Always a bit of a radical

By Lorenza Bacino

Former agriculture science student Natalie Bennett is now head of the UK Greens.
Image of Natalie Bennett

"I was always a bit of a radical and a change agent,” recalls Natalie Bennett as she reflects back on her time as a student at Sydney in the 1980s, when she studied Agricultural Science.

“I was the world’s worst netball player, but I did play soccer at Uni, and I insisted on playing on the men’s team simply by standing on the pitch and refusing to move – so in the end they had to let me play! So I guess you could say I was a bit political in those days too.”
Bennett, 47, recalls that she was also on the committee of the Women’s Sports Association back then. “I suppose it was quasi-political, in that we had meetings late into the night, so I remember that.”

“I do face questions about my accent, which is still very Australian. But actually it’s an advantage."

Last September, her innate tenacity helped Bennett fend off three other candidates to become leader of the UK Greens political party. She had been a member since her 2006 New Year’s resolution: “I took a look at the state of the world, the state of our soils, fresh water, oceans, and biodiversity; all these things were becoming deeply concerning and it made me realise I needed to move from my feminism roots and join the Green Party. And I joined without an inkling that I’d be where I am today,” she laughs.

Interestingly, it wasn’t her degree (BScAgr ’88) that inspired her career choices, but her love of philosophy, a subject she took up in her third year at Sydney. “I learned an enormous amount doing philosophy with Liz Gross in the feminism department, and the philosophy of science. I found it so enlightening and it set up my intellectual frameworks for the future.”

Image of Natalie Bennett and the Greens

Bennett’s background includes more than 20 years as a journalist, and also stints as a consultant for the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and the International Labour Organisation.

Her journalistic career began straight after graduation, with jobs on regional NSW newspapers in the Riverina, Cootamundra and Tamworth, and then after a few years in Bangkok, she moved to London in 1999 where she worked as a subeditor on a variety of British broadsheets. “If you’re a print newspaper journalist, London is the logical place to end up for a competitive, high pressured and fun place to be. It’s where journalism is at its height.”

She worked at The Times and The Independent before landing her ultimate job in journalism as editor of the Guardian Weekly, from 2007 to 2011. “It’s my kind of paper. It doesn’t do any celebrities, or fluffy stuff and I love the serious international news and culture, and the exploration of life around the world,” she explains proudly.

Battles we can't lose

London has now been Bennett’s home for the past 13 years and she adores the city’s deep cultural and historical heritage. “When I first visited as a tourist shortly after graduating, I remember going to St Bartholomew’s Church and stroking the Norman wall there, and thinking, wow, this is a thousand years old. In London you can feel centuries of history beneath your feet. Now I live a stone’s throw from the British Museum and the British Library, which is an absolute luxury.”

But what about being a politician in a country which is not your country of origin? Do people sometimes question her commitment? “I do face questions about my accent, which is still very Australian. But actually it’s an advantage. In the UK people make assumptions about you from your accent based on class, but my accent is basically classless. It’s just Australian. To me it means more, as it shows I chose to become British and live here. That’s a huge commitment in itself.

Image of Natalie Bennett at her graduation

Natalie Bennett at her graduation

“The most annoying aspect of my job is being a female politician and having to worry about your wardrobe and your appearance in a way that doesn’t come naturally to me. The best thing (about my job) is sharing and talking about ideas at this time of questing and searching for new answers. It’s very clear that the last three decades of neoliberalism and globalisation have failed and people are looking for new answers. It’s challenging but a very exciting time to be involved in politics.”

Bennett also thinks Australia could learn a thing or two from Europe’s attitudes in terms of caring for the environment. “Australia is ecologically very fragile, so I think I bring a heightened awareness of the damage we humans can do. The human impact on Australia has been quite recent. They mine the soil rather than husbanding it, and I learned that very early on.

“In Europe, humans have been shaping the landscape for tens of thousands of years. There aren’t such things as natural landscapes here. Communities are smaller, and public transport is better. I think it’s important to look at things in a holistic way, like the idea of bringing manufacturing and food production back to the UK. This could have significant positive social, economic and environmental impacts on the country. These are battles we cannot afford to lose.”