Amid ongoing calls for more political diversity, Senate candidate Dr Penny Kyburz is possibly unique: have any other Federal pollies honed their professional strategy and battle skills on a computer screen?
Kyburz is the lead Senate candidate for the ACT Greens in the forthcoming Federal election. She currently teaches computer science at the ANU and she’s been a video game designer here and in the United States (her credits include work on Bioshock and Total War, and she ran Iron Helmet Games with her husband). “If you’re a gaming nerd you’ll know what I’m talking about,” she says with a grin.
But lying awake at night feeling anxious about her children’s future prompted her entry into politics. “I’d worry about the kind of world we were leaving them, the problems we were creating for them to deal with and I thought I really cannot sit by and not do something,” she says.
She became an increasingly active campaigner and spent 18 months working in parliament with former Green Senator Scott Ludlam before he lost his seat as an early casualty of Section 44’s citizenship provisions.
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“I am passionate about the same areas where he was active, around human rights and privacy in the online space,” she says. But she also thinks this will be a climate change election, after the recent brutal summer, floods and drought.
“The other things that come up for me are humane treatment for asylum seekers, homelessness and affordable housing. And integrity in politics – the jobs for mates and revolving door of lobbyists we’ve seen recently.”
Policies and passions aside, what about political reality? Pointing to recent UnionsACT polling showing an apparent collapse in Senator Zed Seselja’s primary vote, Kyburz says there’s a solid 20 per cent support base for the Greens.
But realistically, most Greens votes will come from the left. Kyburz needs to wrest primary votes away from Katy Gallagher before preferences begin flowing even to have a shot at achieving a quota. ACT Labor voters aren’t the dissatisfied demographic, so surely it’s unlikely that disenchanted Liberals would give her their protest vote?
“We ask people if they are going to have a Labor government, what kind do they want?” she says. “The Greens have a big role pulling Labor in the right direction on key issues like climate change, social and economic equality. We know Canberrans love Katy, she’s great, she’ll get back in. But any additional quota would slide to us at around 80 per cent.”
Kyburz believes Canberra has been under-represented politically both in terms of numbers and the approach taken by the Liberals to issues around marriage equality, climate change and Territory rights. While she expects more independent Senate candidates to emerge, she argues that they and the minor parties will fracture the Liberal vote, and that “unbranded, unknown” independents can’t outstrip the Greens on first preferences.
Pressed on whether the Greens are a genuine option for change or just a feel-good protest vote, Kyburz says that the party has fully costed policy platforms around their key pillars of environmentalism, social equality, and grassroots democracy.
“Environmentalism doesn’t happen without social equality because they have massive impacts on each other,” she says, adding that the ACT parliamentary agreement could provide a model for Green-ALP co-operation at a Federal level. “We are so far ahead in the ACT on climate change action and progression to renewables. We know that works, and we’d like to take it to the Federal level.”
“We don’t have a lot of money for advertising campaigns, but we do have a large group of highly motivated people who are out there every weekend having real conversations with people who want to see change,” she says.
There’s silence from the Liberals about the local polling rumbles and Kyburz says she is curious to see how the Seselja camp responds. “They’ve gone very quiet and they’re not paying much attention to Canberra at the moment,” she says. “It seems like they’ve decided to keep their heads down and pretend it’s not happening for the moment.”
“But I’m ready for a fight. This is an important opportunity for people of the ACT to have someone in the Senate who will listen and represent the issues that are important to them.
“Politics is where all the issues I care about come together. Grassroots organisations like 350 and Stop Adani are creating social change. The political space is a really good opportunity for me to turn that momentum into legislation and create changes directly for our future.”