Looking out for the vulnerable

A traumatic event led to a career in community service and then politics. Peter Jean meets new MLA Nicole Lawder.

The horrific 2002 Monash University shootings left two people dead, five injured and sparked a new wave of gun law reform in Australia.

They also set Nicole Lawder on a new path in her professional life which would lead her out of the public service, into the community sector and the Liberal Party and ultimately into the ACT legislature.

On Monday October 21, 2002, Lawder had the surreal experience of phoning her boss and saying, "I'm going to Melbourne for a few days, my brother's been shot''.

Lawder's brother, Monash University econometrics lecturer Dr Lee Gordon-Brown, was about to begin a class when student Huan Yun "Allen'' Xiang opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol.

Gordon-Brown was shot in the arm and leg but managed to get to his feet and help restrain Xiang before more people could be shot.

Lawder, who will be sworn in next month as a member of the Legislative Assembly, has spoken previously about how the event led her to think about her life and seek a new career in the community sector with the Deafness Forum of Australia and then Homelessness Australia.


But the decision by then prime minister John Howard to introduce tougher hand gun laws after the Monash shootings also had an impact on Lawder. Howard had already driven through national gun law reforms after the Port Arthur shootings.

Lawder was a life-long Liberal supporter but had previously had no particular involvement in politics.

"To me that was the first real stirrings to be more involved in politics. Because to me it really demonstrated that while small government is important there are absolutely times where the government should intervene for the greater good - for the benefit of society as whole,'' she says.

"Given the absolute personal involvement in gun violence from my brother's perspective, to me it was a really powerful example of how you can make that systemic change through the appropriate use of government intervention.''

The Legislative Assembly office Lawder inherited from former Liberal leader Zed Seselja is bereft of decoration. All that sits on the shelves behind Lawder's desk are some bound copies of Hansard.

It's been just over a week since Lawder found out that she has been selected through a "countback'' process to replace Seselja, who quit the Assembly to run for a Senate seat.

Lawder was required to immediately resign as chief executive of Homelessness Australia but has voluntarily assisted staff at the organisation [to] deal with some transitional issues before an acting CEO starts work.

Although yet to be officially sworn in, Lawder is already receiving an MLA's salary and has been busy setting up an office and hiring staff in between briefings on how the Assembly works.

Having barely started her new job, she is about to have a few days off to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery - a legacy of her love of amateur squash.

"I'm so lucky that I've come in in a non-sitting period because it does give me a chance to read some of the committee transcripts and go through some of the issues … before I have to appear in the chamber,'' Lawder says.

Nicole Gordon-Brown was born in Penang, Malaysia, where her father Oxley Gordon-Brown was stationed with the Royal Australian Air Force.

In the ensuing years, Nicole, Lee, sister Alison and mother Joan would travel with Oxley on postings around Australia and to Hong Kong.

Lawder continued the itinerant lifestyle with her first husband - also a member of the RAAF - living in several parts of Australia and the United States before settling in Canberra in 1988.

Lawder has two children and her second husband Peter Badowski has three. The couple have nine grandchildren.

Before her children started school, Lawder spent only a limited amount of time in the paid workforce. Her paid career started in earnest with a job at the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Communication complex.

"I started off as the executive assistant to the director and then moved into the public affairs role managing the visitors' centre out there. Then I joined the public service in a public affairs kind of role.''

Lawder later worked for Deloitte Consulting before returning to the public service. After her brother was shot, Lawder spent four and half years as chief executive of the Deafness Forum.

Although community sector leaders are more likely to be associated with the left side of politics, Lawder says her belief in small government is consistent with taxpayer-funded assistance to people with disabilities and the disadvantaged

"There are times for your most vulnerable people where it's absolutely appropriate for the government to take action to make all citizens have equal rights and opportunities,'' she says.

During her time at the Deafness Forum, Lawder learnt Auslan sign language to enable her to communicate more easily with members and stakeholders.

Lawder moved to Homelessness Australia in 2010, an organisation which represents service providers.

She says a lack of affordable housing has contributed to the homelessness problem in Canberra.

Lawder joined the Liberal Party four years ago and stood in last year's ACT election. She enjoyed the campaign but was not devastated by her failure to win a seat representing the five-member electorate of Brindabella.

Lawder attracted 327 fewer votes than high-profile Liberal candidate Val Jeffery. When Seselja quit the Assembly, she expected Val Jeffery to fill the vacancy.

But under the Hare-Clarke voting system, preferences from the ballot papers which elected Seselja were counted to fill the vacancy.

Under this system, Lawder won by just eight votes.

She jokes that the fact her children and their partners all live in Tuggeranong probably got her across the line.

"There's that extra eight votes,'' Lawder laughs.

Lawder says she's enjoyed all of her previous jobs and she hopes her tenure in the Assembly will be the same.

She believes the skills she developed in the community sector will help her to represent the people of Brindabella.

"Those skills will stand me in good stead,'' she says.