Meet your assembly: Rachel Stephen-Smith, the diplomat
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Meet your assembly: Rachel Stephen-Smith, the diplomat

The October ACT election saw the Legislative Assembly expand to a record 25 seats. In a special series Katie Burgess profiles the new faces.

When Rachel Stephen-Smith first moved to Washington DC, its roundabouts and bureaucrats reminded her of her hometown of Canberra.

But it wasn't until she finished her two-and-a-half year posting at the Australian Embassy that she realised just how different the two cities that held her heart were.

From an early age, Rachel Stephen-Smith understood not every family was as fortunate as hers.

From an early age, Rachel Stephen-Smith understood not every family was as fortunate as hers. Credit:Jamila Toderas

"When I first went to Washington I used to say to people it's just like a big Canberra but [it was only] after I left the embassy that I really got to know the city," she said.

During her time there, the new Labor Member for Kurrajong got to know some of the poorest parts of the American capital and witnessed the effect of gentrification on the city .

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In her inaugural speech Rachel Stephen-Smith paid tribute to her partner Michael, who died by suicide a year ago.

In her inaugural speech Rachel Stephen-Smith paid tribute to her partner Michael, who died by suicide a year ago. Credit:Jamila Toderas

"Both the income and inequality divide but as well as the racial divide in DC is quite stark," she said.

"I was doing some work with Habitat for Humanity out at Ivy City which is one of the poorest, almost entirely black neighbourhoods in DC.

"I went to catch the bus there and realised there's a bus from the Ivy City to Dupont Circle in the morning and there's a bus back in the evening but you can't go in the other direction so it's like they're bringing the people into this to the richest part of Washington to do the service jobs during the day and then they're going home at night.

"To me that was just kind of a symbol of how divided the city was."

Rachel Stephen-Smith saw the disadvantage in Washington DC and does not want Canberra to emulate it.

Rachel Stephen-Smith saw the disadvantage in Washington DC and does not want Canberra to emulate it. Credit:Jamila Toderas

It is easy to see why in the new expanded ACT Legislative Assembly, Stephen-Smith was elevated straight to cabinet. She is sharp, grounded and has an acute sense of fairness.

And while the division she saw in DC is not as stark in Canberra, from an early age Stephen-Smith knew it was there.

She grew up in O'Connor, the daughter of two academics, and while her upbringing wasn't lavish she knew she was more fortunate than many others.

"We were brought up to know that we were pretty fortunate in not really wanting for anything, you know not super rich but we were certainly educationally very privileged. I come from an unusually privileged background in terms of in terms of education," she said.

Stephen-Smith is the fourth generation of women in her family to go to university, and there is even a book on her anachronistically independent female ancestors (it's called Remarkable Relations: The Story of the Pearsall Smith Women if you'd like to read it).

She studied economics like her dad through the the Australian National University and later worked as an adviser on health and community services to the Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet before she was able to put her lifelong love of horse riding into play and qualify as a Riding for the Disabled coach.

Later Stephen-Smith worked in the office of Victorian Senator Kim Carr before eventually becoming his chief of staff.

Senator Carr was then the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and her work in his office led to her posting in Washington where she worked to promote Australian research and science.

After she left the embassy she stayed in Washington for another two years with her partner Michael, and studied real estate development through the University of Maryland.

When she returned to Canberra in 2014, Michael moved with her but later returned to DC as he could not find work in Canberra.

Still out of work in November 2015, Michael took his own life.

In her inaugural speech, Stephen-Smith said before he died she was one of those lucky people nothing bad ever happened to.

"Last November changed that. And it changed me - not in a big way, but in many small ways, one of which is I cry more easily than I used to," she said.

A year on from his death, talking about Michael was not easy for her. In fact you could ask her about anything else - her two horses, the protracted renovations on her Reid home or her summer reading list (Outlander is on there).

But what the minister-for-community-services-disability-aboriginal-affairs-cultural-affairs-workplace-safety-and-industrial-relations (she can smoothly rattle off her pile of portfolios) can speak to is her hope that Canberra won't go the way of DC.

"There is a side of Canberra where people are vulnerable and they're not necessarily as engaged and part of our job is to make sure that we can hear the voices," she said.

"Whether that's people with disabilities who are much more likely to live in poverty than the average person or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we need to close the gap to all of those groups better but before we can do that we need to understand that disadvantage exists in Canberra and that we have the capacity to do something about it."

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.