Flat White

A soirée with the Steggalls

31 July 2019

3:20 PM

31 July 2019

3:20 PM

Australia is the Big Country. Yet, in some ways, in some Sydney circles, it’s very small.

Members of the Australian Women Writers meet once a month or so in a wonderfully panelled room in the Mitchell Library – and you can’t get more ‘literary’ than that. Writers attended, dutifully paying their entrance fee and listened to various writers and the occasional journalist, Karen Middleton being guest speaker on one occasion.

As a member of the AWW was how I came to be invited, some years ago, to a Christmas drinks function at the home of Professor Sue Steggall, distinguished art historian and biographer of Joan Kerr, Art and Architectural Historian 2013 winner of the Non-Fiction section of the Society of Women Writers Biennial Book Awards.

Professor Steggall had, had, we’d been told, in reverent tones, written a book that had been translated into French – Sydney-en-chablais: aventure savoyarde d’une famille australienne – adventures of a Sydney family in the Haute Savoie, where the Steggalls, husband John, Sue, son Zeke and daughter Zali holidayed year after year in their French chalet.

The Steggall residence – you couldn’t call it a house, was a captivating blend of New York literary salon and Manly beachside pad – and, once you had entered through the security doors, you were in this huge apartment, with its view of the Manly cricket grounds, so close, indeed, as Professor Steggall said, sometimes the balls were apt to find their way onto the Steggall balcony.

Annoyingly, I can’t remember if Sue’s daughter, Zali Steggall OAM, now the Member for Warringah, was present. There were a lot of people, not just from the writer’s group, sampling the perfect canapés, drinking out of what probably were perfect French crystal champagne flutes. No one asked for a beer, it just seemed too, well, plebeian. And nobody, I noticed, overstayed their time.

I was reminded of that occasion reading Zali Steggall’s maiden speech to the Australian Parliament. Zali, self-proclaimed moderate Liberal is actually not terribly in touch with current Liberal thinking on climate change. And her speech doesn’t seem to have been put up on the parliamentary site yet. Naughty Hansard.

However the Independent Member for Warringah, seemingly bent on focusing on climate change, perhaps as a result or in spite of, being appointed to the House Standing committee on Climate Change and Energy somewhat rashly exalted Margaret Thatcher as a model for climate change action.

The media was quick to point out that Thatcher was really nothing of the sort. Climate change did not feature high on the policy agenda of the Iron Lady and Steggall was ill-advised to take that tack in her first speech to Parliament but it was a signpost of things to come.

Independents, especially those with single focus policy objectives, usually find themselves up against well staffed and resourced members with networks they can call up in need.

Steggall’s election team seemed comprised mainly of Abbott-haters, union members and Get Upapparatchiks (including that misguided fellow who employed a corkscrew against a member of the Abbott team.) United, not so much to support Zali but to oust Abbott.

Zali served their purpose by ticking all the boxes; pretty, gappy-toothed blonde with a nice smile (check); Olympian skier/sportswoman (check) able to string two words together yes, certainly (check) and so on.

She was the best they had and they threw everything they had, including Zali, at Abbott. Not unexpectedly for all that effort, they won. But did Zali? The House is a notoriously foreign country for the uninitiated and Kerryn Phelps, the other NSW Independent from whom Steggall might have drawn support and solidarity, lost Wentworth to Dave Sharma and is now back writing cheerful medical notes for the Australian Women’s Weekly.

Political predictions are fiendishly unreliable but here’s one to ponder. Steggall will be a one-termer because, like David Attenborough’s wildebeest straggler beset by the wild dog pack, she will find the political going too rough, the ground under her feet shifting too fast.

But hey, an Olympian skier who ran for Parliament and won her seat.

There must be a PhD in that.

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