United Arab Emirates
London, England in July 1974
Brisbane in July 1974
I lived with my parents at their hobby farm in Toowoomba, Queensland.
My father was a farmer and my mother worked as a nurse at Toowoomba Hospital, whilst I attended school.
Public servant, waitress, department store cleaner, pilot, air traffic controller, rouse-a-bout (farmhand), cook, tax office worker, Member of Parliament.
I was born in Nigeria but don’t remember it because we migrated from there to the [United Arab] Emirates when I was one. We first lived in Qatar, then Sharjah, then Dubai, then Abu Dhabi, then Al Ayn. I moved throughout the Emirates because of my father’s job. He was attached to British intelligence and worked with the Sheiks, the rulers of the Emirates at the time.
It was a fascinating environment to grow up in, the desert was beautiful. I think I got my love of the Australian outback from the desert. I remember the peculiar smells of the desert: the smell of heat, the smell of people and the smells of the market. As a child I wanted to be out in that world exploring, rather than inside an air-conditioned environment, but it wasn’t that simple. My memories of the Middle East were very much defined by the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel, but mostly the landscape. The landscape is the thing I miss most about that part of the world.
However, it was a rather solitary childhood. I went to an English-speaking school but had few friends who had a shared background and experience [and] was never really social. A complete mixture of children attended my school from Arab backgrounds, American, Canadian, European. They were interesting people that were part of the society and culture where we lived. I learnt early on that you can make friends with all different people but if they don’t know anything about your life or family, it can make things harder. It was not an unhappy childhood – just rather odd.
I have one brother who is a year older than me and my folks were very good. We were a close family but everything changed when my brother and I went to boarding school in England. My brother went when he was seven and I went when I was ten.
There were no decent secondary schools near where we were, so it really wasn’t possible to continue schooling in the Middle East. I think it was very young for my brother and I to board, but it was what people did. My brother went to Yorkshire and I went to Sussex, so we really didn’t see that much of each other. He had an aunt on my father’s side as his guardian and I had my grandmother on my mother’s side. We came home for the holidays and I was able to see my brother then. I always felt very close to my brother.
I learnt that everyone’s life wasn’t like mine. I loved boarding school, but it was hard being ten years old and having your parents on the other side of the world. This is one of many air mail letters written to me from my parents. I can remember rushing to see if I had a letter and being very excited to receive this from my father. This letter is from Al Ayn, where my parents lived. I have always been interested in politics; in the letter we mention the English Liberal Party – I must have made a comment about the Liberal party in my previous letter.
Having to travel back to the Middle East during school holidays twice a year was a really big thing in my mind. School ended and everyone else’s parents picked them up in their cars. I had to face starting at Sussex, driving to the train station, getting the train to London, being met by relatives, boarding the international flight. The flights then weren’t as quick as they are now. It was a long journey.
Travelling and being at boarding school on my own, I think you either sink or swim. Obviously, I was someone who decided very early on in life that I wasn’t going to sink; I learnt to be independent and self-reliant.
After the huge adjustment of establishing myself in boarding school, making friends and learning to cope, it seemed very quick to me that everything was going to change again when my parents decided to immigrate to Australia. I had mixed feelings to start with but my overwhelming philosophy in life is that change is good, positive and should be embraced. So I got over most of the anxious feelings quite quickly and became excited. We had just learnt about Australia in Geography; it seemed to me to be such an exciting country. I particularly liked the idea of the outback. I remember we learnt about the Snowy Mountains scheme and the Murrumbidgee irrigation area.
I knew both my parents had been to Australia previously in their 20s and both loved Australia. My father had been crocodile shooting on safari and my mother had been a nurse on Thursday Island. My parents recognised that to have a good quality of life with their children close by in retirement, they needed to leave the Middle East. My father was getting towards his 50s and it was time to move onto the next stage. They both hated England, so there was no suggestion of moving back there. They wanted to build a new life somewhere and Australia it was.
I was 13 years old when we immigrated to Australia [and] my brother and I met in London and travelled together. We first landed in Darwin and then [got] a short flight to Brisbane where our parents were picking us up. We arrived in July 1974. I remember walking to the front of the plane and standing at the top of the stairs and looking around – in those days the stairs came down from the plane to the tarmac, you didn’t walk into the terminal directly – thinking this is an amazing place and feeling grateful, feeling as though I had finally arrived.
All of those positive things were in my mind. It was a whole new world. It was a land where you could be anyone, a land where I could belong. In my mind Australia was associated with happiness and laughter. I have never lost that feeling.
My parents had brought a hobby farm outside Toowoomba because my father had always wanted to be a farmer. My mother worked as a nurse at Toowoomba Hospital. They realised very quickly that small scale beef farming was not as profitable as they thought, particularly in the beef price crash that year, so we moved to Canberra after a few months where my father worked for the Australian Federal Police.
We settled in Canberra and I attended Campbell High. I hated high school, every single day I hated it, but looked for those little bright lights and put the best face on it. People laughed at me when I spoke, particularly in Queensland. I tried as hard as possible to remove my English accent. School was hell. It was like I was waiting to leave school to be the person I always was.
Things improved during Years 11 and 12 when I was at Dixon College which was very laid back. It was the perfect learning environment for me – relaxed with a focus on independent learning. I had a brief punk period where I became one of Canberra’s original punk rock people. I remember one day I really excelled myself: no shoes, bright orange glasses that were tinted, spiky purple hair, a dog collar around my neck and a razor blade in one ear with a nose piercing that went to the razor blade, skinny black jodhpurs, petticoat top and black lipstick, I’m sure!
All through my childhood there was running this ribbon of passion about flying and aeroplanes. I used to read those “dog fight” paperbacks for the flight scenes, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I could fly. I believed I could not learn because I was short-sighted. I met up with some RAAF pilots and discovered it only mattered if I wanted to join the air force.
I was there the next day, enrolled and started to learn to fly at the age of 19. This was the thing I wanted to do, this is the thing that made me extremely happy. I worked three jobs – the public service, cleaning department stores and waitressing – to pay for my flying lessons. I gained my commercial pilot’s licence when I was 20.
The pilot’s headset is significant because it is not something you automatically have when you first learn to fly but acquire as you gain more experience. I bought it in the mid 1980s, it was very expensive and was state of the art technology at the time. It was the lightest with the best acoustics. To me it signified an achievement in my professional life. I was now a pilot and everything seemed to be fitting together.
I got a job as a trainee air traffic controller and moved to Melbourne. I worked in Melbourne for a little over a year and then moved to Sydney, living in Coogee. Air traffic controlling was a job I liked, something I was good at, but did not completely satisfy me. I wanted to fly.
I applied for pilot positions with all the major airlines and was unsuccessful, so eventually put an advertisement in all the rural newspapers, listing my qualifications. By then I had done my aerial stock mustering endorsement. A shearing contractor in Thargomindah, south-west Queensland, called: “I’ve got floods here, I’ve got trouble and my pilot’s gone to New Guinea, when can you get here?” I replied I could be there in 48 hours, so I hung up the phone and got out a map to look up where Thargomindah was. I didn’t want to admit to him that I had no idea where it was! (Thargomindah is about 1,000 kms west of Brisbane.)
I packed up my whole life in 48 hours. I squeezed everything into my 1969 Holden and left Sydney. I went from about as city as you can get, to as country as you can get. I was a complete foreigner but I learnt to adapt very quickly; they used to call me “City Sue”. It was very much a growing-up experience for me, as all my previous jobs had been very controlled. I really liked the ‘hey, who knows what might happen today’ aspect of life.
I met my future husband in the shearing sheds at Thargomindah. After the station owner went broke, we spent two years travelling around and I worked in the shearing sheds as a rouse-a-bout or cook. They were fabulous years. That was a good thing for me to do. My life hadn’t been easy but it had been privileged and a little spoilt. It taught me to do a bloody hard day’s work. Cooking in the sheds was harder than anything I’ve ever done: up at 4.30am, on your feet, standing on a horrible floor ’til 10.30pm and never stopping in that time. But it was good for me. I now have more respect for people who do a full day’s manual work. I learnt there’s an intrinsic value in everyone and no-one’s better than anyone else.
Eventually we married and settled on the family farm outside Tallangatta in north-east Victoria. My husband was fourth generation on the family farm and I really liked that sense of belonging. I really saw myself fitting in and contributing to that life.
I loved the farm life, but it was very tough. It was a very hard, harsh environment for us to start off. We had three children under five with an irregular income, little capital behind us and experienced the wool floor price crash and droughts. I got a hernia from pulling wool bales. When I had my third child the doctor said, “Why do you have a hernia like this? We only see this in men!” In the end [the marriage] didn’t work out, but it did for 15 years!
With the aim of gaining future employment I started part-time at La Trobe University, Wodonga campus, studying Economics when the children were little. I still had to do essentially almost a full-time workload on the farm and raising three children. I would sit down at night to do a university assignment and fall asleep at the computer. After I finished my degree, I secured a job at the Albury tax office and while I was there I did a Masters in Tax Law and then another Masters degree in Accounting. Over ten years of part-time study.
I was always someone who read the paper but became very interested in politics when I was studying economics. I joined the local Liberal Party branch [and] was Secretary there for a few years. I never expected to be a politician. Our local Member of Parliament [in Victoria] resigned, I contested the seat and lost in the pre-selection. I was disappointed but accepting.
Then the phone rang and it was the electorate chairman for Farrer asking would I consider having a go. I said there are three reasons why not: I don’t live in New South Wales, nobody has ever heard of me and I’m not in the National Party. Anyway, I put up my hand for the pre-selection, won and started campaigning. Half-way through the  campaign I really thought this is not going to happen, checked the odds and it was 33-1 that I would win. I won by an incredibly narrow margin of 206 votes. A friend sent an email [noting I] won by 206 votes and [my] favourite aeroplane is the Cessna 206!
Being a politician is a very diverse job and fits the pattern of my life that things can be different every day. I have a junior ministerial role in the [Federal] Government as Parliamentary Secretary, so I help administer the agricultural portfolio which can take me all around Australia. I’m also the local member for an electorate that after the next election stretches from Albury, across to the South Australian border and all the way up to Queensland. Farrer will be 200,000 kms² which is four times the size of Britain. It [will] take in a huge amount of the western division of New South Wales which is the desert, outback country I love. Some of the territory I will be looking after, should I be successful, is where I worked as a shearer’s cook. Where you are at some stage in your life is sometimes where you come back to.
I still love to fly and my preference landscape is something flat, brown and with a lot of sunshine.