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Candidate Close Up: Steph Amir

Steph, you are the Candidate for Darebin Council, Cazaly Ward in the upcoming election. Apart from this, what else do you do? What’s your working background?

I do lots of things!  I started my career as a scientist working in a molecular ecology lab and in science communication, then spent a few years in public policy across the areas of biodiversity protection, crime prevention, social inclusion and disability.

I decided that to be a good public servant I should understand what it’s like to work in the private and community sectors, so I spent a couple of years in private consulting and two years as a manager at the Foundation for Young Australians.  Finally I ended up working as an advisor to a state MP, with a focus on her climate and energy portfolios, so I feel like I’ve come around in a full circle by returning to a focus on science and the environment.

Other than that, I’m in a community choir, until recently was in a community circus and I’ve volunteered for a whole lot of organisations including the Red Cross, Future Problem Solving Australia and of course the YWCA!  I also love community radio and am on the board at JOY 94.9.  I had my own radio show for three years and I want to return to that after the campaign.

Can you pinpoint an event or moment that made you truly excited about politics?

I was always interested in politics (when I was a kid I’d tell my mum that when I grew up I wanted to be the mayor) but there were two specific instances in high school that stand out.  One was when I was in year 10, and had been – in my teenage mind – “forced” to do a VCE politics class because it was a VCE requirement to do at least one humanities subject, when I only wanted to study science and maths.  We were learning about the Whitlam dismissal and while watching a video about it (it was the year 2000, when we watched actual videos), our teacher paused on an image of young people protesting and pointed out where he himself was in the crowd.  It made me suddenly realise that politics wasn’t something separate from everyday life; it is part of life.

The more I’ve studied and been involved in policy and politics, the more I see that.  Everything is political.  When you walk down the street, what you see is a product of planning decisions made by councillors, and projects funded by governments, and advertising governed by legislation, and people around you who can either stay in this country or not, get married or not, go into a bar or not, because of political decisions.

The second memory is the 1999 referendum about whether Australia should become a republic.  I felt strongly that it should, and was mad that I was too young to vote!  I also remember that Victoria was the state with the highest “yes” vote and it was the first time it occurred to me that the views held by those around me weren’t necessarily representative of how people thought about things across the country.  

Do you have a mentor or hero you look up to in the political world? If so, what qualities do you admire about them?

I am lucky to have lots of mentors and people to look up to.  During this campaign I’ve been very lucky to have a current councillor, Trent McCarthy, who helped me become preselected and navigate the tumultuous world of local politics.  One reason we get along is because we are quite similar: always interested in new ideas, committed to social justice and sustainability, extroverted, and a bit quirky.

I’ve also been working for Victorian Greens MP Ellen Sandell, who is a wonderfully clever, fierce, determined woman.  (Fierce is good!  I like fierce!)  She’s only a few weeks older than me and I’ve tried to learn as much as I can from her.  She’s been very supportive of my decision to run for council.  The other Greens MPs I’ve worked with have also been great, and very supportive of women.

Another wonderful opportunity I’ve had is being one of the inaugural Fellows for the University of Melbourne’s “Pathway to Politics” program which is a selective non-partisan program for prospective women politicians.  It has an explicit goal of trying to get more women into politics and each week we hear from women politicians at a state or federal level, which has been amazing.  I’m in the Greens but it’s been great learning from women across the political spectrum.  I particularly admire politicians who have passion as well as a commitment to implementing good policy decisions, such as (beyond the Greens) Nicola Roxon and Clare O’Neil.  One of my pet hates is when political game-playing gets in the way of good policy.  It makes my blood boil!

Finally, I’ve been reading two political autobiographies recently – those by Bob Brown and Julia Gillard.  I admire both of those people for different reasons: Julia for paving the way for others and getting so much done in spite of so many people trying to tear her down; Bob for his sincerity, integrity, compassion, and for standing up for what’s right.

You were a delegate for YWCA to the World Council Were there any skills or experiences you learned that might help you/have helped you as a candidate?

World Council was one of the best experiences of my life and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to go.  For me it was less about a specific experience or learning, but more about seeing myself as part of a global network of feminists across every continent, and taking myself seriously as a leader.  World Council was so exciting and made me feel more confident to do crazy things that require courage and ambition – like running for council!

I think World Council also increased my sense of responsibility to other women.  I’ve identified as a feminist my whole adult life, and been involved in women’s rights, but it’s mostly come from the perspective of “I’m angry about inequality and want to do something about it” or because being is overall rewarding and fun.  These two things still apply but experiences like World Council and Pathway to Politics have added an additional dimension of feeling grateful to the women who paved the way before us, and wanting to help pave the way for younger women by keeping up the fight.

There have been times in the last few months when things have been hard (not specifically because of sexism, just because being a politician is difficult!) and I’ve thought “why am I putting myself through this?!” and then I’ve thought of women like my boss Ellen who gets heckled throughout her entire speech every time she speaks in Parliament (you can watch online and hear the volume in the chamber increase every time she starts talking, which doesn’t happen for her male colleagues), and Julia Gillard who persevered through such an abhorrent tidal-wave of sexism for her whole time as Prime Minister.  I also think of young women and girls, like the daughter of my fellow-candidate Kim who is ten years old and has our campaign flyers stuck on her bedroom door under a sign that says “GIRLS ONLY”.  And then I think: “where would we be today if those women who came before us had given up when things got hard?” and “what if I get elected, and that helps inspire younger women to become politicians too?” and “I can’t let the girl-team down” – and it keeps me grit my teeth and carry on.  That sense of responsibility has definitely increased since World Council.

Like many candidates, you’ve been out meeting the public as part of your campaign. What are some of the biggest concerns you are hearing?

At a council level, the biggest issue is planning.  Many suburbs in Melbourne are facing similar challenges around balancing the need to increase access to housing with maintaining the things that people love about their local area.  There are lots of people who have lived in an area for a long time and feel nostalgic for how things used to be, or, for example, people who bought a new house and then are frustrated when a developer bulldozes the single-story house next door to turn it into three storeys of townhouses which then over-shadow their newly-planted garden.  On the other hand, with a growing population we need to either increase housing density in Melbourne or keep expanding outwards  – and I think the latter is a bad idea so we need to find ways to increase density without reducing quality of life.

Part of the solution is good quality houses and good infrastructure.  In my local suburb of Preston there is no high school, and people have told me they’ve stopped cycling to work because the bike paths aren’t safe (for example where there are blind spots where cars can’t see bikes, or where bike lanes merge into a left-turning lane that huge trucks use), so they catch the train to work instead but sometimes the trains are too full to get on!  The issues are interlinked.

Another big issue in Preston is the protection of Preston Market.  The owners want to develop it and people are worried about it losing the multicultural atmosphere, or becoming too expensive, or long-term traders being pushed out.  Myself and other candidates have been doing advocacy work around ensuring that the needs of the traders and community are considered in any development approvals.

People have also been asking for better public spaces for community sport and community arts, as well as playgrounds for kids, but Darebin also has a good reputation among many people for being quite inclusive and progressive.  Sometimes I ask people about what they’d like to see improved about Darebin Council, and they say something like: “Was it Darebin Council who put on that Hindi Festival last week?  That was fun, if you get elected you should do that again.”

You can check out Steph's campaign site HERE.