Every time a conservative woman of promise emerges from the blancmange of politics, some hope for the next Margaret Thatcher.
Amanda Stoker doesn’t ride on the coat-tails of history or gender, so can we please look at her free from comparisons?
The 37-year-old senator is going places on her own terms. For starters, Stoker is Queensland through and through. By choice, not by birth. Stoker was born and raised in Sydney’s west; her father was a plumber and her mother did the books. Stoker moved to Brisbane as a young lawyer 12 years ago and hasn’t left.
She is no-nonsense, straight talking, her positions firmly premised on commonsense principles. Stoker is making her mark fast, after entering parliament in March last year. To understand her story, her spunk and her political convictions, you need to understand why she is a natural fit in Queensland and how the Sunshine State has played a pivotal role in federal politics.
John Howard has recalled election night, December 1949. He had been at the cinema with his parents and they returned home to find his eldest brother, Wal, sitting on the floor in the dining room listening to the large radio. “Menzies is in,” Wal told his family. “The biggest swing has been in Queensland.”
In fact, Menzies had won 83 per cent of the Queensland seats. Last month, Scott Morrison won 76 per cent of seats in the Sunshine State, 23 seats to Labor’s six.
In the 1961 election, which Menzies nearly lost, the Coalition won seven to Labor’s 11 seats in Queensland. When Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007 by pretending to be an economic conservative, Labor won 15 Queensland seats, to the Coalition’s 13. In other words, those who understand Queensland have a shot at government.
Stoker understands the concerns of quiet Australians. This week, the mother of three girls under five hit a nerve at Sydney’s sandstone university. In comments to The Sydney Morning Herald, University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence said this of Stoker’s line of questioning at a Senate estimates hearing in October last year: “Have you ever heard a more shocking waste of public funds than that?”
Spence was reportedly “galled” that the senator had prised from federal education bureaucrats a new-found focus on holding Australian universities accountable for obligations they have to be places of free intellectual inquiry.
Stoker was questioning Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency chief commissioner Nick Saunders about specific provisions under federal laws that require universities to embrace academic freedom.
Academic freedom ought to be in their DNA, not our laws. Nonetheless, this is where we are today. Understanding what is at stake, Stoker raised a number of concerns with Saunders, including many university policies that prohibit “offensive” comments.
Saunders said he was uncomfortable with Stoker’s examples. “They certainly do not fit with the concept of a university being a place where ideas are contested and debated,” he said, agreeing to examine policies that undermine the legal obligations of universities to uphold academic freedom.
What seems to have gotten up Spence’s nose is that Stoker also mentioned an address last September at the University of Sydney by Bettina Arndt, who challenges claims of a “rape crisis” on campuses. Feel free to agree or disagree with Arndt. But not at Sydney University. Security had to call in a riot squad when protesters became violent and abusive towards students who wanted to listen to Arndt’s views.
Saunders agreed the behaviour of protesters breached the university’s code of conduct, and appropriate action was needed. That hasn’t happened. Instead, Spence told the SMH there is no problem with free speech on campus. He has accused those on the left and right as being as bad as each other.
This is a most disingenuous assertion. The world is a polarised place, to be sure. But where is the evidence of right-wing protesters trying to shut down events of political opponents on campus? Spence’s claim of both sides being as bad as each other was rendered comic when, in the same SMH article, feminist Eva Cox suggested we might need “short-term bans”, including at universities, to stop discussion of particular issues.
Way to shut down free speech. Way to make a martyr, too. Drive lunatics underground into dark places where dopey ideas are not open to challenge.
Stoker wrote to Spence on Monday: “I hope you intend to provide evidence of your assertion that ‘the conservatives are as bad as the progressives’ when it comes to campus misbehaviour. My research has found only evidence of the ‘left’ shutting down the ‘right’s’ right to speak.”
The Queensland LNP senator also challenged Spence’s claims her Senate estimates questions were a “shocking waste of public funds”. “The idea those government departments and agencies that oversee the spending of public money — such as the $17.5 billion provided to universities last year — should not be subject to public scrutiny runs contrary to our system of democracy and accountability.”
She assured Spence she would continue to hold Sydney University, and the country’s other universities, to their academic freedom obligations.
“He’s a sook,” she says of Spence, who has not responded to her letter.
Earlier this year, our grandest universities sidelined a report into academic freedom by former High Court chief justice Robert French, who drew up a model code of academic freedom. University leaders and sections of the media picked out one line, where French says there is no free speech crisis, as reason to do nothing.
“The idea of a free speech crisis was never the basis of the referral (to French),” says Stoker. “It was more than nuanced than that. We received an intelligent, nuanced answer from French that gives us a prescription for the way forward.
“If universities are not serious about this, then we should get serious about setting some KPIs, defining very clearly what intellectual freedom looks like, and if they’re not met we should be prepared to pull funding.”
Last week’s exchange goes to the core of Stoker’s values and the reason she left the Bar to enter politics. She tells Inquirer she was a child during “the recession we had to have” and saw how normal, not especially privileged, families suffer when governments don’t get policy right. “That led me to read and try to educate myself about politics and policy, and why it matters, and what works and what doesn’t,” she says.
Stoker joined the Liberal Party at university. By the time she sought preselection last year, she had grown frustrated that not enough people in politics understood and valued freedoms and understood the corrosive role of big government.
“I looked around for someone who would do something and I didn’t see them. So, when you have children to provide for and protect, when something has to be done, you just do it,” she says.
In February, Stoker gave an address at the Centre for Independent Studies exploring the reasons for our declining trust in institutions, especially parliament. “There is a failure to fully appreciate the role between the individual and the government and the relationship between freedom and responsibility,” she tells Inquirer.
She marks down identity politics and its focus on victimhood, which infantilises people as well as breeding resentment. She mentions the decline of mutual responsibility, the idea our many rights come with responsibilities.
Stoker lists academic scorn towards teaching the full story of Western civilisation and attacks on the traditional family as other corrosive influences on society. “If you undermine all of those things … society becomes so broken that we cannot flourish, not in a personal sense, not in a private experience, not in an economic way either,” Stoker says. “Our side cannot permanently shy away from dealing with these things on the basis that intellectual freedom never got someone a job when actually it did, it really, really did.”
This is perhaps a gentle swipe at Scott Morrison who, as treasurer in 2017, said that defending free speech “doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business”.
“It might be a few steps removed but it does make a difference to people’s prospects of getting a job, their prospects of having a good economic future,” says Stoker, who wants the Liberal Party to refocus on its principles to settle on policies. “That way we can serve the people for the long time. That’s what principled leadership will do for us.”
Stoker’s words will be felt in Canberra. Her common sense is very Queensland.
Asked about life as a politician and a family woman, Stoker says there have been many more families who have done a lot more with a lot less. “I am not going to bleat or complain,” she says.
A couple of months ago, Stoker returned to her home in Bardon, in Brisbane’s western suburbs, after a long sitting week in Canberra. Her husband pointed to the corner of the room where their three daughters, Mary, Jane and Emma, were playing. They had arranged a bunch of chairs into a semicircle, two stools at the head, and they were taking turns giving speeches about the things they thought were important. It was a game they invented called Senate.
“How cool is that,” says Stoker. “My kids are just fine.”
Stoker’s daughters have every reason to want to mimic their mum’s work. The Queensland senator is fast becoming the voice for Morrison’s quiet Australians.