When Allegra Spender After leaving behind her position as managing director of the fashion company her late mother Carla Zampatti, Allegra decided to leave her family business and pursue a career in politics. Elected as the member for Wentworth, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Allegra is part of a new wave of politicians who put climate, government integrity and women’s issues high on the agenda.
While she continues in the footsteps her father John Spender (a shadow minister under Andrew Peacock & John Howard) and her grandfather Percy (a cabinet minister during the Menzies era), the mother-of-three is determined to pursue her own political goals. She tells us about her first few months in parliamentary office. Sunday Life Learn more about her new life.
Which person was your first to tell you about your desire to become a politician? Because Alex used to be a politician, my brother Alex. He was shocked and is still a card-carrying Liberal party member, but his family always comes first.
The success of the candidates for teal is a sign of changing times. Would you believe that such a swing could have been predicted? It was scary to stand up for this seat. But the best thing, and what made the difference most, was the people who stood behind me. As I thought about running, I spoke to many people from the community. I realized that everyone felt the same way. I never thought we were definitely going to win but I did think, “We’ll give this a really good shot.” I made my final decision to run around the time of COP26 [November 2021] – when it became clear the [Morrison] The government wasn’t going to do anything on climate. I felt a moral obligation to do something.
How did you adapt to your new role as a politician? It’s been a huge shift. As a member of parliament, I have two jobs – representing my constituents and helping the local community with their issues, and getting the people
of Wentworth’s perspectives heard on national issues. I am in the middle of a great balancing act and it’s all about re-arranging life to try to make it work. I have two young children. [aged six, eight and nine]. Although I’m not the deer in headlights, I feel like I’m on a vertical learning curve.
What are the most pressing issues that you would like to address? Climate change is a serious issue. Local action to improve fuel efficiency and increase electric vehicle production, as well as ending fossil fuel subsidies, are important. I am also interested in improving integrity in public life by looking at reforms to political donation. I have a strong business background and studied economics, so for me it’s also about how you make it easier for businesses and entrepreneurs. It’s about helping women in the workforce via paid parental leave.
I also want to bring the kindness and decency of community values into politics – issues like refugees, the Uluru Statement from the Heart. I strive to be both hardheaded and warm-hearted. I’m just one of 151. [members of parliament]You never know what the future holds.
How did your mother Carla Zampatti’s legacy inspire you to do what you do as an MP and advocate for what you believe in? When I decided to run for the seat, I thought a lot of Mum. She believed women should be able to lead and stand up for their rights. If she was still around, she would have told me to “go for it, girl” and been 100 per cent behind me. Your values are influenced by your family. Mum was passionately involved in supporting women, migrants, and the arts. Those values are very strong in my family and important to me personally.
It has taken us a while to see women represented in the Coalition. Their female representation must be arranged at a federal level, which is what they should do. My Mum shared her own experiences and migrant values with me so it is important to advocate for refugees. The importance of a strong migration policy to Australia stems from Mum’s experience. She came to Australia after World War II and didn’t have a rally of people behind her or any money to get started in life. Australia should be a country where people thrive and can succeed without having any advantages.
What are your strategies for balancing motherhood with politics? And what advice would you recommend to others about how you can achieve this balance? It’s not easy, and I am really grateful for Mum’s example. It was easier for me not to feel guilty about missing school events. She tried to empower us as children. We encourage our children to make their lunches at the home. It’s about knowing they can pack their bags when Mum or Dad can’t. Partly, I want to empower them to be their own boss. That was a huge lesson from Mum. We have a nanny and I know many people don’t have that option. But I don’t have my mother, my husband works full-time and we have to find ways to make that work for us. I’m very good at freezing food, too.
What would you say to your grandfather if you could talk about his time in politics? Percy Spender, my grandfather, was a great thinker in foreign affairs. Percy spenter believed Australia must pivot to Asia, as well to the US. He anticipated these fundamental shifts and drove them through the Colombo Plan (ANZUS Treaty).
I’d ask him advice about the changing world and how Australia can set itself up for the new phase. What I admire about my grandfather and father is that when they disagreed with their party, they weren’t afraid to speak up. They were independent.
What advice did your father give you about the life of a parliamentarian? Dad was unpopular in his party over various issues. However, I look back and see that he was proud of the fact that he spoke up when it was right. This gives me great comfort.
I still vividly remember the time he lost his chair. You need to maintain your perspective and relationships. Keep your feet on the ground because you’re only one election away from not having a job any more. He taught me to make up my own mind, to not be afraid to speak up because that is what you’re there for.
Can you describe your personality? I am curious and love to learn. I’m a high-energy person who has always been this way.
What can you do to unwind? My friends and I enjoy running in Centennial Park together. I also love to read books to children. I also love jumping into the sea – there is an old expression that you never regret a swim.
Do you have any books that have changed your life?
Humanity: A Moral History for the Twentieth Century [by Jonathan Glover] Because it exposed some of the most atrocious acts of violence in the 20th century, and what we should learn from them. I love this book. Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck Growing up Aboriginal in Australia [compiled by Anita Heiss] – 50 disparate experiences that give great insight.
Do you miss working with the Carla Zampatti Label? In 2016, I resigned my role as managing director. And I resigned as a director during the election campaign because I don’t want the company to be dragged into my career in politics. It is strange, in some ways, to be so far from the company on a daily basis. But I am too busy to notice.
The best part is when you see Carla Zampatti in the hands of women in parliament. Recently, I was approached at the Midwinter Ball by several women who claimed that they were wearing CarlaZampatti-made dresses. [my sister] Bianca Spender.
What would you describe as your personal style? I wore hoodies and caps growing up, much to Mum’s annoyance. My parents were probably rebelling against me. I’ve learnt the power of a great suit and I love a great jacket and trousers – simple and pared-back, but elegant.
Do you feel your mum’s presence? On my computer’s home screen, I have a photo that shows Mum. She is a very special person to me. When she wrote her autobiography, I helped her with it and have an 80-minute audio interview I did with her to get some of the other stories that weren’t in the book. It was just us sitting there, talking to one another. I listen to it from time to time whenever I need to feel her close to me.
I listened it during the election, not only because it was intimate but also because so many parts of her life and the difficult times in her life gave her strength. It’s very inspirational.
Penny McCarthy, fashion editor; Hugh Stewart, photographer; Hair, Darren Summors, Aveda; Makeup, Aimie Fiebig, Sisley Paris; Style assistant, Poppy Friedmann
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