The Great Redundancy elevates deputy to the Speaker's hot seat
Speaker Anna Burke at Parliament House yesterday. Photo: Andrew Meares
ANNA Burke could scarcely have imagined when she entered the Federal Parliament in 1998 that 14 years later she would become - in the most extraordinary of circumstances - the second female Speaker of the House of Representatives.
She had been an official with the Finance Sector Union for five years before she entered Parliament, angered at the increasing number of redundancies as the big banks and other financial institutions made ever-bigger profits.
The continuation of large-scale redundancies, the contracting out of jobs and the casualisation of the workforce, she said in her first speech to Parliament, all led to a ''reduced feeling of job security amongst employees''.
She decried ''the decline of collectivism in the face of rampant individualism''.
All these years later, she is suddenly, officially, the most powerful individual in the House, her job won through the most spectacular redundancy in recent parliamentary history and required to umpire 150 MPs, a lot of them rampant individuals concerned about their own job security, though bound, most of them, into opposing collectives.
It might be enough to make a head spin, but Ms Burke is considered by her colleagues on all sides to have a cool head on her shoulders, even if the social media world spent an inordinate amount of tweets commenting on her fly-away hairstyle when she first came to regular notice in the Speaker's chair.
That was six months ago, when she was required to act as Speaker in the absence of the real Speaker, the now redundant Peter Slipper. She was officially Deputy Speaker, a job that doesn't normally attract much attention. But the regularly fractious hung Parliament became her daily stage, and her elevation on Tuesday evening in the wake of Peter Slipper's teary resignation seemed hardly more than a formality.
Ms Burke would likely otherwise never have risen to particular prominence in Canberra's heady atmosphere. Though a member of Labor's Right, she has never been considered a hard factional player, let alone positioned herself as a ''faceless woman'' in recent Labor power plays and leadership ructions.
Her most effective political ground is her own electorate, according to close colleagues. It has been her home since birth: her parents, Bernard and Joan, bought in the suburb of Ashwood, brought up their five children there, and could never afford, she says, to leave.
Ms Burke may not have been a factional player, but she has achieved one of the more difficult tasks for a female politician: mothering two children, Madeleine, 12, and John, 10. Indeed, she was the first politician outside an ACT electorate to become a mother while an MP. Accepting the role as Speaker this week, she paid tribute to her husband, Steve, for making it possible to be a politician parent.
''None of us can do these roles without our family support,'' she said. ''None of us are here on our own. Without our staff, without our electorates and without our families we do not do this job.''
The seat of Chisholm, based around Box Hill in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, was held by the Liberals' Dr Michael Wooldridge until he jumped to Casey in 1998. Ms Burke captured the seat in the swing to the Labor Party that almost unseated the Howard government that year.
Through astute and constant grassroots work throughout the electorate's varied communities, Ms Burke has converted Chisholm from marginal to relatively secure Labor territory. Following a redistribution, her vote is estimated at 55.7 per cent.
Ms Burke said in that first speech to Parliament in 1998 that she was inspired by the woman after whom the electorate was named. Caroline Chisholm was famed for her work among poor immigrants to New South Wales and the goldfields of Victoria, and Ms Burke has made it her business to reach out to immigrants within her electorate, who make up more than 30 per cent of its voting population.
She also listened hard to the elderly, and has spoken of visiting a senior citizens' club in Oakleigh where she met a woman who was deeply upset that Centrelink required her to discuss sensitive issues using an impersonal ''phone-based interactive service''.
''One day we, too, will grow old,'' Ms Burke commented.
She is only 44, though the Speaker's chair has been known to put years on its incumbent.