FARM Weekly journalist Bree Swift visited the Minister for Regional Development, Agriculture, Food and Ports Alannah MacTiernan at Dumas House recently and asked her about her life before politics, how her cancer diagnosis has affected her view on life and what motivates and drives her in her career.
First elected as a councillor of the City of Perth in 1988 and having held various local, State and Federal government positions since, Ms MacTiernan doesn't seem to let anything hold her back, continually making her contribution to help shape the direction of the community.
Question: You were first elected into the Western Australian Legislative Council in 1993. What inspired you to enter into politics?
Answer: I've always been interested in politics since I was a kid.
My view is that in a democracy you couldn't just complain about things, you have a responsibility to be involved and I've had that view from quite a young age and was engaged in the issues of the day.
I used to have debates about the ALP split with my best mate in primary school and whether (former Federal Labor Party leader) Arthur Calwell was right or wrong.
I've always had the generalised view that society could be better and you can't just leave that up to someone else - you have to make your contribution to that process.
I got involved in a whole range of different activities when I was still in school - I was a school rep on a school student Aboriginal advancement initiative, I was active in the antiwar Vietnam moratorium and eventually ended up joining the ALP when I moved to WA.
Q: What prompted the move to WA from Victoria?
A: I was given a one-way ticket by my family because my brother had set up an agricultural research company over here, so I came over to work with him.
It was just at the cusp of when the private sector was starting to get involved in providing agricultural advice and he had an ag science degree and was importing a lot of what was considered as cutting edge equipment, particularly from Germany and Denmark.
So it was an agricultural start to my time in WA.
Q: During your time in politics, which debate or issue have you felt most passionate about?
A: The Voluntary Assisted Dying bill was one.
To me, giving people the right to determine when they believe it is appropriate for them to die was incredibly important.
It liberates people by giving them the opportunity to make decisions about their own life and end pointless pain and suffering.
Q: What achievement are you most proud of since becoming the Minister for Regional Development; Agriculture and Food?
A: It's not something that you can go and cut a ribbon for, but it is reinstating the belief in the department that it can do R&D and there is a place for it in the delivery of a modern agricultural system.
It's been a lot of work and it's very hard to fight for money, so we haven't miraculously cured the decline that has gone on for the past two decades, but I think we have made a positive contribution by making it clear that it is important to have long-term research, scientists and agronomists that work with our industry.
You can't do it all on short-term contracts either - you need people that make it their career.
We will continue to build and maintain that capability that has been absolutely essential to assisting our farmers survive and thrive as our climate dries and our soils become more challenged.
Q: You rose to prominence as a senior minister in both the Gallop and Carpenter State governments before resigning in 2010 to shift to Federal politics. What prompted this shift?
A: We had gone into opposition at a State level and I was asked if I would go and fight for a Federal seat and I thought it was an opportunity that I was probably best placed to win.
I did 10 years in total in opposition - eight years before we got elected - and it's very good training.
It's important to understand that people in opposition do make a contribution, but it is when you're in government that you really get that opportunity to make a really positive contribution.
Q: What were the challenges of being a Federal politician working mainly in Canberra, but being from WA?
A: There were a lot of substantial issues.
The travel was hard.
I didn't necessarily think that we were going to win government in 2016 and at that point I would have done 13 years of life in opposition, so I wasn't interested in doing that.
Also, at that particular time, I didn't think we were taking Western Australian issues as seriously as we should have been, so I wasn't prepared to stand again.
Q: What were you able to take from your stint in local government to your time in Federal and State government?
A: I was on the Perth City Council from 1988-1994 and at the same time I was in the Legislative Council.
I brought with me a very detailed knowledge and understanding of all the modern issues of urban planning and had some of that knowledge from my time on the Perth City Council and work I had done previously as a lawyer.
But, more importantly, I actually understood the notion of government.
In parliament, you have parliament and the executive and the executive makes the decisions and you're bound.
But in a council, in a sense, everyone is part of the executive so it is really important that a directly-elected mayor understands that each of the councillors have a seat at the table and they will have their needs and aspirations they want to fulfill.
Just as a premier would work with his cabinet - a directly-elected mayor has to work with all of the councillors to develop a consensus and a path forward.
I think that is a little bit of a problem, as people often get elected into that position that don't have any political experience and don't understand the notion of a collegiate government.
That tends to occur when they are a directly-elected mayor and not elected by their councillors.
Q: Having held roles in government at both State and Federal levels, which has been your preference and why?
A: The State is an interesting area because you are dealing with some very high level policy issues but you also have an operational side and you actually have boots on the ground, whereas in the Federal government, unless you're in Defence or Foreign Affairs, or you really do is deliver policy and distribute money - you don't actually deliver things outside those few areas.
So in a sense the State is a very interesting combination of policy and operational activity.
But they are all fantastic areas of government and there are amazing issues to be engaged with at every level.
Q: As a minister, what has been your favourite portfolio that you have managed?
A: I came into Transport having been the opposition spokesperson for Planning and Transport.
I had built up a whole vision of what we needed to do with public transport and got that incredible opportunity to, in the space of seven years, double the size of our rail network.
And we really changed thinking about the city during that process - it wasn't just building the infrastructure but it was selling this whole story about a networked city and how mobility is absolutely essential, so that was fantastic.
I've also always loved working with the ports as that real enabler of regional development, so it's great to have that portfolio back.
But I do particularly love agriculture, because you are dealing with people that have absolute skin in the game.
They get up and spend 18 hours a day doing their job, so there is deep engagement and, intellectually, it is a really exciting industry.
All of the tech is really fabulous, the science and the debate with very different perspectives and watching the dynamics of agricultural communities opposing an idea and then gradually supporting that idea and coming towards a synthesis.
Q: Since being diagnosed with breast cancer mid-last year, you have been battling the disease while managing the huge workload that comes with your position, where do you find your strength?
A: You just have to keep going.
I got on that treadmill in 1988 and I don't think I've stopped - you have to keep the wheels ticking over.
Q: How is your treatment going and did your diagnosis give you a different perspective on life?
A: No - I have to say it was just like, oh god, just another thing to deal with.
It's not in my nature to dramatise it, but I've finished all of my treatment now and I am A-OK.
You can't say that one day it might not come back, but of course that can happen to anyone.
But at the moment the beast has gone and I hope it doesn't come back.
Q: What has been your favourite wig so far?
A: It varies - sometimes I'd get to like a wig and I'd wear it a lot and then I'd end up hating it, so would change to another one.
By the end of it, I absolutely loathed them.
It was summer and it was hot and I really, really hated wearing them.
But as I've been donating a number of them to the wig library, I put on a couple and thought - I might actually quite like to wear these again, so now that it's coming into winter again you might see me wearing a few of them.
It was quite exciting at the beginning, but towards the end having the plastic hair was painful.
Q: What is it that drives you in your career?
A: It is that sense that you should be making a contribution to our community and I bring, what I would call, a Labor set of values to that.
We want to make sure that society is fair and that everyone gets an opportunity to have a time in the sun, but at the same time, we are deeply respectful of enterprise and giving people the opportunity to work hard and create new things.
What I think I bring, in particular, is a deep attachment to that Labor principle of fairness, but also that understanding that enterprise is something to be enormously valued and that we need to make sure that everyone has that opportunity to thrive.
Q: You studied an arts and law degree at The University of Western Australia and were a commercial lawyer before entering politics - if you weren't a politician, what do you think you would be doing?
A: I was a partner in a commercial law firm, but I was very clear that if I didn't go into politics I was going to get into commercial law in an emerging company.
What I liked about being in commercial law was that you have all of these enterprises that you work with and help them to put together the infrastructure they need to move forward.
I was pretty clear, after a number of years in a law firm, that I would eventually want to go and work in a company in the private sector.
But I would have always maintained an interest in politics, because your interest in politics is not just through the medium of being a member of parliament.
Q: What interests and passions do you have outside of politics?
A: I like reading, learning and designer porn - sitting back with the house magazines.
I enjoy renovating fabulous historic places and have done up lots of old properties, including our house, which was built in 1905, old shops and a pub in Maylands which were around the same era and a house in Albany that was built in the 1880s.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
A: I remember hearing (former governor-general of Australia and senior Australian Army officer) Peter Cosgrove in the Boyer Lectures say - and it might be quite trite and something they say in the army all of the time - but it was 'remember your biggest enemy is yourself'.
He said it's the way you think, the limitations that you pose on yourself and that the first person that you need to deal with, if you are to move forward, is yourself.
Q: Over the years you have held various ministerial portfolios. How difficult is it to come up to speed on a new portfolio and what do you have to do to get a full understanding of that portfolio?
A: I had an advantage in that I had Transport for four years in opposition, Planning I had for a couple of years in opposition and I'd also had some prior history as my time as an activist in the whole planning and rail area.
So I went into my Planning and Transport role with some good existing knowledge and networks.
During my time in the Federal parliament I was also really engaged with a lot of rural issues, as I was previously the minister for Pastoral Lands.
My roles in planning and transport also meant I had dealt a lot with farming communities, so I didn't come into the ag minister role without any prior knowledge of the industry either.
However, it is still always a massive learning experience.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring politicians?
A: Be prepared to be yourself.
Make a decision that you want to contribute and make sure you have something to add.
It's important to have done things with your life so that you are in a position that you can add value to the process and you actually have something to bring to the table.
You have to understand your value set and why you want to go into it in the first place.
It is very hard, but it is also an extraordinary opportunity to help shape the direction of the community.