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Allegra Spender on her mother Carla Zampatti and following in her father’s footsteps

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When Allegra Spender swapped her life in the family business for a world of politics, she left behind her role as managing director of the fashion empire founded by her late mother, Carla Zampatti. 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.

Although she follows in the footsteps of her father, John Spender, a shadow minister under Andrew Peacock and John Howard, and her late grandfather, Percy, who was a cabinet minister in the Menzies era, the mother of three is on her own political mission. Just a few months into her parliamentary role, she tells Sunday Life about her new life.

Who was the first person you told about your ambition to enter politics? My brother Alex, because he used to work in politics. He was very surprised and is still a card-carrying member of the Liberal party, but family always comes first.

The success of the teal candidates is an indication of changing times. Could you have ever predicted such a swing yourself? It was intimidating standing for this seat, but the biggest thing, the thing that made all the difference, were the people who got behind me. When I was thinking about running, I talked to a wide range of people in the community and realised we all 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] government was not going to do anything meaningful on climate. I felt a strong moral obligation to do something myself.

Bianca Spender “Rocha” top. Louise Olsen jewellery from Dinosaur DesignsCredit:Hugh Stewart

How have you adapted to your new role in politics? 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 still have young children [aged six, eight and nine]. I am not quite the deer in the headlights but I feel like I am on a vertical learning curve.

What are the most important issues you want to address? Climate change is an important one: local action on fuel efficiency so we can increase electric vehicles, plus the end of fossil fuel subsidies. I also want to increase integrity in public life and look at political donation reform. 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 want to be hard-headed but warm-hearted. I always say I am just one out of 151 [members of parliament], and not everything is going to go my way.

How did seeing the legacy created by your mother, Carla Zampatti, inspire what you do and what you advocate for as an MP? I thought a lot about Mum when I was deciding to run for the seat. She wanted women to stand up and lead. If she was still around, she would have told me to “go for it, girl” and been 100 per cent behind me. Your family always influences your values. Mum was passionate about supporting women, migrants and the arts and those values are very strong in my community and matter to me personally.

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We have spent a long time waiting for women to be represented in the Coalition. Frankly, they have to sort out their female representation at a federal level. Mum brought her own migrant values and experiences to me, so advocating for refugees matters. 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. But to arrive in a country where people can thrive and succeed without advantages, that is what Australia should be about.

How are you juggling motherhood and politics, and what sort of advice have other people given you about striking this balance? It’s not easy, and I am really grateful for Mum’s example. She made it easier for me to not feel guilty about not being at every school event. When we were children, she tried to make us really independent. We get our kids to make their lunches at home, too. It’s about knowing they can pack their bags when Mum or Dad can’t. I am partly trying to empower them to be independent, and that was a big 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.

Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello jacket, shirt and jeans. Louise Olsen bangles.

Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello jacket, shirt and jeans. Louise Olsen bangles.Credit:Hugh Stewart

If you could have a conversation with your grandfather about his time in politics, what would you discuss? My grandfather, Percy Spender, had enormous foresight in foreign affairs. He thought Australia needed to pivot to Asia and also to the US, and those were fundamental shifts he anticipated and drove through via the Colombo Plan and 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 maintained their independence.

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What advice has your father given you about life in parliament? Dad crossed the floor on issues and was unpopular within his party about various things, but in retrospect I think he is very proud that he spoke up when he thought it was right. I take a lot of solace from that.

I also remember vividly when he lost his seat. The important thing you need to do is maintain perspective and your 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 very curious and love learning, and I really like people but I can be quite shy. I have a lot of energy and have always been like that.

How do you unwind? I like going for a run in Centennial Park with my friends and I love reading books to kids. I also love jumping into the sea – there is an old expression that you never regret a swim.

Bianca Spender “Edith” waistcoat and “Libretto” jeans. Louise Olsen jewellery from Dinosaur Designs

Bianca Spender “Edith” waistcoat and “Libretto” jeans. Louise Olsen jewellery from Dinosaur DesignsCredit:Hugh Stewart

Are they any books that changed your life or have inspired you?
Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century [by Jonathan Glover] because it examined some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century and what should be our great lessons from them. I love The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia [compiled by Anita Heiss] – 50 disparate experiences that give great insight.

Do you miss working at the Carla Zampatti label? I resigned as managing director in 2016. 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. In some ways it feels strange to be so disconnected from it on a day-to-day basis, but I am too busy to notice.

The fun bit is seeing women in parliament wearing Carla Zampatti. I had women come to me at the Midwinter Ball recently saying they were wearing a dress made by Mum, or by [my sister] Bianca Spender.

How would you describe your personal style? I wore hoodies and caps growing up, much to Mum’s annoyance. I guess I was rebelling against my parents. I’ve learnt the power of a great suit and I love a great jacket and trousers – simple and pared-back, but elegant.

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Do you feel your mum’s presence? I have a photo of Mum on my computer home screen. I think of her a lot. 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. We were just sitting there talking to each other, and I listen to that from time to time when I need to feel her around me.

I listened to it during the election because it was intimate, but also because so much of her story and her tough moments in her life allowed her to find strength. It is very inspiring.

Fashion editor, Penny McCarthy; Photographer, Hugh Stewart; Hair, Darren Summors for Aveda; Make-up, Aimie Fiebig for Sisley Paris; Styling assistant, Poppy Friedmann.

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