Adelaide | Rachel Sanderson wasn’t given a strategy – or a chance – by Liberal HQ when she ran for the seat of Adelaide at the last election.
By winning it, knocking over the sitting member with a huge swing, she’s begun authoring her own maverick playbook on unconventional electoral success, and she thinks she could teach head office a thing or two about winning votes.
Over coffee at Nick’s in North Adelaide, Sanderson comes across as a political cleanskin, who with no ties to any past or strict ideology is keen to do things differently.
A quick cross-section: she supports gay marriage but plans to vote against it; she can’t understand how other politicians can have children; and her commitment to public education has been shaped by seeing her mother struggle to afford her private schooling.
“Because my seat was considered unwinnable I didn’t really have a lot of time and energy invested into my seat,” Sanderson tells me.
“So I’ve just run it like I ran a business. You just think of it logically – what are you selling, who’s your market, how will you access the market, how will you get the message out?
“I’m hoping if I get a really big swing this time, people will start asking me to teach them how to run seat campaigning. Because at the moment the way that I campaign is probably different to how the experts would prefer that I campaigned.”
That may be true, but it is also likely that few people could campaign in the Sanderson way. She claims to work 12-hour days (eight on the weekend), every day, doorknocking and hand-shaking and hitting up the community events that are the life-blood of the good local member.
“To be honest, one of the reasons why I wouldn’t ever force more women into the occupation, I really don’t know how you could have children and do this job. I really don’t. The capacity that I work at, I could not have children. I don’t even have a pet.”
In what shapes as a tight electoral tussle next year, Sanderson’s seat may be one of the keys. It’s traditionally a Labor stronghold, with Sanderson only the second Liberal MP to hold the seat since it was established. If Labor can win it back – the preselection of high-profile Prospect Mayor David O’Loughlin giving them every chance – the Liberals’ hopes of winning government would take a significant dent.
To win, she’s running a campaign of micro focus.
She says the vote winners in her electorate are cutting the cost of doing business, education, public transport and access to housing. But she’s not particularly comfortable dealing with these issues as national and state policy conundrums: she’s about street-level detail, not big picture fixes.
When she was thinking about running, in 2007, she says she “could imagine every street, every footpath I’d fix”.
She has a database, she claims, of issues in each street in her electorate, cross-referenced by the household that raised them during her door knocks.
When asked how she’d fix the state’s troubled public transport system, she immediately details how she’d re-route the North Adelaide leg of a particular bus route. When asked how she’d improve the lives of small-business-people, she nominates reducing the time it takes to get development approval – a council issue, primarily, rather than one for State Parliament, she freely admits. This is the level she operates on.
“I go right from the footpaths to legislation in State Parliament.”
That sort of thinking also informs her position on social issues, in a way. Sanderson sees herself not as an elected representative who embodies the views of her electorate, but more as a hollow vessel whose task is to unearth and act upon the thoughts and concerns of her electors.
That means, despite personally supporting gay marriage, she’ll vote against it if given a conscience vote – because that’s what the results of her electorate survey told her to do.
“As the Member for Adelaide I’m not here to represent my view. I’m here to represent the view of the people I represent. And at this point those people are not ready.”
Sanderson grew up in Eltham, a leafy suburb about 20km north-east of Melbourne’s CBD. Her mother – her “hippy mum” Merilyn with “three compost bins and chooks in the backyard” – left for Prospect in 1983, 13-year-old Sanderson in tow, escaping a couple of ex-husbands.
Mum, who passed away earlier this year, was and remains a formative influence.
She was “the toughest woman I’ve ever known,” Sanderson tells me.
“I never saw her cry in my entire life. She was just incredibly strong.”
Mother clearly pushed daughter hard. Sanderson was sent to a private school – St Peters Girls in Stonyfell – and expected to go to university. She worked through year 12 – she recalls her mother ferrying her between her two after-school jobs.
“She worked very hard to put me in a private school, because her view was that you needed to go to a private school to have that education. Which is also one of the reasons why I’ve been adamant since 2008 to build a second high school in the city. Because I think after seeing the trauma and the stress that it put on our family for me to go to a private school I don’t think that it should be necessary.”
When she was young, she dreamed of being a singer, or a flight attendant (her mother never voiced an opinion, but Sanderson guesses she would have been happy had her daughter been a chiropractor or naturopath). But at school she was good at maths, so she ended up going into accounting – which, cooped up in a back room counting numbers, she soon discovered she hated.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew it wasn’t accounting. As much as I knew that my mum would be terribly disappointed – because obviously she wanted me to go to university and use my degree.
At the time, Sanderson was working as a financial manager for a modelling firm. She managed to convince management to give her a front-office, people-focussed role – eventually proving so good at it the firm was forced to hire an accountant to replace her. From there, she wound up taking one of the decisions that has defined much of her life so far – she started a modelling agency.
The business proved a huge success, and would eventually establish the platform and profile that helped get Sanderson elected. When she sold the practice, earlier this year, it had about about 500 models on its books.
Sanderson recalls deciding to run the night of the 07 Federal Election, after John Howard lost to a resurgent Kevin-Rudd-led Labor.
“I thought this country is in big trouble. Maybe I can predict the future, but they did devastate our economy as predicted.”
At the time, a political career wasn’t in the forefront of her mind – not least, she thinks, because of a fear of public speaking.
Eventually invited to speak at a Liberal event on women in politics by MP Michelle Lensink, who she met at a charity fashion parade, Sanderson participated in a mock pre-selection – and loved it.
Sanderson didn’t ask anyone for advice before she decided to throw her hat in the ring – not even her mother. But mum was proud.
“She was rapt. Finally, I think I made her proud. Took long enough! No, she came to my maiden speech, but you know, Parliament’s not my mom’s thing. She doesn’t wear makeup or get dressed up, she’s a tracksuit kind of a person.”
Burnout is an occupational hazard for politicians. The work is hard, the scrutiny fierce. Too regularly, effort has nothing to show for itself. To outward appearances, Sanderson is staying chipper – although the strain of four years in opposition is showing.
“I don’t even really want to think about another four years in opposition,” she says.
“When I became a Member one of the things that disappointed me the most was speaking to some of the Labor members on Bills that I was bringing through. One of them made the comment to me and she said ‘I was young and enthusiastic like you when I came in here and I used to research every bill in my community, and I was told by my union to stop wasting my time and vote how I was told’.”
She’s doing her best not to play the game. She has so far refused entreaties to join a faction inside the party room.
“I have had a bit of pressure put on me very, very early on, to join a faction, and I made it very clear that I’ve never been in a gang or a group my entire life – that’s not me, I’m a leader not a follower.”
Sanderson is one of only five women in the Liberal partyroom. But she tells InDaily she’s never noticed gender disadvantage or discrimination – and she would be uncomfortable with quota measures to improve female representation in parliament.
“I’ve been asked by many girls groups in parliament, we had a talk about how difficult it might be being a female in politics, or the disadvantage of being a female in general in society, and to be honest I’ve never noticed it to be a disadvantage ever.
“I don’t want to be chosen because I’m a woman and you feel sorry for me. I would find that far more insulting – I would much rather fight for my position and earn it on my merits.”
Will Sanderson win the next election? She should, political experts say – although it’ll be tight.
Perhaps the more interesting question is: if she wins, and the Liberals win, how will she deal with the limits of power, once she finally has it in her grasp?
InDaily has requested an interview with her Labor opponent David O’Loughlin.