Retiring Senator Stephens reflects on the good and bad of politics

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June 16th, 2019

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Goulburn-based Senator Ursula Stephens delivers her valedictory speech on Tuesday night. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen.THE events of June 24, 2010 ruined Australian politics. That’s a parting thought from Goulburn-based Senator Ursula Stephens, who today draws the curtain on a 12-year career at Parliament House.
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Dr Stephens used an exclusive interview with the Post to draw light on the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd quagmire, poke holes in the Abbott Government’s first budget, reflect on the need for Senate election reform and outline dreams of the future.

She’ll use the immediate downtime from a heavily scrutinised world of politics to focus on the health of her husband Bob, recovering from a stroke, welcome into the world grandchild number five and chair a United Nations panel dedicated to finding ways of most effectively conducting third world aid projects.

Dr Stephens hasn’t ruled out a return to politics, admitting she’s considering offers to stand as the Labor Party candidate for a new-look seat of Goulburn in next March’s NSW election.

“That’s a decision for another day,” she explained during an interview this month.

“If it feels right, I’ll make up my mind then. Right now, I don’t feel as though as I have to make a decision.”

The long-time primary school teacher and philosophy doctorate holder concedes she’s served office in the most extraordinary of eras – often for the wrong reasons.

The decision to commit troops to Iraq, the knifing of consecutive prime ministers and a personal style of opposition politics, which she labels ‘vitriolic’, occurred during her reign.

Ursula Stephens

Dr Stephens accused the post-Howard Coalition of becoming sore losers and described dismissals of Labor leaders as the darkest days in her party’s history.

The childish behaviour of politicians leaves voters, in particular the young, disengaged and dissatisfied, she says.

“Politics from 2007 really changed dramatically.

Since that big swing when Rudd won government, the thing that was so tangible was the extent to which the opposition were prepared to stoop,” she said.

“They weren’t prepared to accept that they’d lost.

They were pretty sore losers, quite vitriolic. They started the personal vendettas.”

Labor was equally responsible for the demise. Dr Stephens is ashamed of her party’s decision to dump Kevin Rudd as Prime Minster on June 24, 2010.

She was further disillusioned by its move to punt Julia Gillard almost three years later to the day.

On both occasions, she supported Mr Rudd. On both occasions, she was vehemently opposed to the sagas.

“I hated it. The way in which the political operatives run around, stitch up the deals and promise people everything – everyone gets promised a favour, everyone gets promised a job,” she recalls.

“It stunk. The environment in which it all happened, it’s this hothouse of pressure. It’s feral.

“When you go that low, how do you get back? I don’t think we’ve got back. When you’re in the gutter, how do you lift the national dialogue out of the gutter? It’s pretty hard.”

The May Budget handed down by Treasurer Joe Hockey does nothing to pull morale from the gutter, Dr Stephens says.

Nor does a convoluted Senate election process, a system that next week culminates in the swearing- in of micro party members who secured as little as 0.2 per cent of the primary vote.

Despite dissatisfaction at the hustle of modern day Parliament House, Dr Stephens’ term as a Labor Senator for NSW was predominately positive.

She formally signed off during a valedictory speech in the Senate on Tuesday night.

In it, Dr Stephens paid homage to those who’ve shown support over the last 12 years and urged future politicians to steer clear of slander.

“I’ve never been an adversarial politician. Instead I believe in the power and potential of respectful negotiation, collaboration and relationship building – even in defeat,” she said.

“Everything worth working for takes time, effort and commitment, and the determination not to give up simply because it’s a long, hard run.”

Among her final words as a Senator were those used to formulate an analogy featuring a wounded duck and his loyal friend.

“On my way into work last week, traffic was delayed. A duck had been hit and injured by a car,” Dr Stephens explained.

“What held us up was not the wounded duck, it was its companion.

Despite all the traffic, the fog and the danger, the duck hovered about its fellow creature, concerned for its wellbeing. And I thought to myself: ‘yes, even a duck looks after its weaker mate’.”

Ursula Stephens’ fifth grand child is expected to enter the world on July 5. Two days’ later, she’ll celebrate her 60th birthday.

Will her name appear on the ballot paper at the March 28 NSW election? That’s a question for another day.

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