In the second instalment of Crikey‘s MP exit interviews, we talk with former Liberal member for Pearce and staunch asylum seeker defender Judi Moylan, the first conservative woman to be elected to a House of Representatives seat in WA.
Moylan, in Parliament for 20 years, is an outspoken champion for the downtrodden and wasn’t afraid to cross the floor. Her principled stand on boats came amid a serious health scare — she was told by doctors two-and-a-half years ago she had aggressive lymphoma and she had six months to live (it was a misdiagnosis; it turned out to be an auto-immune issue and is now in remission).
But Moylan, 69, wasn’t distinguished solely by bleeding heart touchstones. She came into Parliament on a small business platform, was then-prime minister John Howard’s shadow small business minister and served on the backbench treasury committee right up to retirement. The self-described “accidental MP” had started her own successful Perth property business with “50 quid on the dining room table with three kids, a cockatoo, a dog and various other animals in tow”.
On Capital Hill, she often turned to poetry to overcome the heartache of her colleagues’ intransigence, what she calls an “ever-hardening carapace of resistance to emotional engagement”. Refugees, the scapegoating of single parents and homelessness inspired this true Liberal in the Menzies mould to turn to verse. Oh, and she’s a big Crikey fan.
What were the policy or political lowlights during your time in Parliament?
The debates over asylum seekers in this last Parliament while people were drowning at sea was a very unedifying spectacle, frankly. The frustration of not being able to convince enough colleagues to support a more human approach to asylum seeker policy I found was just heart-wrenching. I was actually sick at the time, I’d been told I had three to six months to live. And I couldn’t go to Parliament for three months, I wasn’t allowed to fly.
And I went back into this maelstrom and I worked incredibly hard with Tony Windsor, Steve Georganas, Mal Washer, Rob Oakeshott … We got together and we just felt that asylum seeker policy was just a race to the bottom of the barrel to see who could come with toughest, nastiest policies … We set up this informal group across the benches and we had about 40 members; no one from the Liberal Party came, of course, except Mal and myself.
When things got really nasty and Parliament was about to rise for a the winter break and everyone was leaving but asylum seekers were still dying at sea … I felt really heartbroken, I thought everyone’s crying crocodile tears or tears I should say, not really crocodile tears, people were genuinely upset but then you had this business of “well, we’ll just turn back the boats”. As I said on Sky News, what’s the other side of this story? Does it mean that we’re not prepared to let them die in our territory but once we’ve pushed them over the line do we really care about what will happen to them?
The whole debate descended into a vortex of political posturing that frankly flouts our commitment to international treaties, it vitiates our ties with our regional neighbours, it lends legitimacy to racist elements within our communities. But above all of that it causes unimaginable harm to people seeking our protection. So I found it soul-destroying, I really did …What role do we as citizens play in the continuation of policies that really have no place in the modern decent democratic society? Why is this acceptable to the broader community, I don’t understand …
The other lowlight was the cruel reduction in welfare support particularly for people with a disability and for single parents — that caused me a lot of heartache. Single parents in this country are doing one of the toughest jobs of raising children alone while trying to keep the finances together … They need bit of support, and I think it’s a very cruel policy that Labor brought in.
What really upset me was that I spoke about it in the party room and said that this was a terribly tough policy and that I wouldn’t support it even though we decided to support the legislation. I crossed the floor and sat with Adam Bandt. It was very difficult for me, but I just felt my conscience couldn’t allow me to put in a play such a cruel piece of policy. For some parents it took $100 a week off them.
I’m the first person to agree that we don’t want people just going on to welfare for no good reason. But I have a case that has haunted me for several years … I had two young men with mental disability come to my office with parents who are not very well off, and one of them also has some mental health issues. And they came to me desperate because the two boys were living independently in a house, they were on the DSP. One of them couldn’t string a sentence together, and they were eating out of the rubbish bins outside Woolworths at Midland because they couldn’t afford to buy food, and they couldn’t afford to pay their electricity bills.
One of the boys had been told by Centrelink that when the Labor government made changes a couple of years ago the criteria had been tightened and he had to get a job. So they put him into a job as gardener or something … Two months he couldn’t cope and he took a mixture cocktail of weed killers tried to kill himself and landed in Royal Perth Hospital. And while he was in recovery his parents were trying to get back on to the pension and they were told, “sorry, you have to wait seven weeks now”. It’s just appalling, it just sickens me.
You’ve got this element in the business community, and you’re hearing it now, that before budgets the first thing they go for is welfare and those same businesses are continually putting their hands out for billions in taxpayer money to prop themselves up. I just think it’s disgraceful, I really do. Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita, but we’ve got 600,000 children living below the poverty line.
What were the political or policy highlights of your time in office?
The one that immediately stands out is the parliamentary diabetes support group I set up in 2000 at the request of a constituent who had a young child who had just started school with type 1 diabetes. They couldn’t get insulin pump consumables on the National Diabetes Subsidy Scheme, they were just an orchardist family and they weren’t that well off, and they found it a bit of a struggle, frankly …
So I trotted off to the PM’s office and Costello’s office and to John Fahey and Michael Wooldridge. Wooldridge was very sympathetic because his wife, Shelly, had type 1 diabetes, but others said,”we’re sympathetic, but we’re trying to balance a budget, and it’s just not on the horizon”.
I went back to my office a bit dejected and decided to set up a backbench group across the benches and keep pushing for it. I got a little executive together across both Houses and the Labor and Liberal parties, and I ran it for 13 years until I retired. We had lots of events in Parliament House, but the most significant was the Kids in the House program with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation … People still remind me that Kids in the House was their most moving event, there were men sitting there with tears rolling down their face.
The other big highlight was getting children out of detention. And striking the agreement with John Howard to appoint a Migration Ombudsman to come to the Parliament and provide proper scrutiny of people who are being held long-term in detention centres, like Peter Qasim. Peter and several other detainees were released and potentially they were going to be held in detention forever.
In that negotiation we raised the issue of several thousand refugees whose temporary visas were running out … under the system they were required to apply all over again, which was terrifying and devastating for people where English wasn’t a first language. So we struck a deal with Howard that the cohort would be given permanent residency rather than have to reapply.
We were cast as political terrorists by Sophie Mirabella, which was a pretty serious accusation to make against your colleagues who were, after all, just speaking on a matter of conscience, a strong underlying principle and still the great distinguishing characteristic between the Liberal Party and the Labor Party. Menzies, when he set up the Liberal Party, said he wanted men and women of conscience, and if I were in the Labor Party I would have been expelled immediately several times over for what I did!
What was the impact of the 24-hour cycle? How did you rate the press gallery?
I think the 24-hour news cycle has changed news reporting … It has become necessarily shallow in one sense, but in another sense you see quite a lot of serious investigative journalism, which is fantastic … so you’ve kind of got two streams.
The more serious stuff comes from Crikey, The Conversation and New Matilda, and they’re rapidly gaining in popularity. Most of the press gallery take their jobs very seriously and they produce some excellent work, and I have very fond memories of such legendary figures as Matt Price and Paul Lyneham. And I admire the professionalism and commitment of some of them still there, like Michael Gordon from The Age, especially his professionalism on asylum seekers, Michelle Grattan is tireless in her commitment to accuracy, and Paul Kelly is a very fine writer, even though sometimes I don’t agree with him. And people like Waleed Aly now on radio. He’s different, I think he takes quite an intelligent approach to the serious subjects, but he ‘s got a sense of fun and a touch of wickedness and he’s attracting a much younger audience, which is great.
I retired in August, but I’ve been really busy doing media, writing, speaking, and I’ve just been appointed national president and chair of the board of Diabetes Australia … I’m really looking forward to working with them.