Quiet toughness of woman made famous by swine flu
Before the advent of swine flu, Nicola Roxon’s most notable public outing was during the 2007 election campaign when Health Minister Tony Abbott failed to show up for a televised debate at the National Press Club.
Finding herself in the middle of a politician’s fantasy – a forum on national television to herself – Roxon showed a good combination of humility and pugnacity by addressing the audience herself, and making the point to Abbott that he should have organised his time better.
Her quiet sledging drew the above, infamous response from Abbott: “That’s bullshit.”
Roxon’s professional restraint helped damage the Coalition in the middle of its doomed campaign. It also showed her capacity for control with adversaries.
Prior to delivering the address to the annual AMA dinner outgoing president Rosanna Capolingua leant over and whispered to Health Minister Nicola Roxon: “You know that I’m making this speech as President of the AMA”? Roxon gave a matter of fact reply, “I know Rosanna, that’s what you have to do.”
Capolingua went on to deliver a speech that launched a series of well placed rockets aimed squarely at Roxon’s health reforms. Roxon sat through nodding politely and then had a cordial chat with Capolingua after the speech. The message from Roxon: I understand this is politics not personal.
Nicola Roxon has been the Government face mask of swine flu in the last few weeks, but many Australians would have turned on the television and thought: “who is this woman telling me to lock my children in the house?”
While Roxon’s profile had been gradually growing over the last few months as the seemingly endless debate over the alcopops tax progressed and regressed, there is nothing like a world wide flu pandemic to put a Health Minister on the map.
Roxon’s father was a scientist from La Trobe University who died when she was just 10. Her mother worked as a part-time pharmacist while raising and her two sisters.
After attending one of Melbourne’s most prestigious private girls’ schools on a scholarship, Roxon graduated top of her class at Melbourne University Law School and went on to work as an associate to then-High Court Justice Mary Gaudron.
She later worked with the National Union of Workers alongside then partner and former national secretary Bill Shorten (who now as parliamentary secretary for disability services is her junior in Government).
Roxon moved on to work for union law firm Maurice Blackburn and played an important legal role for the unions in the divisive Patricks Stevedores dispute in 1998.
John Cain, the son and grandson of the Labor Victorian premiers and now the Victorian Government Solicitor, was head of Maurice Blackburn at the time and says that Roxon’s style shone through in the battle with Patricks.
“At that time there was almost daily actions being fought and Nicola would be there every morning in the court looking after many of those. This was a tough company and there was day in day out battles to protect the interests of the union workers. These guys were very tough, but she had an ability to get on well with people and they respected her,” Cain told The Punch.
“There are varieties of toughness, and Nicola is a smart, intelligent and strategic person. She knows what outcomes she wants and she will pursue that vigorously until she gets that outcome. She is extremely hard working and clever, and clever people who are hard working are able to achiever great things.’’
One of the Minister’s most public adversaries in recent times has been outgoing AMA President, Rosanna Capolingua. Dr Capolingua says her public spats with Roxon were the result of a Government desperate to prove itself with an ambitious policy agenda rather than bitchy sniping between two women.
“I think because we’re both women it has been portrayed as some kind of cat fight. But neither Nicola nor I have been into a cat fight,” Capolingua told The Punch.
“I have never had any problem with Nicola. It is a big thing getting elected like that, and a lot of the way they went about things was a lot to do with still being in election mode. But the Government is maturing now.”
“The Health Minister has felt that she needed to make a clear stand about the AMA . . . but as far as she and I are concerned there is no animosity, there is mutual respect,’’ said Capolingua.
Yet the gushing about the Minister’s conciliatory style is not often as forthcoming from some staff and public servants who have been at the receiving end of one of her increasingly notorious sprays. This side to her character has led to the uncharitable nickname of “bipolar Nicola” among some public servants.
While working as reporter covering health I would joke with Roxon’s staff about their being in trouble with the boss over bad coverage and was invariably met with a silent ashen-faced reply: “yeah, not funny,” was the look.
Roxon’s long-serving press secretary Sean Kelly recently left her office, but the exposure to her perfectionism has evidently not hurt his prospects as he is now working for the ultimate tantrum prone perfectionist: Kevin Rudd.
In many ways Roxon (along with the likes of Penny Wong and Lindsay Tanner) is the perfect model of a Rudd Government Minister. Always playing the straight dull bat, while slowly chalking up the runs and rarely giving the Opposition a look in.
She’s also happy to break promises or engage in shameless spinning for the sake of the Government. Before and after the election she maintained the Rudd Government would not make any changes to the 30% private health insurance rebate. As it turned out there were changes being considered to it all along with it eventually means testing the rebate in the last budget.
A promise to takeover hospitals is also looking hollower by the day, and it will have to be Roxon to come and say this is not going to happen.
The seemingly never ending debate about the alcopops tax has also left Roxon open to being ridiculed as a wowser, not helped by the increasingly puritanical guidelines on drinking the Government is recommending as well as invoking the support of the Women’s Temperance Union for the tax.
But despite the reputation for being somewhat volatile privately Roxon is considered by her staff to be a good proponent of the work/family balance, something they put down to her own experience as a mother her 3 year-old daughter Rebecca and now wife to long-term partner Victorian State Services Authority advisor Mike Kerrisk.
With Parliament sitting at least 20 weeks a year Roxon makes a point of being at home every night when she is in Melbourne to tuck Rebecca in, and tries to have her and Mike in Canberra for extended sittings when they can.
According to Cain it is Roxon’s family that underpins a simple approach to what is often a complex portfolio: “She understands what is important to people and what people need.” And that’s probably important to people when you’re in charge of handling something like a swine flu outbreak.
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