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Natasha recently joined the Royal Commission into Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence. She spoke to old scholar Kate Holland (1992) about Pembroke, politics and how we must all unite to create change.

25 June 2024

Singing the School song at Assembly has left an indelible mark on Natasha Stott Despoja AO. She says the School motto and the song’s final line have stayed with her. Those formative years were profoundly influential, shaping a social conscience and fervent passion for leadership, for which she is grateful.

Natasha is currently Professor in the Practice of Politics at the Australian National University; Expert Member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women CEDAW; and Royal Commissioner of the Royal Commission into Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence.

She spoke to old scholar Kate Holland (1992) about Pembroke, politics and how we must all unite to create change.

Tell me about starting at Pembroke. What were you like?

I started in 1980 in Year 6 as the new girl in Mrs Black’s class. I met my lifelong friend Katie Snarskis (now Gleeson) with whom I still dance to Duran Duran songs. I look at that class photo now and can’t believe how many of us have stayed in touch.

It was a big sacrifice for my single mother Shirley to get my brother Luke and me into this School. On many occasions Principal Diana Medlin—a pioneering educator and great role model—showed us compassion when school fees were hard. Once when Mum travelled overseas, Luke and I were allowed to board for a few weeks and I will never forget the camaraderie of the boarders.

How did Pembroke influence your life direction?

My Middle School teachers were among the people that would shape my interests and my future. John Davis (History) and Bernice Robins (History and Debating), for example, helped hone my social justice interests and were quick to challenge me. One of my first and favourite leadership roles was as Class Captain in Year 8 when Charles Edelman used to make us greet him as ‘Hail, O great one!’

My nerdy passion for student representation led to regular meetings with then Deputy Principal John Inverarity. His encouragement of me as an SRC President meant a lot and we still have contact.

Principal Diana Medlin was also an inspiration, encouraging me to pursue student representation and think critically about issues. She sent me to a conference for the UN International Year of Youth (IYY), which led to a group of us, from a range of schools, establishing the first statewide student representative body. We also got to meet Midnight Oil!

What did you favour—sport, arts or academia?

If you saw my Netball debut in Year 6 you would know that my passion for sport has been more as a spectator. I was a ballet dancer for 10 years and I still love the ballet (I am now on The Australian Ballet Board of Directors). I enjoyed some aspects of academic work, especially English, History and even Latin, and definitely the arts. I was a section leader in the Choir under the tough, yet brilliant, Choir Director Colin Curtis, and music still is one of the greatest things in my life.

Describe your trajectory towards politics—did it start with debating?

I certainly debated in a lot of tournaments across Middle School and Senior School. Melissa McEwen and I still giggle at some of the topics we had. The highlight remains, ‘That pop stars are the dimmest!’

I went straight to the University of Adelaide after graduating from Pembroke and majored in politics and history (BA). I intended to pursue law but I was offered a job as a legislative adviser/researcher while I was the Students’ Association President, and that led me to the Australian Democrats and then the Senate (after a brief interlude in radio!)

Although my favourite subjects at university were politics, history and philosophy, I never thought that I would be what I called a capital ‘P’ politician.

Yet, quite inspirationally, you became the youngest woman to enter Federal Parliament and the youngest federal party-political leader! Be honest, did the endless focus on your Doc Martens get tiresome?

While it was intriguing to me that my footwear got more attention than my policies on some occasions, I feel happy in some ways that the symbolism of the shoes meant something, especially to younger people and Australians who just wanted MPs who exemplified difference and a fresh approach to politics.

I still have the shoes. They are currently in a ‘changemakers’ exhibition in the Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD) in Canberra’s Old Parliament House. And I still love a sensible shoe!

What advice do you have for young people keen to enter politics now, or are unsure if they can make a difference.

My message to people—especially young people and young women and girls—is to take over parliament. Don’t give up on running for parliament because it seems to have given up on you.

I worry that some of the recent revelations about politics and parliament are a disincentive to participate in politics, yet we need diversity and difference reflected and represented more than ever. We know that strengthens our democracy and our faith in democracy. As a legislator I knew that with the stroke of a pen (these days, with the click of a keyboard!), legislation can change lives for the better.

As I said in my First Speech to Parliament in 1996, ‘I look forward to the day when I look across this chamber from my seat and see such a diversity of faces—young people, old people, different ages, men and women, and the many cultures that make up our nation, including Indigenous cultures, that we no longer have to strive for it’.

In 2020 you were elected to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, in 2022 you were appointed inaugural Chair of Our Watch (the foundation to prevent violence against women and their children), and this year you were made SA’s Royal Commissioner into Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence. You remain as passionate as ever about advocating for women. Do you think things are improving?

I often describe my role as Chair of Our Watch as one the greatest privileges of my life. However, it meant that I was conscious of one of the most heinous manifestations of gender inequality and that is violence against women and children. The good news is that this violence is preventable.

We all have a role to play in creating an Australia in which women are not only safe but respected and treated as equals in private and public life. We need to take action in all the places where we live, love, learn, work and play. As individuals we can call out sexist or derogatory comments at work, at home or in social situations. As parents/caregivers we can model behaviours that promote gender equality and not treat children differently based on gender.

Gender equality is about ensuring that men and women and non-binary people can enjoy lives without discrimination and rigid gender stereotypes.

Do you have an ongoing connection to Pembroke?

To this day I have dear friends from school in my life. My children have both attended Pembroke (Conrad graduated in 2022 and Cordelia will finish in the School’s 51st year).

Over the past few years I have bumped into more old scholars before breakfast than I had for 20 years! It says a lot about Pembroke that generations have chosen it. It feels like it is family as well as a school.