.
At Deakin University, by then a young mother, she studied human movement and mathematics and completed an education degree. She became president of the Deakin University Student Association. “I beat the Labor Party ticket with typical country response of non-partisan support, people deciding on a pragmatic outcome and then joining the cause.”
She stood as head of a ticket that opposed John Howard’s higher education reforms. That was in 2003. As president, she presided over 300 staff and a budget of $15 million. She acknowledges it was great training for a future Senator.
Meanwhile she was also a Nationals junior vice-president and national executive member. Her first foray into politics came a year later when the party drafted her to stand for the Lower House seat of McMillan, then held by Labor. She says only of the result, “I’d like to say that we maximised the Coalition vote.”
A Senate vacancy came up in 2010 for Victoria. In lobbying against the higher education reforms while at Deakin she had observed that to change that policy, you needed to convince four Senators to change their minds.
“That was an a-ha moment for me,” she says. “I thought if I want to see the sort of changes I want to see in our society this is where it happens.” So she put her hand up.
Now in her third year of a six year term – meaning she is currently campaigning for colleagues not herself – Bridget McKenzie cannot think of any career barriers that have impeded her.
“Not one that I haven’t been able to jump over, go round or smash through,” she says with her ready laugh.
However, it does annoy her that some people see country males as holding conservative views towards women and their roles.
In country areas it is husband and wife running the dairy farm. Both are integral to the business, she says.
She also points to her pre-selection. “I was up against four men, and they chose me. They didn’t chose me because I was a girl. They chose me because they felt I was the best candidate on the day, and the best candidate for taking our party going forward.”
Her contenders were a future Victorian Farmers Federation president, a party state director, an organic beef producer, and a lawyer.
So far, she has only crossed the floor once over a move to recognise local government in the Constitution. “I know if I need to cross the floor on something, there is respect within the party for the need to do that sometimes.”
But she is most proud of her Senate committee work. She is deputy chair of the joint standing committee on treaties and sits on the environment and communications, community affairs, and the education, employment and workplace committees. She was also part of the committee on forced adoptions.
Tall and blonde, Bridget McKenzie gained unwanted newspaper attention last year when fellow National Barnaby Joyce referred to her in the Senate as “a flash bit of kit.” Although she says she wasn’t offended, Senator Joyce did apologise for the remark.
She equally shrugs off the recent fuss over Opposition leader Tony Abbott referring to a Liberal candidate having “a bit of sex appeal”.
“We can get a bit precious about things,” said Ms McKenzie. “But appearance should not play a role in someone’s job capability.”
However, a newspaper description of her as “a country mum” did annoy her. “There are a lot of stereotypes out there.” She keeps her family life strictly separate from her political life and all we know about it is that she has four children.
The work/family life balance is one she has to juggle the same as any working parent, the Senator said. She prefers to keep the public focus on her concerns such as the need for anti-dumping measures against cheap food imports threatening regional jobs.
“When I leave the Senate, I want to make sure that regional Australia is sustainable and exciting and recognized for the integral part it plays, not just in our social fabric and our mythology . It is a
huge player economically, but we don’t back it.”