ZOE McKenzie was elected as the federal MP for Flinders in May, replacing fellow Liberal Greg Hunt who had held the seat for the past 21 years and who chose not to seek re-election.
One of nine women among the 42 Liberal MPs in the House of Representatives, McKenzie is now part of the 58 member Coalition opposition with the Nationals (the Labor government’s 77 MPs include 36 women).
In her maiden speech to parliament in September, McKenzie expressed gratitude to her mother, Ann Shanahan, “a cardiothoracic surgeon and … practicing lawyer” who, along with “Molly”, raised her as the child of a single parent. She also acknowledged her father “whose name I proudly carry”.
“Basically, [Molly] was someone employed to make sure I didn’t die while Mum worked a 12-hour day—a task my mothercraft nurse, Molly, performed to perfection.
“I didn’t realise it then, but Mum and Molly were a formidable team in a changing time. It was only a decade or so ago that I learnt there had been a practice of removing newborns from single mothers which continued in this country well into the 1980s. Mum was technically married, but from the word ‘go’ she was fiercely determined to raise me on her own, and that put us precariously close — even if only in her anxious imagination — to an ongoing practice of facilitated, encouraged and in some cases forced adoption of so-called ‘fatherless children’.
“I am the product of my parents or, in my case, my parent—my mother… Mum brought me up on stories of politics and history rather than fairytales.
“On the weekends, as I accompanied her on her patient rounds, she would tell me the stories of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Nazi Germany. She would talk to me of her political heroes: Margaret Thatcher, Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and above all John Howard, always John Howard—a man I would later come to know well and now call a friend.
“Mum led by example and feared nothing and no-one, and it is her values and work ethic which underpin my approach to [federal parliament].”
McKenzie said her mother “enticed the head nurse [Molly] at the Royal Children’s Hospital to become my mothercraft nurse”.
“So, Molly was my second parent, and she was with me every day until I turned five, whereupon she went on with her own life.”
It was only “a few years ago” that Molly had reappeared. Molly was “in the stages of advanced melanoma” – a cancer McKenzie had survived a few years earlier – but they were able to share memories and “glorious stories” about her upbringing which made McKenzie realise that Molly was “thrilled … to be part of a professional female super-duo raising a largely unaware little girl”.
McKenzie credit’s her mother’s “leitmotif” – Life wasn’t meant to be easy – as being borrowed from former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser.
McKenzie referenced her electorate’s former Liberal representatives – Greg Hunt (2002-2022), Peter Reith (1982-1983 and 1984-2002), Phillip Lynch (1966-1982 ) – and a forecast by Labor’s Bob Chynoweth (1983) “of the Cold War cascading into nuclear conflict and his fear of “decaying and rotting corpses’ across the beautiful countryside of Flinders”.
All of these “great men of Flinders”, in their maiden speeches, had “captured a moment in Australia’s history and the spirit of the good folk of Flinders”.
McKenzie’s moment came during the disruptions to life caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a former industrial relations lawyer, she knew that “trying to shoehorn today’s workplaces into a 1983 framework [as was being done the incoming Labor government] is not the approach we need now”.
“The recent push to provide paid leave for casual staff at both state and federal levels will weigh heavily on the shoulders of small business in my electorate, many of whom have been keeping their doors open by increasing the home mortgage and putting the family to work.”
She said the Liberal Party’s “efforts to modernise the industrial relations system have failed in recent years” and its party room was “surprisingly short on IR lawyers and practitioners”.
The “modern workforce” wanted more flexibility for workplaces manned by “an increasingly digital generation” that engaged in many activities online.
“In physical terms, their digital life is one of relative safety. They are injured less. They get drunk and smoke cigarettes less. They fall pregnant as teenagers less. They are careful drivers—that is, if they ever get their drivers licence.”
Once a director of the business lobby group Committee for Mornington Peninsula which wants the peninsula to be “regional” and not part of metropolitan Melbourne, Mckenzie said the 262 days of lockdown had “bafflingly” included the peninsula. A result of the lockdowns had led to the school system becoming “the dealer of the digital drug, putting laptops and tablets into every lounge or bedroom”.
A former NBN director, McKenzie outlined problems caused to young people by technology but said it was necessary to “ensure technology contributes to their fitness for life, not detracts from it”.
“We must help parents who are parenting in digital darkness. We must help educators understand how to support children and adolescents as they engage with the ever-increasing array of highly stimulating devices and social platforms.”
McKenzie said she would “work with technology companies, designers and educators to ensure these tools and innovations can be applied to help young people become productive and purposeful, independent and critical thinkers, and lead contributive lives, sustaining and building the prosperous nation which we have the good fortune to call home.”
McKenzie showed her linguistic diversity with a message in French to members of a family in rural France where, as a schoolgirl, she was sent by her mother. Those “other parents” were “profoundly socialist; schoolteachers in science, alpinists, scuba divers, cross-country skiers, cave explorers and overall planetary adventurers—[who] gave me new eyes through which to see life”.
Her other veering away from English was a compliment in Spanish to her “co-adventurer in life” Rodrigo Pintos-Lopez, who brought into her life her “instant family” of Estela, Rafael and Gabriel.
Speaking “in the early days of the reign of King Charles III”, McKenzie described the reign of Queen Elizabeth II as being “a time of great stability, constitutional fortitude and decency”.
“Those of us who stand here in this place at this time will have influence over the continued success or otherwise of the constitutional monarchy of Australia, which has served us so well for over a century.”
McKenzie praised the Mornington Peninsula and its citizens: “I still have to pinch myself every time I drive from one end to the other, as I do most days, from my office in Somerville to my home in Sorrento — a place so good that my friend, the great Australian Tina Arena, wrote a song about it.”