“Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good”
By Sean Car
Reason Party leader Fiona Patten is your local member for the seat of Northern Metropolitan in the Victorian upper house (Legislative Council) of parliament. But what does that mean for locals in practice?
As an independent, Fiona’s vote is incredibly valuable to the government which only holds 17 of the 40 upper house seats, meaning her ability to advocate for change on many critical laws and issues is stronger than what many may assume.
But with a “whopping great electorate” spanning from Craigieburn to the CBD and incorporating 11 lower house seats, including that of Melbourne held by Greens MP Ellen Sandell, her role is more focused on policy than “fix the traffic light type issues”.
However, don’t think this prevents her from getting out in the community to hear from her constituents on all fronts. If anything, providing independent access to government through advocating and holding decision-makers accountable makes her the most effective representative locals could ask for.
Having first been elected to state parliament in 2014 as the leader of the Sex Party, which she founded with her partner Robbie Swan in 2009, Fiona’s acute rise in the Victorian political sphere has been no accident.
While she now represents her constituents under the admittedly “less-catchy” Reason Party, her movement to instil a “voice for reason” in parliament has garnered support from all sides of politics.
And it’s this approach, underpinned by respecting the government’s mandate and being willing to compromise and negotiate in good faith, which has seen her effect change on a diverse range of issues during her time.
She told Docklands News that when it came to getting things done in parliament, she had always abided by a philosophy of not allowing “the perfect to get in the way of the good”.
“I wouldn’t call it horse trading, but the government does need my vote from time to time,” she said.
“So that does provide a relatively open door and I’ve always seen it as my role to work with the government, so I try and maintain good relations with the government. And that’s meant that a lot of the campaigns that I’ve been passionate about I’ve been able to successfully progress.”
“You can have an effect and it’s remembering that you’re not there to be the opposition. The government holds the chequebook and they’re the government.”
“As an independent it’s an interesting position because every vote is a conscience vote. Every week this office has to get its head around anywhere up to five pieces of legislation, plus the amendments that my crossbench colleagues or the opposition will put forward.”
“I go into all that with an open mind and we look at and assess the legislation, we talk to stakeholders about it, we ask questions of the government, we then talk to opposition about their amendments and there will be time I support their amendments. There will be times I don’t. But I won’t be opposing things just for the sake of opposing things.”
“I think you also have to take into account that governments do have a mandate. I do recognise that I’m not government. That’s not my role. My role is to represent Northern Metropolitan and to advocate for the policies that I took to the election as well.”
A proud “Canberra girl”, the 55-year-old Ms Patten said she came into politics “somewhat unwillingly” off the back of 20 years of advocating for small business, sexual health organisations, sexual freedoms and censorship reforms.
Before relocating to Victoria in 2010, she ran a small fashion design business during “the recession we had to have”, which is when she first became politically active after meeting a lot of people working in the sex industry.
This activism was brought into particularly sharp focus with HIV/AIDS, which she described as a “moment in time” through which she passionately fought against the discrimination and stigmatisation of those affected by the disease.
And off the back of such tireless advocacy and lobbying, Australia became the first jurisdiction in the world to decriminalise sex work and continues to be a leader in dealing with a range of complex public health and social issues.
Today, with the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19 representing another “moment in time”, Fiona finds herself at the coalface once again, and like HIV/AIDS, she said the pandemic presented a significant opportunity to “do things differently”.
One such opportunity she said was ending homelessness in Victoria, which as the first independent to ever chair a parliamentary committee in Victoria, she recently led a landmark inquiry into (as reported in the April edition of sister publication CBD News).
But in addition to chairing the Legal and Social Issues committee, she has been central to a lot of important work through her positions on the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations committee and the Procedure committee.
Having been able to drive reform on issues including ride sharing, voluntary assisted dying, spent convictions, supervised injecting rooms, cannabis, firearms prohibition, and more recently, contact tracing and testing, she said she “loved the work of committees”.
“Victoria will be the first state to have pandemic specific legislation. Now I don’t think I’m boasting when I say that was because of the work that we did,” she said.
“We have been working with the government to ensure we have legislation that doesn’t require us to go into this State of Emergency constantly, that we can go ‘yep, we need to quarantine incoming travellers, we need to isolate people when they’ve come into contact with COVID’ but we don’t have to have that sense of emergency.”
“I’m still digesting the homelessness report. It was all-consuming for most of 2020 and now that we’ve got the recommendations and now, I’m looking at those and thinking how can I progress them? And to me, that’s my job to make sure that happens.”
But when it comes to representing her local electorate – one of the fast growing in Australia – Fiona said the vast range of issues and “big pockets of disadvantage” meant her to-do list was constantly getting bigger.
Maximising her parliamentary communication budget by employing people to communicate with her constituents, she said her Sydney Rd office in Brunswick was always there to answer the phone and advocate on behalf of the community.
“Specifically for people in my electorate, I’m more than happy to advocate for better roads, or better trains or better transport and I do that, and I certainly get to put in bids to the budget for certain special projects, but I think more importantly it comes back to that policy area and I think that’s where we can have the greatest effect.” •