Newly elected Senator for NSW, Deborah O’Neill, says politics is a way of giving action to her faith, and of making a difference to her local community and to the lives of individuals who lack a voice.
BY Debra Vermeer
In an age of political cynicism, former MP and newly elected Labor Senator for NSW, Deborah O’Neill stands out of the crowd as a “self-confessed chronic optimist”, saying that for her, politics is a way of giving action to her faith, and of making a difference to her local community and to the lives of individuals who lack a voice.
It’s been a rollercoaster year for Deborah. Having started 2013 as the Member for Robertson on the NSW Central Coast, she suffered defeat in the September election, and now ends the year having been appointed to the Senate, replacing the retiring former Foreign Minister, Bob Carr.
She acknowledges that “the journey in politics really isn’t for the faint-hearted”, but says her Irish Catholic background and the education she received from the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at St Patrick’s College, Campbelltown, instilled a strong sense of social awareness which led her to the Australian Labor Party and eventually to the federal parliament.
“My faith and my belief about people is absolutely embedded in my politics and is the reason why I’ve chosen the Labor Party,” she says.
That faith and belief was formed in her childhood, growing up in western Sydney, the eldest daughter of six children born to Irish immigrants, Jim and Mary O’Neill. Deborah attended St Andrew’s Marayong in kindergarten and then St Anthony’s Girraween, before the family moved to Campbelltown, where she attended St Patrick’s for her high school education.
“The Good Samaritan Sisters had a big influence on me,” she says.
“The one who left the biggest mark on me by a country mile was Sister Magdalena. She was an innovative teacher but what she also showed was a kindness to every single girl. She showed amazing leadership and a constant acknowledgement of God’s presence in every single person and that challenge to put on your eyes to see it every day.”
After leaving school, Deborah began an arts degree, but the family’s world was rocked when her younger sister Helen was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, an illness she would battle for the next three years before dying.
“That was a very powerful experience for our family,” Deborah says. “There was a lot of damage out of it; a lot of loss; a lot of grief. It was before the days where much counselling happened. We all just dealt with it in our own way. It certainly interrupted my studies at university.”
In fact Deborah pulled out of her university studies, but went back (to Mount St Mary’s College, now Australian Catholic University) after Helen died, to fulfil a promise to her sister to become a teacher.
As a student teacher at Mercy College, Chatswood, Deborah met fellow teacher Paul. They married and moved to the Central Coast where she got her first full-time job teaching at St Edwards, a Christian Brothers College, and then later taught at Corpus Christi College. Three children came along during that period – Caitlin, Brianna and Noah, now aged 22, 19 and 17.
While teaching, and raising three children, Deborah also undertook further studies, including a Master’s Degree in Education at ACU. On top of that, she began lecturing part-time at the University of Newcastle and she and Paul established a lawn-mowing business.
“Life is busy,” she concedes. “But when I lost my sister I can remember sitting in the car outside the hospital and I could see my hand on the key, ready to turn the key and thinking ‘how can I can turn this key and drive away and leave my sister behind me here?’ But I did. And it was about choosing life.
“And in the end I think those experiences either destroy you and break you and make you feel that life is hopeless or worthless, or you become really very conscious of the joys of every day. And for me it was like, ‘well, I can never take any day for granted. You never know when the time is coming’. So every day I get up and I think: ‘Today could be the only day that I have. How can I best live this day and know that God is with me?’”
Deborah says while her parents were not members of a political party, their Irish Catholic background fostered an understanding in her from an early age that politics mattered. Education was the other transformative tool that opened her horizons to the global political reality.
“I really believe that faith has a practical expression and it’s about what do you do with the energy and the gifts and the talents that God’s given you,” she says. “They’re not just for you. You’re called on to share them. So my contribution to my community is in policy and thinking and ideas and mindfulness of local issues and of people who perhaps have limited literacy or education, because I’ve always been interested in that.”
Deborah joined the ALP in 1996 and cut her teeth on political campaigning in two unsuccessful bids for Liberal-held state seats on the Central Coast in 2003 and 2007. In 2010 she won pre-selection in a high profile contest against sitting MP for the Federal seat of Robertson, Belinda Neal. Her victory in the marginal seat at the federal election helped secure minority government for Julia Gillard and the ALP.
Deborah says she is “truly proud” of the achievements of the Gillard government and of the substantial gains she was able to secure for the Central Coast community during that electoral term, including the rollout of the National Broadband Network to part of the electorate.
Particularly close to her heart was the establishment of a $29 million regional cancer clinic for her electorate, meaning that many Central Coast families no longer have to make the trek to Sydney for cancer treatment.
Asked what she finds the most challenging aspect of life in politics, Deborah responds without hesitation: “Being away from my family. That’s the hardest thing. Even though the technology has improved and you can keep in touch, it’s not the same as putting your arms around the children and asking them how their day was”.
When it comes to policy challenges, including the question of asylum seeker policy, she articulates clear views. Acknowledging that it is “a fraught issue”, she believes the best way to retain the cohesiveness of Australia’s multicultural society is to support an increased humanitarian intake and to ensure adequate funding for the resettlement of refugees and migrants into the community, while at the same time protecting our borders from “chaos”.
“I think that in the recent period of time we saw that Australians really rejected the sense of chaos, of processes being overwhelmed. And I think that compromised the degree of acceptance that we’ve been able to take for granted for a long time,” she says.
On the contentious issue of same-sex marriage, she says she has been guided by her conscience. “I believe in the traditional definition of marriage. It actually hasn’t been very difficult for me to make that call. I felt that way in my conscience. There’s an organic convention to what marriage generates – the family, mum, dad and the kids and the whole reason that we ended up with marriage as such a vital part of our community is about really supporting and honouring that unit and how powerful it is as the first community that we belong to”.
Deborah was a loyal supporter of Julia Gillard right up until the last leadership challenge, and says her decision to vote for Kevin Rudd as the best person to take the party to the election was one of her most difficult days in the parliament.
“Absolutely. It was the hardest thing,” she says. “It was the only day I cried in parliament.”
In the end, the move back to Rudd was unable to deliver a win for Deborah in Robertson, due in large part to a much-publicised and well-financed intervention from advertising guru, John Singleton, who backed local Independent mayor and former Central Coast Mariners’ soccer coach, Lawrie McKinna against her. Late in the campaign, the Singleton camp announced they would preference the Liberal Party, delivering the seat to the Liberal candidate Lucy Wicks.
However, Deborah was thrown a political lifeline following the election when it was announced that Senator Bob Carr would resign from parliament, thus creating a casual vacancy for NSW in the Senate, which she was elected by the ALP to fill.
She’s looking forward to serving the people of NSW in the Senate, and says the privilege of being in the federal parliament was brought home to her in a brief but powerful moment upon her arrival in the Senate recently.
“When you arrive at the Senate you are greeted by the Office of the Black Rod and they give each of the senators a medallion and a pin as a memento of the occasion. And you have to sign a little book,” she says.
“When I signed in, I signed after Nova Peris. And I just can’t tell you what an exciting thing that was for me, to sign the Senate Book after the first Indigenous woman in the parliament. It was such a delightful moment and there was something so right about that, as one small, but powerful indicator that things can change; that as we believe, we can enact. That’s what it’s all about.”