• Liam Carroll

Zali Steggall: Warringah's Independent Woman

In 1974, John and Sue Steggall welcomed baby Zali to the Northern Beaches. In the late 70’s, early 80’s, her adventure-loving parents called the French Alps home, paving the way for an ultra-competitive little Zali to see ski-racing as a viable career. In 1992, when her Queenwood schoolmates were studying for HSC exams, 17year old Zali was in Albertville making her Olympic debut, competing in the Giant Slalom, an event where one tiny mistake sees you stop safely a kilometre down the frozen mountainside. In 2002, after the most successful Winter Olympics career of any Australian besides speed-skate-racing demon Steven Bradbury, Zali decided to get a law degree, forging a career in the family law courts. Then, as if out of thin air, the Manly local announced on January 27, 2019, she was throwing her hat in the ring to give Tony Abbott a red-hot run for the federal seat he’d held for a quarter of a century. Four months later, the seat was hers. An amazing life by anyone’s standards, but Warringah’s Independent Woman’s only getting started. The Tawny Frogmouth caught up with Zali for a chinwag. Here’s what she said.

Thredbo, 1990's

G’day Zali!

G’day Tawny.

First things first, as Sarah Connor might ask, how are the knees? They’re very good, touch wood! Thank you. Amazingly, I started racing when I was 4 years old and finished when I was 28 and had no major injuries along the way.

Incredible! A professional skier with their original ACL’s? Yes! I put it down to good risk management, good stretching and good training. In some ways, it was a bad thing. I never got injured but I never had a break. I competed professionally for 13 years, which translates to 26 ski seasons in a row, north and south hemispheres. By the time I competed in 2002 at Salt Lake City I was done, exhausted, physically and mentally, ready to retire 100%.

What is the origin and significance of the name Zali? My parents have very traditional Anglo-Saxon names, John and Sue, as do their siblings, parents, grandparents. But they were slightly rebellious, true to the 70’s, and when my brother was born, they named him Zeke, which caused some family uproar. All the boys in my dad’s family had always been called John or Jack, and for the first month of Zeke’s life, my grandmother insisted on calling him “Little Johnny”! But she came around. And my parents really liked the idea of having two kids with two “Z” names so, shortly before I was born, they read in the newspaper of a “Zalijah”, shortened it to Zali and here I am.

It's impossible not to be a star with a "Z"name! Ironically, growing up in France, the French all assumed Zali to be an Australian name while here in Australia, no one had ever heard of it, always asking me where the name comes from.

Do you feel like your name, being a cool name, has helped in your life? Do you mean in terms of politics? A short name helps in politics for sure. It’s very identifiable, no question, but I don’t know if it’s helped me. I like it. And Australians like to accentuate the “al” sound, go ahead and give it a real Za(aahhhrrrll)li accentuation.

Nice. Come on Aussie.

You’ve referred to yourself as a "Small L Liberal”, what does that actually mean? It comes down to my values and what I believe in. I’m competitive. I believe in competition, in free markets, in opportunity, and gravitate towards those types of policies. But equally, I believe in fair play and fairness, social justice.

University funding is something that has become insanely expensive. Looking behind the curtain reveals some rather questionable business practices and reliance on foreign students. There's all sorts of funny business going on. Should there be a cap to the cost of a university degree? We need free markets, sure, but we need degrees to be at least somewhat affordable.

Well that depends on who exactly has to carry that funding burden, you know, who ultimately pays for it. So, whether it’s universities or anything else, I believe in free enterprise and competition in that sense, but I also believe there must be a fair playing field, and that it’s made clear how initiatives can indeed be paid for, who’s paying what, and how any government funding is being used too.

I imagine that’s where ICAC comes in. We need someone to police politicians and institutions, any one or body that has huge power and market positioning. Of course, so another of my core beliefs is accountability. Without accountability, we’re in really bad shape. And what’s also important to understand is that Australia’s democracy was not originally a two-party machine. It has evolved that way. This is where the independents are a crucial part of politics. We hold the big parties to account. Accountability is everything.

I think this leads to something people would like cleared up, and it ties in with big parties, big institutions and accountability. It’s not cheap to contest an election, especially against Tony Abbott. Can you clarify what your involvement with Getup is? And did they fund your campaign in any way? Yep, look, happy to clarify. I have nothing to do with Getup, have received no funding, and have no input in anything they decide to do. Getup is an organisation that is no more or no less than WWF, ACF, The Climate Council, Greenpeace, a lot of different organisations that have sprung up over the past few decades that are very active around environmental and social issues, and if their views align with mine on anything, that’s by coincidence not design.

So, you weren’t involved with those amazing Dinosaurs on Spit Bridge leading into the election? I had nothing to do with any of it. I’ve got to be really clear here. For me, with my campaign, when I decided to run, key pillars for me are integrity and clean politics. I believe you don’t have to play dirty to be successful. So, for me, and I’m not saying any of the groups are guilty of this, but especially environmental groups can sometimes have an approach that pushes the envelope well beyond where I’m comfortable going or being associated with.

Leading on from that, let's talk about Mark Kelly’s “Vote Tony Out” campaign. This no doubt galvanised a lot of support behind you. How does the “negative” style approach of that campaign sit with you, knowing that you fight clean, but it’s easy for Tony Abbott and others to decry that particular campaign as negative, whether or not you were behind it? Well I suppose Australian politics has not necessarily become dirty, but it seems now that anything in the political realm quickly goes towards a negative type of messaging, and that’s why a lot of people don’t like politics. For me, I’m drawn to anything that inspires people to be the best they can be instead of the strategy of telling voters they need to fear the other side most of all and that hey, I’m not as worthy of fear as they are. That’s just not me, not my style. Fear and smear is petty and has become quite prevalent, but I will always strive for leading positively and trying my best to inspire others. That’s what inspires me too. But getting back to it, I had and have nothing to do with Getup.

Was there a certain teacher, or anyone at all, that first inspired you to believe you were capable of achieving great things? I don’t think I’ve achieved anything great yet!! If I can get the Climate Bill through, maybe that’ll be a start. But no, my parents, they’ve always been amazing, hugely supportive, always encouraging me to back myself. I’ve always had a competitive drive anyhow. And sporting careers are full of far more lows than highs.

We live in a world now where it seems there’s a push towards coddling people, to make sure everyone is having a good time, all the time. I believe that without hardship and disappointment, a person can’t possibly develop fully. Yes, definitely, and maybe a defining moment, something that really sticks in my mind is at about age 9, with my skiing, I was told by a coach that yes, I’ve got drive and determination, but the other girls were just more talented and yeah Zali, you can try as hard as you like, but these other girls will just always be better. And that was a red flag to a bull! I thought I’ll show you!!

I think that coach deserves a medal! Genius! Who knows if it was a comment said on purpose. Anyway, it certainly worked to inspire me.

Do you have a guiding life philosophy or a religious worldview? I’m not at all religious. I’ve probably got a certain amount of belief in, you know, the universe has its own ways of working things out. But I’m not religious. At the same time, I totally respect people that are grounded by their religious beliefs, and I’ve seen how it plays a huge part in creating a centre point to people’s lives, can give people a great sense of purpose.

Your central platform, and a huge reason for you winning the seat of Warringah, is the environment and your commitment towards a sustainable, clean, carbon-neutral, renewably fuelled future. How are you progressing on that path? I’m a planner. I don’t believe you achieve anything by accident. You plan. You chip away. You get to something meaningful over time. When I was elected, the key thinking for me was what am I going to deliver? How do we move the dial on environment and climate? What are the solutions we need to put on the table? And that’s the Climate Change Bill which we’re pushing forwards. We’ve already seen a huge amount of success in how many people have gotten behind Net Zero By 2050. I view it as a snowball, one that’s growing. And very gradually we’re shepherding more and more people down the road, this inevitable road to a renewables-fuelled and sustainable society. My job is corralling more and more people on my Roadmap to Zero, empowering people to make a difference themselves; waste, water, food, transport, finances, all those aspects.

Most important though, something everyone wants to know about, The Spit Bridge. Well, The Spit Tunnel really. Ah yes, the never-ending-going-to-be-constructed-next-year tunnel.

Yep, that one! Here’s exactly the sort of issue where a lot of people will criticise me by saying, if you support the environment, how can you support a tunnel? We need to progress infrastructure, and progress will always come at some cost, but it also creates opportunity. And we can never get to a better, overall public transport system, without utilising a tunnel network. At the moment, we have a drawbridge.

I love that drawbridge! Of course! We all do! But it’s just not a solution. We have to progress from that. I want to see an acceleration of electrification of public transport to reduce emissions as well as reduce noise pollution. So, the tunnel, the EIS and the Business Impact Statement were due out last year. It’s been postponed with Covid. Now the state government is saying end of 2020. But who knows? It’s not the only solution. Building a tunnel will take years. Even if they start tomorrow, we probably won’t have it for 10 years.

Good. Start tomorrow then! Get digging! Yes! Ideally. I wish! I’ll try! Also, I’m going to keep an eye on the ferries. We can’t have a loss of capacity. That’s vital. But I’m a bit torn on that. I know the ferries are iconic. I love the ferries. But they’re incredibly dirty. You don’t just hold onto history for history’s sake. If it can be replaced by better technology, we need to embrace the new technology.

I suppose it’s the same argument with coal and renewables. Exactly, I totally appreciate what coal has done for the Australian economy. It’s a huge part of our industrialisation and our wealth, but just because we have a history doesn’t mean we can’t progress to the next phase. Otherwise we’d never go anywhere. I understand the need to negotiate and find solutions moving forward, that was the absolute crux of my work as a family law barrister, finding common ground between extremely adversarial parties and working collectively towards solutions that can benefit both sides while both parties learn to coexist in the interim period too.

Yes, ok, let’s change gears now you mention that. A Tawny reader sent me a question to ask you on precisely this sort of family law topic. They tell me they had tears when writing the question, so I’m sure they’ll greatly appreciate your wisdom. Of course, please.

Many women in Warringah are subject to continued emotional and financial abuse, as well as coercion and control from their ex-partners using the family law system as a tool to inflict the abuse. This is not well recognised and often lasts for years, if not more than a decade. The loss in these women’s lives is immeasurable. What advice can you give to women abused by the system and women who want to change the system, how do you see that change will occur? Yeah, wow, amazing question. And there is an inquiry into this happening now too. But first, changing the system, that is incredibly difficult. That is a very slow, drawn out process that will be many years, decades in the works. My more immediate advice would be to understand the system so that you can engage with it from the outset in a clear and concise way. So, what I’m saying really is, know the rules of engagement within the legal framework. And family law is incredibly emotional for people, incredibly debilitating.

I suppose the very nature of a family unit is something that’s so sacred to us as human beings, when that’s literally breaking down, how can a person deal with that? It’s incredibly challenging and generally, all the cases that make it to court are the cases that are the bad ones, the bad breakups, total loss of communication, agendas are at play, one party likely using the system more aggressively than the other. Fear plays a big part. And not understanding the law, the hierarchy of entrenched legal considerations, that’s so important to understand. A person may feel a certain issue is the most important, but the law in fact states something else, that issue may be fifth in line of what we legally have to consider. A key part is managing your expectations and that all starts with understanding the legal system.

What would you say to a person experiencing a situation like this, if they were your client? First, you need good help. You can’t get through this on your own. As soon as you’re emotionally involved, it’s very hard to think rationally and objectively. That is of course difficult, because good help is expensive, but here’s the way to minimise the costs; you’ll need help on the emotional side, guaranteed, but don’t seek this from your legal team! That is financially crippling! Seek legal expertise from your lawyer and emotional help from friends and professionals in that space. I’ve been through divorce. My husband’s been through divorce. I’ve worked in family law. It’s an emotional black hole. Do anything you can to make sure it’s not a financial black hole too.

Pay the right people for the right service! Don’t seek emotional counselling from a barrister! Indeed, that is not a good strategy. But I do also acknowledge the coercive and controlling behaviour, the economic control that can exist in these situations, this is a form of abuse that probably disproportionately affects women in Warringah. Reach out for help, that’s the best starting point. I’m on the Family Law Inquiry Panel and it’s complex, really complex.

Would you say your sporting background helps you see situations in terms of the rules of the game, so to speak? It’s not emotional, it’s systematic, that sort of thing. Yes, and that fits my personality. I’m a planner. I’m a strategist. I think it through longer term. And that’s not necessarily everyone’s approach. But in the family law system, and politics too of course, understand the rules and make your plan with as much logical and rational thinking as you can, and when you feel the emotions clouding your thinking, work out the best way to put those thoughts to the side when you’re focusing on pragmatic solutions.

One last question; do you have any words of wisdom for my baby tawny frogmouth arriving in February to help her navigate her way in this world. Believe in yourself. Back yourself. Be brave. When you get to the end of your journey, the only things you’ll regret are the things you didn’t dare to do.

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