Chika: Aiming for the top

Tony Smith

Kerry Chikarovski & Luis Garcia Chika, South Melbourne, Lothian, 2004 (237 pp). ISBN 0-73440-708-4 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Believe in yourself, accept a challenge, and dream big … until the poppy-cutters come out with their secateurs.

Former federal Labor Minister John Button recalls introducing his sons to Prime Minister Keating. Learning of one son’s ambitions to be a journalist, Keating commented that it was one thing to write history but he preferred to ‘make history’. Button observes that the ‘disciplines of the historian and politician are different. Writers and historians are supposed to respect the truth, to understand what it means to be objective’ (1998, p. 8). At best, political memoirs must be approached cautiously. At worst, it seems unfair that those who have shaped history should also claim the right to assess their role in events. Nevertheless, memoirs have a place in political scholarship, provided their tendencies are understood. And of course, some are more useful than others. The reader must peruse each memoir critically, balancing each against alternative sources of information.

Australia’s Liberal Party has been dubbed ‘Menzies’ child’ (Henderson 1998) and Kerry Chikarovski’s memoir describes the party’s New South Wales division as a most unappealing child indeed. While all political parties contain tensions between factions and ambitious individuals, the dictum that the foes of the Member of Parliament (MP) face him or her, while one’s enemies are behind, was especially true of the self-destructive party Chikarovski represented from 1991 to 2003.

The politics of the first State are always exciting, and the ‘Bear Pit’—the Parliament in Macquarie Street, Sydney—attracts many colourful characters. The inside dope Chikarovski and her co-writer Luis Garcia supply suggests that the corridors in the 1990s remained happy haunts for the ghosts of enigmatic personalities such as Governor Bligh, Premiers William Morris Hughes and Jack Lang, and T. J. Ley, the ‘Minister for Murder’, who ended his days in England’s Broadmoor prison for the criminally insane (Morgan 1979). The mental anguish Chikarovski experienced suggests that a touch of madness could be a criterion for membership of the Parliament, or at least for succeeding in its more bizarre activities.

A touch of madness could be a criterion for membership of the NSW Parliament.

Perhaps this daunting image emerges more from Chikarovski’s story than from other recent political memoirs because she tells her tale straightforwardly in simple language (cf. Arena 2002; Carr 2002; Collins 2000; Nile 2001). Garcia, her former press secretary, insisted that she include both highs and lows and avoid settling old scores, and the book is the better for it. Mostly it proceeds chronologically, digressing occasionally for deeper analysis of important incidents. This ordered approach makes the material accessible to those unfamiliar with the period and ensures that the narrative does not become mired in personal opinions that might be idiosyncratic and misleading. In some interesting tangents, Chikarovski describes her personal reactions to events and ponders how women fit into political processes and institutions in a distinctive way.

Chika does not dwell on ‘old scores’, but it does present Chikarovski’s perspective on key incidents: her preselection, her replacement of Peter Collins as leader, the 1999 election campaign, her replacement by John Brogden in 2002, and her decision to leave parliament in 2003. She supplies facts about which she had been silent because they had the potential to damage the party. Her revelations challenge other insiders to consider her versions, and make important observations about what she learnt from each episode.

Chika’s rise and fall

Chikarovski’s preselection for the seat of Lane Cove in 1991, aged 35 and with two young children, gave her a taste of things to come, because rumours and innuendo played a role even in that brief campaign among supposed allies. She endured the usual female stereotypes: being thought not tough enough, being handicapped by her motherhood status, a silly portrayal in the media, and whispers about using her sexuality. Powerful Liberal noses were disjointed and some snubbed both her and her parents, themselves prominent party members. Refreshingly though, the man who would have assumed he had the inside running, John Hannaford, was generous and supportive.

On taking her seat in the Legislative Assembly, Chikarovski was relieved to feel she had ‘come home’. In her first speech, which she calls her ‘maiden’, she set out her personal philosophy including the idea that government could give people a ‘help up not a hand-out’. She joined the Industrial Relations and Ethnic Affairs Committees and clashed with Premier Greiner over dual occupancy policy in her first party room meeting. Later, when the Independent Commission Against Corruption found against Premier Greiner over the appointment of the former education minister Dr Terry Metherell to a public service position in 1992, she believed Greiner should have called the bluff of the Independent MPs pressing him to resign. However, the resulting Cabinet reshuffle meant that after only a year in Parliament, the new Premier, John Fahey, gave her the portfolios of Consumer Affairs and Assistant Minister for Education. Chikarovski was excited but apprehensive about the effect on her family. Feeling exhilarated but guilty, she wondered whether she was just a token in the role.

Chika does not dwell on ‘old scores’.

To ensure that she would be properly prepared before speaking among the men who had run things for so long, she waited until a strong issue arose before contributing to Cabinet discussions. In May 1993, Chikarovski became the State’s first female Minister for Industrial Relations with responsibility for the Office for the Status and Advancement of Women, which she began to turn into a Ministry. Louise Chappell (1995) found that by 1992, most of the specialised women’s machinery in the bureaucracy had been abolished under Greiner and that most functions had been mainstreamed. However, Chikarovski was a strong minister in Cabinet and women’s groups generally found that she was accessible and took her responsibilities seriously.

Resentment continued when Fahey elevated her to Deputy Leader in late 1994 for the 1995 election campaign. The Sydney Morning Herald headlined the ‘Unstoppable Rise of Mrs Unpronounceable’. Her rise notwithstanding, the Coalition lost the election in 1995. When she was devastated by the result, her husband told her to get over it because no-one had died. Suddenly she realised her marriage was in trouble. However, she had left at least one important legacy from her time in government. By 1995, women’s policy was better placed than at any time since 1988, and the new Labor Minister would have found hers a hard act to follow.

With Labor now in Government, Chikarovski became a special target for Premier Bob Carr. Chikarovski refused the front bench position offered by leader Peter Collins, citing family concerns. She tried—unsuccessfully—to save her marriage. Carr accused her of wanting to be outside the main Opposition tent in order to destabilise Collins’ leadership, and dubbed her the ‘Lucrezia of Lane Cove’. In 1996, she returned to Shadow Cabinet in Corrective Services. In this role, she adopted genuinely liberal attitudes towards incarceration rates, particularly for non-violent drug offenders, and argued that spending on child raising would result in great savings later in justice areas. In 1997, she was given responsibility for the Environment and walked the Kokoda Track with other Liberal MPs, where she says she rediscovered prayer and her depression began to lift.

The Liberals were in dire straits by December 1998. Three months from an election, poll evidence suggested that the Opposition could not win. Party officials felt that business was unsupportive because they doubted Collins’ ability. Colleagues checked the numbers and when the influential faction known as ‘the Group’ swung behind Chikarovski, she was virtually assured of winning. Chikarovski decided that she must accept. Despite acknowledging that the job was partly a poisoned chalice, she reasoned that if women hesitate every time they are offered such a role, then this reinforced stereotypes and made it more difficult for those coming afterwards. Although ‘in politics, you never take anything for granted’ (p. 91), a party room meeting elected her the first female leader of a major party in New South Wales.

When Labor came to government after 1995, Chikarovski became a special target for Premier Bob Carr.

When Chikarovski met former leader Peter Collins to offer him a front bench position, he made it clear that he was embarking on a campaign to destroy those he saw as disloyal. She withheld the offer because having a member of the inner leadership team working against unity would have been disastrous. She found that Collins’ staff had stripped bare Room 1101 (the office traditionally allocated to the Opposition Leader) so that she was starting from scratch. Unfortunately, some male supporters were only too happy to discuss publicly the excitement they felt when plotting the Collins execution.

Later when deposed herself in 2002, Chikarovski firmly resolved not to adopt a vengeful attitude, but rather to be doubly supportive to assuage any doubts in her colleagues’ minds. Nevertheless, she was seen as a convenient scapegoat, and whenever there were leaks, rumours began that she was the culprit. The rumours sapped her enthusiasm and helped her decide to seek a career outside parliament. Along the way, she learnt the hard political lesson that when calculating ‘the numbers’, it is advisable to count definitely only those who say they will vote against you. She lost the leadership by one vote that had supposedly been tied to her camp.

During the 1999 campaign, Chikarovski was proud of the positive tone she adopted. But she was disappointed when the press seemed less interested in the substance of her messages than in speculating about whether she had fitted special contact lenses for television. The Liberals’ ability to fund their promises was predicated on electricity privatisation, but that policy turned to poison, partly because of leaks to Labor and the media. This confirmed Chikarovski’s suspicion that ‘your worst enemies are often those supposedly on your own side’. The media roundly criticised on-the-run policy changes and Chikarovski admitted to herself ‘We were well and truly stuffed … I felt as if I was heading for electoral oblivion’ (p. 110). She could not give up and could not turn back time. Unable to win, she had to perform well enough to ensure she would retain the leadership.

The campaign back room ‘boys’ cited polls suggesting that a tougher line was needed. Chikarovski was popular with younger women but older men doubted her ability to handle law and order issues. She began to campaign in ways that made her feel like ‘someone I wasn’t comfortable with’ and she feared that ‘the image of me as a hard nosed bitch would be fatal’ (p. 116). This reinforced her belief that you should trust your gut instincts because they are usually correct.

Chikarovski had difficulty dealing with the mostly male editors of the major newspapers.

There were other public relations disasters. When questioned about the role of the Governor, Chikarovski appeared to need advice from male colleagues. A female journalist observed that she had never seen the blokes in the press gallery so determined to make life difficult for anyone. Chikarovski was ‘incensed’ when the Police Commissioner, Peter Ryan, condemned the opposition’s plan to train more police as unworkable, especially as he normally refused to comment on Government policy. Eventually Ryan became so controversial that his contract was not renewed, prompting Chikarovski to comment that Ryan, a British policeman, ‘had failed to learn the most Australian of political lessons—in public life, the higher you go, the bigger the fall when the poppy-cutters come out with their secateurs’ (p.115).

Chikarovski experienced difficulties dealing with the mostly male editors of the major newspapers. Often they expected exclusive stories, possibly because the Labor Government had provided such scoops for years. She candidly assessed the 1999 campaign as ‘electoral disaster’ and reflects that the Opposition was ‘not ready for government’. When Prime Minister John Howard commented that the party had been ‘out to lunch’ under Collins, Chikarovski felt that she too had let Howard down. On election night she had two outfits to wear: one red, the other olive green. She chose the more sombre olive. (There could be a contradiction here: when others, including media, emphasised superficial aspects of image, she felt that this trivialised the person and the position.)

Throughout 1999, the media ignored the opposition as the second Carr government implemented its program. Chikarovski admits that at times it was ‘tough to get out of bed’. By July, there was speculation about her leadership, including a headline: ‘Dead woman walking’. When Barry O’Farrell appealed for unity but refused to rule out a challenge himself, Chikarovski thought of him with bitter irony as ‘the loyal Deputy’. Throughout 2000 and 2001, Chikarovski’s popularity and that of the Opposition grew while the Government struggled under controversies such as the Olympics ticketing fiasco and the ‘school massacre’ scandal. She had the rare experience of being cheered by trade unionists demonstrating against proposed changes to workers’ compensation laws. On that day hotheads in the Opposition urged her to move ‘no confidence’ in the Government, knowing that many Labor MPs would not cross the union picket line outside. Chikarovski concluded that they needed to act ‘responsibly’ and ‘common sense’ prevailed.

We qualify some leaders as ‘female’ but we never describe John Howard as a ‘male’ politician.

Damage to the Government’s standing did not affect Carr, who was becoming the ‘Teflon Premier’. Chikarovski says that the bushfires of 2001–02 saved Carr, who played the statesman and exploited every media opportunity. The teetotaller with a bookish image even attended barbecues toting slabs of beer. Chikarovski rejected that approach, and although some colleagues thought this a tactical error, she still ‘woke up in the mornings and was happy with what I saw in the mirror’. Nevertheless, after the Liberals retained the seat of Hornsby in a by-election in February 2002, Liberal discontents fed the media with complaints that the result was a disaster. In March she went to what she thought was a successful Liberal Party State Convention, where she was praised by the Prime Minister. Immediately afterwards however, she was challenged.

When approached about stepping down by a bizarre coalition of left liberals under John Brogden, who was pro-drug reform and gay rights, and the right under Chris Hartcher, who favoured capital punishment, Chikarovski wondered whether they were bluffing about the numbers in the hope that a mere woman would surrender. She decided: ‘Bugger them … I didn’t work this hard to get this far, just to walk away’ (p. 187). She felt responsible to those women’s groups whom she had told that they must not be ‘afraid to fail’ but must step up to a challenge. She felt that losing would be less harrowing than spending her life wondering whether she could have won. During the few days before the challenge, she was backed by broadcasters Alan Jones and John Laws and many women expressed support.

Reflections on women in politics

In the Foreword to Chika, Alan Jones describes Chikarovski as ‘a talented female politician who would do a good job, even though she had some enemies within the Liberal Party’ (p. v). While we qualify some leaders as ‘female’, we never describe John Howard or John Brogden as ‘male’ politicians. Their sex is irrelevant—they are just politicians, and this usage reveals a mindset that it is natural for a man to enter politics but not so for a woman. Much flows from this uneven set of assumptions, and Chikarovski’s career was heavily influenced by it. Indeed, the way that she managed such assumptions underlies almost everything in this memoir.

Chikarovski openly admits forming an ambition to enter politics early in life.

Chikarovski makes good arguments for role models and mentors rather than the quotas favoured by Labor, but her observations about the outdated attitudes she found within the Liberal Party leaves her with a problem. She was, after all, attempting to represent the socially conservative elements in society. Chikarovski admits that she arrived at the right time for a woman interested in politics. Her timing probably accounts for her rapid rise, and the rapidity of her rise possibly ensured her downfall. In the final analysis, the question remains whether she was simply unique in her determination and abilities. If so, then the lessons for others are limited. To think of gender as a political issue is almost always to consider whether women are suffering disadvantage. But Chikarovski knew that gender issues were there to be exploited by women as well. We should not interpret this ability as cynicism but as clear sighted political skill.

Two incidents she doesn’t discuss in Chika demonstrated this clearly. In the first, Premier Carr said in the Chamber (12 October 1995) that Chikarovski’s voice was getting so low that she must be taking a hormone. She expressed outrage and Carr made a public apology. Chikarovski said that Carr had insulted women who were on hormones for medical reasons. She argued that Carr was uncomfortable working with women MPs. Indeed, the incident demonstrated the double jeopardy experienced by women MPs, who are always warned not to let their voices rise in pitch lest they be accused of being hysterical. It seems women are damned for having low voices, or high ones.

The second incident on 11 November 1997 involved Chikarovski moving censure against Environment Minister Pam Allan for allegedly using an obscene gesture while children were attending parliament. During the debate, Chikarovski and two Liberal colleagues, one male and one female, accused the Minister of discouraging young women from taking an interest in politics by bringing the parliamentary career into disrepute. Labor speakers, all female, avoided discussing their responsibilities to provide role models and to pioneer less aggressive forms of parliamentary behaviour, focussing instead on Chikarovski’s leadership ambitions.

Chikarovski managed to maintain her dignity to the end.

Many former MPs have argued that ambition is regarded as admirable in men but suspect in women. My doctoral research suggested that most MPs, male and female, are reluctant to admit ambition, preferring to see their motivation in addressing a particular issue, righting an injustice, serving the community, or responding to party needs. Chikarovski however, openly admits forming an ambition to enter politics early in life. Clearly she was a born politician and happiest in the role. After she was deposed as Leader, at lunch with her son and daughter, she found her diary empty and broke into tears. She realised that an important phase in her life had ended.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of Chika is that the memoir does not dwell more on the role of local member. There could be many explanations for this, including the perceived demands of the readership and the likelihood that Chikarovski ran an efficient and relatively trouble free office. But MPs are elected not just to be party animals and legislators but primarily to serve local constituents. More information about the demands of the Lane Cove electorate would give a fuller picture of the MP’s life.

The current status of female politicians is complex. Chikarovski does not complain about obstacles but explains her determination to overcome any opposition that might have arisen because of her sex. However, she concludes with the observation that women have not yet achieved equality, and the hope that she will to ‘live long enough to see it’ (p. 231). Chikarovski managed to maintain her dignity to the end. The Sydney Morning Herald referred to her ‘graciousness’ and applauded the way that she placed party considerations before personal feelings. It is difficult to reflect on Chikarovski’s career without feeling that politics is the poorer if it cannot accommodate a woman of such obvious talent.


Arena, F. 2002, Franca: My Story, Simon and Schuster, East Roseville.

Button, J. 1998, As It Happened, Text, Melbourne.

Carr, B. 2002, Thoughtlines: Reflections of a Public Man, Viking Penguin, Camberwell.

Chappell, L. 1995, ‘Women’s policy’, Reform and Reversal: Lessons from the Coalition Government in New South Wales 1988–1995, eds M. Laffin & M. Painter, Macmillan Education, South Melbourne.

Collins, P. 2000, The Bear Pit: A Life in Politics, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest.

Henderson, G. 1998, Menzies’ Child: The Liberal Party of Australia, HarperCollins, Pymble.

Nile, F. 2001, Fred Nile: An Autobiography, Strand Publishing, Sydney.

Morgan, D. 1979, The Minister for Murder, Hutchinson, London.

Tony Smith’s PhD thesis examined gender in the Fifty-first New South Wales Parliament. He has taught Australian Politics at the Australian Catholic University, Charles Sturt University, the University of Technology Sydney and The University of Sydney.

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