28 August 2017, Melbourne, Australia
Fiona Richardson MP was a Victorian ALP Minister for Women and the Prevention of Family Violence. She died relatively suddenly from cancer in August 2017. Tanja Kovac was her Chief of Staff. Tanja is National Co-Convenor of EMILY's List Australia, a financial, political and personal support network for progressive Labor women in Parliament.
I didn’t know Fiona Richardson MP before I went to work for her.
A respected and at times feared factional warrior from the Victorian Right, Fiona’s reputation as a fierce political operative preceded her. I understood the kind of tenacity and toughness it took to mix it with the faceless men of the ALP. Fiona had not only survived in that culture she had thrived. She’d even married into it, forming a formidable partnership with former Victorian ALP State Secretary Stephen Newnham.
A couple of days before taking a job as her Senior Advisor in the new Andrews Government, I bumped into Labor mates at the soccer who were shocked when I said I was going into her Ministerial Office.
“Tanja, she’s mad! Way too intense…..You’re too nice to work for her…”
At the same time I would later find out that Fiona was being told similar things. About me. "You can't employ her. She's a feminazi. She's in the Left!"
The more people warned us away; the more we gravitated to each other. Bad-ass bitches, she loved freaking people out whenever we strode together - Left/Right - on a mission.
She brought me in for gender and legal expertise to help manage her Women and Family Violence Prevention portfolios. I stayed and became her Chief because we found in each other a kindred spirit.
It’s one thing to be a Women’s Minister; yet another to invest in women while doing it. Fiona built an all woman Ministerial Office - a coven of witches - all deeply loyal to her. A passionate, pro-choice feminist, unafraid to speak her mind, I focussed on supporting her to be the best leader she could be.
It was a dream job. I wished I’d kept the note she wrote to me on my first day. "We’ll do this as a team”. And so we did. I regret that it took so long for us to find each other. I needed Fiona in my life earlier – a powerhouse political mentor and ally.
My greatest achievement as her Chief of Staff was to get her to finally accept my hugs and spontaneous praise whenever she gave an awesome speech or did something else amazing (which was often). She was a prickly pear, no doubt a physical manifestation of the family violence she had experienced as a child. I wore her down until she hugged me back. It's how I know the love was mutual.
We travelled to New Zealand and New York together to check out innovative family violence services while we waited for the Royal Commission into Family Violence to hand down its findings. We saw many things that inspired us on those trips. But we also had time to get to know each other. It felt very comfortable roaming the streets of a foreign place, talking about our families, kids and politics.
I discovered her eccentricities. The preference for barefeet, the secret love for all things spiritual. She didn't smoke. She didn't drink. She didn't eat meat. She'd fought breast cancer.
She was complex.
An intuitive, intellectual, innovative, ideas person.
A fearless, fearsome, fragile, factional warrior.
A loyal, loving, larrikin, Labor lady.
She was Boadaceia Fi!
Tennyson described the ancient woman warrior “Standing loftily charioted, Mad and Maddening all that heard her in her fierce volubility”.
This is how I think of her: The get-away-with-anything-blonde, with steely blue eyes and patrician tallness. So politically sharp it was dangerous to be around you. A true leader.
She loved ideas. Hers came partly from political nous, but also intuition. It was a wholly powerful combination.
Fiona worked with Rosie Batty on anti-family violence initiatives. (Image supplied.)
It's no accident that she provided the intellectual policy genius in two key areas of Andrews Government Reform - the removal of dangerous Level Crossings and, of course, Family Violence Reform.
She achieved so much in a short space of time.
Overseeing the Royal Commission into Family Violence, getting Respectful Relationships into the State Curriculum, family violence leave for our public sector workers, funding Victoria against Violence and turning the state orange and developing the state’s first Gender Equality Strategy – which the whole nation is now emulating! Her decision to talk about her own family's experience of violence on Australian Story took guts. She touched the lives of so many people. The whole country got to understand why she was such a fearless champion for victim-survivors.
No-one was more destined to be the nation’s first Family Violence Prevention Minister.
What she did for Rosie Batty. Quietly. No fanfare. She’s so grateful. Fiona had unfinished business.
Before she died she was working to create a Family Violence Prevention Agency to change attitudes and behaviours towards violence in the home within a generation. She planned dedicated and long term funding for prevention, protected by legislation. It would be a world first. Now Fiona's Law, as I will think of it, rests with good women and men across Victorian Parliament, to fulfil her legacy.
For those wishing to financially support Fiona's legacy, make donations to Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre safesteps.org.au or the Luke Batty Foundation lukebattyfoundation.org.au.