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.

Emma Dawson 

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

My first (and only!) job with the ALP was as a policy adviser in the office of Senator Stephen Conroy, in his role as Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy in the first Rudd government. I was hired about six months after the 2007 election, after answering an advertisement in the paper for an assistant adviser on broadcasting policy. At the time, I was working part time at Monash University and trying to complete a PhD in public policy, looking at public broadcasting. I had applied for a role as an adviser immediately after the election, through the general recruitment process, but hadn’t got an interview. 

 

I’d never met Stephen or anyone on his team but I got an interview and was offered the job on the spot by the Chief of Staff. I didn’t actually meet Stephen until my first day on the job! But I stayed with him for nearly five years, gradually taking on more responsibilities including Senate Question Time and ending up as Senior Adviser on a range of issues in the portfolio such as digital television switchover, ABC and SBS funding, media regulation and the convergence inquiry. 

 

It was a fantastic job, I learned more in those five years than in any other role and loved every minute. I only left because I was trying to start a family – my daughter was born ten months to the day after my last day in the role!

 

What did you go onto do after that?

Immediately after that, I went to the University of Melbourne as Executive Director of the Institute for a Broadband Enabled Society. I was there about 18 months, during which time I had my daughter, but working part time in that role didn’t work out, so I took another six months off until she was two, then took up a full time role at Telstra in the Digital Inclusion team in Corporate Affairs. I was there for one year before the opportunity came up to take up my current role with Per Capita.  

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

The opportunity to contribute to implementing policies that make life better for working people. I worked for a genuinely reforming minister who was bold enough to do big things. I learned an incredible amount in a short period of time about how power is wielded, and how to ensure that the voices of those without access to power and money are heard and represented. It gave me an understanding of how policy is developed and implemented that you can’t get anywhere else. It taught me invaluable lessons about the natural tribalism that operates among those with political power, and how to persuade, and negotiate with, people who may have very different priorities than you. 

 

The pace was exhausting but exhilarating. It was incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding. The job taught me to exercise careful judgement, to question everyone’s position, and to triple check your figures before putting anything into the public sphere!

What is a highlight of your time as a staffer?

It’s hard to choose just one! Stephen gave the ABC the biggest funding boost in 25 years, and supported the creation of ABC Kids and News24. He also implemented the independent board appointment process and legislated digital content delivery in the ABC charter. 

 

Given the blatant defunding and undermining of the ABC by the current government, I’m so thankful he did those things, it has provided at least some shield for the national broadcaster against the attacks coming from News Corp and other commercial media, with the current government’s support. We also delivered digital television across the country, ensuring that people in regional and rural Australia got the same channels as those in the cities – that was a first, there were still lots of regional areas with only two or three channels. 

 

Perhaps the thing I’m most proud of is that we secured a permanent broadcast platform for National Indigenous Television (NITV) by partnering with SBS, ensuring that NITV was broadcast into every home and was given long-term funding certainty.

What are you doing now?

I’m Executive Director of Per Capita, a think tank based in Melbourne. I’ve been in this role for four years, but I was part of the group of people who originally conceived of and set up Per Capita back in 2007, before I went to work for Stephen. It’s a great job – very demanding, almost as much as being a senior ministerial staffer at times! – but also gives me the flexibility to be a more present parent than I’d be able to if I were still commuting to Canberra 22 weeks a year. I get to work on policy issues that I feel strongly about, and we are particularly focussed on fighting inequality and supporting the voices of people who are usually marginalised from the public policy debate.

What advice would you give to staffers today?

Be open to everything. Soak up every minute like a sponge, you’ll never have another job in which you have access to so many smart, passionate people and the opportunity to learn so much every day. 

 

Question all the advice you get from everyone – whether from public servants, lobbyists, business interests, civil society or academics. No-one knows everything about anything, and everyone has an agenda – everyone. There is no such thing as policy advice that is absent ideology. 

Be very wary of those who pretend to be completely non-partisan on an issue and present their view as the only reasonable conclusion, untainted by any prejudice. Be on the lookout for groupthink, even from the most well-intentioned quarters. But at some point, settle on a position (and accept the position settled on by caucus!) and get to work on the implementation.

 

Less seriously, don’t say yes to every social occasion or invitation, get as much sleep as you can, and try to get some fresh air at least once a day during parliamentary sittings!

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