Where are they now?

 

Since our patron, Elizabeth Reid, became the first Women’s Adviser ever appointed by a Prime Minister in 1973, there have been literally thousands of women employed as staffers of ALP parliamentarians and party offices.

 

In our ‘Where are they now?’ series, now you can learn what some of these fabulous women have gone on to do in their professional (and personal) lives.

Cara Varian

When did you first work for the ALP and what was your role?

 

I first worked for the ALP in 2009. I started as an assistant advisor to Joel Fitzgibbon in the Defence portfolio after working as a departmental liaison officer in the same portfolio (in both the Howard and Rudd Governments).

 

What did you go onto do after that?

​Later in 2009, I moved to Sydney to work in NSW Parliament. I worked in the Transport portfolio until the 2011 election, starting as a senior adviser to David Campbell and then moving into the chief of staff role to John Robertson when there was a cabinet reshuffle. John Robertson became the Leader of the Opposition after the election, and I stayed for the transition as his chief of staff for about 18 months. I left to pursue post graduate education, international travel, and a new career (though I was still working out what that would look like when I resigned). 

 

I have since volunteered on state, federal, and local government elections in NSW where I continue to live.

What did you find most rewarding career-wise about working for the ALP?

 

The most rewarding part of my role was being in a position to identify (and then address) issues that, with sufficient effort, strategy, patience, skill, resources and technical expertise, could be changed to materially improve or change the way Australians live – at an individual, community, city, state or national level. The scope and scale of the influence you can have as a staffer is not often rivalled in many other roles, particularly as a young person. 

 

Developing a network of smart and driven professional peers who share similar values has also been important to me. I loved the fun, the variety and the intellectual stimulation of the people and the work (that came with an intense and large workload).

What is a highlight of your time as a staffer?

 

I was, and remain, very proud that I was in the building on the day that the Government made a National Apology to the Stolen Generations. 

 

I also valued the exposure to and interactions with senior executives (private and public sector) while I was still quite young. ​Understanding more about how that world works has helped me build my own career and my confidence to take on senior roles.

What are you doing now?

​Today I am the Executive Director of the Harding Miller Education Foundation, which is a national charity that provides scholarships to Australian girls who have high academic potential and are currently experiencing socio-economic disadvantage. 

 

I was employed in 2015 by the founders and have built the organisation from an idea to reality. Scholarships are funded through private donations, with the founders covering all administration and staff costs. We support girls studying in Australian public schools between Year 9 and Year 12, which means our model supports both individuals and excellence in the public school system. Each scholarship is valued at $20,000 over four years and includes tutoring, laptop, data, remote IT support, online homework help, study skills resources, career and tertiary education experiences and mentoring from our volunteer coaches. 

 

To date, the foundation has supported more than 645 students across Australia.

What advice would you give to ALP women staffers?

  • Get a mentor (or a couple) – they need to be smart, experienced at something that you also want to be good at, and trustworthy. 

  • As soon as you take on a role as an ALP staffer, start thinking about what you want to do next (this can obviously change over time). It might be a different staffer role or something entirely new. It is a very unstructured work environment, so opportunities will either need to be created by you or will fly at you unexpectedly. Knowing what you want next will help you decide on what to put your effort into (beyond the requirements of your current job). Make time to set yourself up for your next step (or the three steps beyond that) – creating connections, seeking learning opportunities, attending relevant events. 

  • Walk the path in your own way. Much has been written recently about the culture and work environments of parliaments and political parties. Increasing diversity is proven to make things better so it is great that you are there. And now that you are there, have confidence in the value of your own perspective and approach. Do it your way and we will collectively be better for it.