Earlier this year I got to research and write a couple of stories for Monash University’s great alumni magazine, Monash Life. It’s the first time I’ve worked for this title and I was chuffed to meet and interview two charming, fascinating women: former speaker of the House of Representatives, Anna Burke; and Indigenous mentor, teacher and inspiration, Kylie Clarke.
You can read the stories on the Monash Life website here (Anna) and here (Kylie) or read on to see the text, along with Penny Stephen’s beautiful photography. Thanks again to the good people at Coretext for the commission.
Order in the house
She’s represented unions and employers, contested (and won) six federal elections, and made politicians of all stripes behave in her role as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Monash alumna Anna Burke’s career has been a fascinating journey.
Anna Burke is comfortable being described as ‘the Steven Bradbury of politics’. In 1997, she accepted preselection as federal Labor candidate for Chisholm, a Liberal stronghold for then health minister Michael Wooldridge in southeastern Melbourne that takes in Monash University.
She immediately rang her husband, Steve Burgess, reassuring him she couldn’t possibly win. After all, the couple had a lot on their plate: they were renovating a house in Newport, Burke was in the thick of delicate enterprise agreement talks with ANZ on behalf of 22,000 Finance Sector Union workers, “and I was trying to get pregnant”, she adds.
Suddenly, Wooldridge switched seats. And so, like Bradbury – the Australian ice skater who won gold in the 2002 Winter Olympics by not falling over – after a well-fought campaign, on 3 October 1998, Burke found herself blinking incredulously into television cameras, the new federal member for Chisholm.
A year later, her first child, Madeleine, was born. “I went back to Parliament when she was three weeks old,” Burke recalls. “[Liberal MP] Jackie Kelly and I were really the first women in Parliament to have babies. Nobody knew what to do. Steve took 12 months off work and we flew up and back so I could feed Madeleine. There was no childcare centre and no support.”
The argument for education
Burke grew up in Ashwood, a southeast suburb of Melbourne, in the heart of Chisholm, one of five children. Her mother trained as a teacher, and her father was an electrician who worked for the Commonwealth Bank and did part-time jobs on the side to help pay for the children’s Catholic school fees. “Education was incredibly important to my parents,” Burke says. “Both of them are highly intelligent and capable human beings who just didn’t come from the time when you could easily get an education.”
Adding a degree of difficulty to Burke’s path to university was her dyslexia. Nevertheless, she took her HSC exams orally and, in 1984, secured a place at Monash University studying arts.
“I wanted to know how to think and study and progress an argument,” Burke says of her reasons for choosing arts. “I just wanted to get a good degree that would help me probably crack a graduate job somewhere.”
Burke took to university with vigour, joining the Newman Society, a ‘Catholics on campus’ social group that sparked friendships that have lasted until today. She majored in English and politics and, despite mostly eschewing student politics (“I was interested in the bigger picture,” she says), in her honours year, in 1988, she joined her local ALP branch and also the Monash ALP executive, convinced by now-Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (“they needed a girl”). She also was elected as a student representative on the Arts Faculty Council.
With her record for contribution, Burke easily found a graduate job, joining VicRoads and developing an interest in industrial relations. While there she studied a Master of Commerce at the University of Melbourne, majoring in industrial relations, then worked at Victoria University. Finally, she found her job as an industrial officer with the Finance Sector Union, which brings us back to her unexpectedly successful tilt at politics.
In the hot seat
After a decade in opposition, Labor won government in 2007, led by Kevin Rudd. Burke began as deputy speaker to Harry Jenkins and, despite an early hiccup (search ‘Joe Hockey and Kevin Rudd cardboard cut-out’ online for details), she grew authoritatively into the role.
After filling in for a year during Peter Slipper’s rocky reign, Burke finally had the hot seat to herself in October 2012, only the second female Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Parliament of Australia; Joan Child was the first.
“She was an amazing person,” says Burke of her predecessor. “She rang me up when I got the job and said, ‘Oh, don’t think you’re going to have it as tough as I did. I had Keating!’”
But it certainly wasn’t easy. A hung Parliament created tensions not only between rival parties but also within the Labor Party. “Question time was news,” says Burke, who was widely regarded for her patient, impartial handling of the office. “You are there representing the institution … I’m a member of the Labor Party, but when you’re in the chair it’s about the orderly running of the institution and the Parliament. It’s about respect for the rules.” Burke retired from politics in 2016 and, six months later, joined the Administrative Appeals Tribunal as a general member, where you’ll find her today, listening to claims and making rulings on everything from Centrelink decisions and child support determinations, to Family Tax Benefit issues and citizenship character applications.
Meanwhile, she’s still involved in the Monash community. A few weeks ago, she drove daughter Madeleine in to sit a couple of law exams (she and Burgess also have a 16-year-old son, John, in Year 10) and, last year, she was awarded a Monash University Fellowship.
Burke is proud of changes she helped implement during her party’s time in government, but ultimately hopes people will remember her to have been a good local member. “Because I think so many people forget that’s what you’re actually elected to do. And hopefully that’s the impression I’ve left behind.”
Gifted educator draws on culture
Kylie Clarke has been a mentor, a teacher, a backpacker and even designed an Indigenous guernsey for the Western Bulldogs. But it took a serious illness to put life into perspective.
You could describe Kylie Clarke’s life and career in many ways, but never as ‘uneventful’. The Gunditjmara, Wotjobaluk and Ngarrindjeri woman grew up on Wadawurrung Country in Geelong loving sport: tennis, netball, hockey – anything with an adrenaline rush.
In her early 20s, she ventured to the Top End to continue her work in Aboriginal education that had begun with a job as a preschool assistant at the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative. Until then, she’d never considered university (neither her siblings nor parents had completed secondary school). But supportive teacher colleagues at Darwin’s Alawa Primary School and St John’s College, where she was a tutor and education worker, convinced her to apply for (and win) a Faculty of Education Indigenous Scholarship. In 2004, Clarke began her double degree course in primary education and sport and outdoor recreation.
“I remember feeling a little bit out of my depth,” she says of her first day on campus at Monash University’s former Gippsland (Churchill) campus.
“I was missing an Aboriginal presence, and then I saw a beautiful Aboriginal mural on one of the outside walls. At that moment I thought, ‘Ah, I am meant to be here’. I’ve since appreciated how powerful such symbols are.”
Clarke settled into university life, enjoying teacher placements, outdoor recreation experiences and playing for the Monash Blues in women’s football. Academically, she won a Monash Indigenous Scholarship for Excellence, a Blue Stockings Award in recognition of her potential and, on completing her degree in 2007, made the Faculty of Education Dean’s Honours List.
She went on to work at Monash, implementing the Koorie Footprints to Higher Education program. “The numbers of Indigenous students were quite low at the time, so we really needed to go back to basics, making it a culturally safe space that was more appealing and accessible.”
A life-altering experience
Returning to Geelong in 2011 to coordinate the Gordon TAFE Koorie Unit, a year later she set off on a solo backpacking adventure around the world. Then, in Brazil, nine-and-a-half months into her trip, she suddenly fell ill. “My gut instinct knew something wasn’t right. I knew I had to come home. Within two days I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, which hit like a tonne of bricks and changed my world.”
Three months of chemotherapy, a stem-cell transplant, 11 weeks in isolation, countless blood transfusions and about 50 hospital admissions in a year followed.
Since then, Clarke has worked as a mentor and program manager with the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience and is currently the Parrwang Youth Arts coordinator at the Geelong Performing Arts Centre.
In 2017, she turned her hand to designing the AFL Indigenous Round guernsey for the Western Bulldogs Football Club, inspired by a special connection with her late father and lifelong Bulldogs supporter, Peter.
Now 37, Clarke is in remission but still feels the effects of treatment. She misses playing sport (rehabilitation is a long road) but is wiser about life. “It’s all about people and the connections we make that can contribute to a better world,” she says. “To be able to walk past somebody in the street and share a smile, a compliment or to help someone in need. It can have a huge impact on someone’s day, and that, to me, is soul-soothing.”