an interview with Lee Rhiannon MLC

Lee Rhiannon's life so far is a testament to activism. She is now President of the NSW Vegan Society and has some exciting new ideas on where it could be heading. Taking time out of her busy schedule recently she speaks about her life, her activism, politics, feminism, and, of course, animal rights.

First published in Vegan Voice.


Q. Lee, what are your plans for the Vegan Society NSW?

A. I think the key ingredient for any organisation is active and well-informed members. The more committed people we have working on campaigns, running stalls and spreading the word, the stronger we will be. I see the role as President as providing me with a greater opportunity to promote veganism through the many networks with which I work. And in parliament I will continue to highlight the work of the society.

Q. I hear you come form a family of strong political activists, especially the women. Can you describe them?

A. My mother, who is now 81, has been politically active since she was a teenager. My parents, who never expected me to be politically active or put any pressure on me in any way, I now realised have influenced me greatly. They were passionate and compassionate people, who worked hard to make our world fairer, healthier and safer for everyone. Their commitment has obviously rubbed off on me. Looking back on my childhood, I think a major factor was I was fortunate to have very supportive parents who encouraged me to be active in whatever was my main interest.

Many of my parents friends, particularly a number of women who are now in their 80s and 90s, also influenced me. They were and are great role models. When they saw injustice they took a stand.

Q. It has been suggested that women in numbers have always shied away from political life, feeling they can accomplish more outside of that sphere. Do you disagree with that statement?

A. I believe our history does not give a correct assessment of womens' involvement in political campaigns. Women around the world have been fighting wrongs from time immemorial. Unfortunately many of these struggles have been lost from our history. From my own experience I have so often seen women doing the hard slog but not receiving public recognition for their efforts. It is a safe bet to assume that this has been the pattern for too long. So I think we have a responsibility to ensure that we record all aspects of our campaigns for the historic record, and that within this process women are given due recognition for their many roles.

Q. How did you get involved in politics and veganism?

A. As I grew up in a political family I really have been involved all my life. Some of my earliest memories are of going to May Day marches and participating in the big Ban the Bomb rallies of the 1960s. My decision to become a vegan was motivated by both personal and political reasons. When, at the end of the 1980s, I found myself a single parent with three children to raise I knew my own good health was crucial. I also believe a vegan diet has great advantages for the environment and the well-being of the whole community.

Q. Would you call yourself an eco-feminist?

A. I am certainly a feminist with a passion for our environment. However, I don't generally use the term eco-feminist as I find many people are not exactly sure what it means.

Q. What has it been like for you in the male-dominated world of politics?

A. Parliament is certainly dominated by male politicians, but prior to coming to the NSW Legislative Council my political activity was in organisations that often had women in leading, or at least equal roles. So life as a politician is very different. There is much that is deeply offensive. The language and actions of many members when they are in the Parliament is often rude and the motivation is to belittle people rather than encourage communication in order to find the best outcome.

Q. Feminists often criticise political debate, saying it does not live up to its original intention, which is an interchanging of ideas. What do you think?

A. Since I was elected into the NSW Parliament I have come to realise how much the adversarial system dominates our parliaments, legal system and the media. We are certainly all the poorer for this confrontational way of working. I do acknowledge that this is a complicated issue, as sometimes we need to take direct action to highlight injustices in our society. However at the same time there is an enormous common ground between people of different political persuasions, and there should be the opportunities and time to explore different ways of solving the complexities that face our society.

Q. There's been a bad result recently for the battery hen. What are your views? Will we ever see an end to the cage?

A. The cage is on borrowed time. People are revolted when they learn that some foods only end up on their plate after extreme animal suffering. Free Chook 2000 is a powerful campaign. More people are coming to understand that their choice as consumers can stop the exploitation and pain of animals.

Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. I have just finished The Battle that Changed Australia's Waterfront. This book, by Helen Trinca and Anne Davis, covers the events in 1998 when the government and shipping companies took on the Maritime Union of Australia. The Greens were strong supporters of the sacked workers and we were often on the picket lines. The book is an exciting read, from the details about the deep throat, who revealed details of the conspiracy against the union, to the way all sides used the media. My uncles were wharfies, and I now realise that their political activism was also a strong influence on me.

Q. For all its talk about exploitation why do you think the Left has never taken up the cause of Animal Liberation?

A. This statement is not completely true. I know a number of people who have been active in the Left over many years who support and/or are active in Animal Liberation. However, it is true that the Left through its various organisations, to my knowledge, has not identified with any campaigns. It is an interesting question and one I must put to my friends on the Left.

As the Left has largely embraced environmental issues, it is surprising. Maybe the reason is people have not made the links between animal rights and our responsibilities. I think rather than criticise people for not taking up the cause, the responsibility is with us to demonstrate to all people why these campaigns need to be given every support.

The Greens Parliament Office
Ph. 02-9230 3551 or 02- 9230 2138 Fax: 02- 9230 3550
E-mail: Lee.Rhiannon@parliament.nsw.gov.au
Website: www.nsw.greens.org.au/lee