Vegan Women in Leadership and Politics: Interview with Australian Senator Lee Rhiannon

Questions from Elena Wewer


Jeremy Corbyn recently announced he’s going vegan, joining the likes of other vegan and vegetarian politicians around the world such as Al Gore, Christina Rees and Maneka Sanjay Gandhi. Do you think or even hope this is a trend that will continue, and why?

Yes it’s a trend and one that these days is growing fast. I can remember in the late 1960s when there was only one vegetarian restaurant in Sydney on Liverpool Street. I don’t know when I started hearing the word “vegan” but it certainly wasn’t when I was young. So things have changed enormously. More people are becoming vegan. It’s a lifestyle that prompts many interesting conversations on diet, health, climate change and animal welfare issues. Food and eating for a lot of people is a personal matter – they enjoy their non-vegan diet. I think having respect for other lifestyles is very important for vegans. It is excellent to hear news about high profile people becoming vegans. For them it’s a personal decision but when they go public with their choice it helps raise the profile of veganism and generate more conversations about what we eat and why.


What challenges do you think women in leadership and political positions face with regard to being vegan, and why do you think this is? For example, social judgment.


Women in leadership, who are not vegans, face prejudice and discrimination. We saw that when Julia Gillard was prime minister and we are seeing it now with some of the ridiculous questions put to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. So being a woman in a leadership role and a vegan could be a challenge but things are changing quickly. If there was criticism of a woman leader for her diet I think it would be from a small isolated fringe and hopefully their comments would not get much traction. There is more tolerance. If we had a woman vegan PM it would certainly be newsworthy and possibly controversial but overall I think and believe it would be positive. 


Who are some women whose work around animal rights and veganism you particularly admire and why?


From what I have observed women dominate in terms of numbers and activism in animal welfare, animal rescue and animal rights groups. Women are in leading roles or significant behind the scenes roles in probably all the animal organisations I know of. Women are doing amazing work. Some of the women I am inspired by are Lyn White, Verna Simpson, Lynda Stoner and Christine Townsend. Their work is amazing. I am sure these women won’t mind that I also want to emphasise the role of women in progressive organisations who we don’t know the names of. The women who run the stalls, the office and undertake all the work that keeps an organisation going are key to our collective success. I wanted to bring these two threads together to answer your question.


You have consistently championed animal welfare issues within politics, but what many might not realise is how broadly you spread your influence. For example, I was delighted when shortly after I launched my website The Vegan Independent, I received an email from your office asking if I might publish an op ed about ending animal testing. Why do you think it is important to work with many people in various ways through your leadership initiatives?


We’re talking to different people all the time. These conversations are incredibly important – they provide opportunities. So conversations with the family at dinner on Sunday night, or people sitting on the bus, or when you’re standing in a queue to buy your lunch. We can have a friendly chat and that can include talk about our food choices like “What do you enjoy having for lunch?”, “Well, I tried this new dish as it does not have animal products”. Those exchanges often spark interest in wider conversations about why we don’t eat or use animal products. So that is on a personal level and then on a wider political level we can build awareness about being a vegan and animal welfare and animal rights by taking up animal issues such as experimentation. It is important to build awareness among a large number of people and that can be achieved in a variety of ways. 

Questions from Kathy Divine

What is it like being a vegan in parliament? Are you the only vegan in the Australian Senate?


It is a good question. I don’t know if I am the only vegan. As there are around 3000 people working in the federal parliament on a sitting day I think there would be others. I am sure some of the staff would be vegan, but for MPs I don’t know. When I was in state parliament, Carl Scully, a former Labor Party minister, was a vegan. Also one of the meals in the state parliamentary dining room was called the Rhiannon Salad. It was for vegans. It was a lovely meal. It’s not on the menu anymore, so some things come and go. 


Would you encourage vegans to enter into politicos?

For politics in terms of being involved in having a say about our society, our environment, our economy I encourage everyone to be involved. To my mind that is true democracy. About encouraging vegans to become MPs I think that depends on if the person’s interests lie in being a public figure. So yes I do encourage vegans into parliamentary politics if that is their interest. 

In terms of building a fairer most just world for people, animals and the environment parliament is just one tool available to us to achieve that. I think we need to get parliament into perspective. It’s not the pinnacle of great wisdom and the driver of progressive action. History shows us that. Why did women get the vote? Not because an MP turned up and sat down on the leather couch and decided “we’ll move a bill today to give women the vote”. It’s because women literally rattled the chains. Similarly, we saved the Franklin River. There were no Greens MP’s in parliament at that stage. It was because the environment movement became so strong the MPs had to follow what people demanded. Similarly with union rights. Why do we have a lunch break, penalty rates and workplace health and safety? Because people organised, formed unions and went on strike and won better pay and conditions. When we end live exports it will be because MPs responded to the huge public outcry and came to their senses and passed the necessary legislation.

Becoming involved in public life is very rewarding. I think it’s a good way to live your life, both personally and in terms of giving back to those we share this planet with. Promoting a vegan lifestyle is an interesting example. We are a collective social animal. We look for solutions. I think more people are seeing veganism as not just about what you eat, but about offering solutions. And that is what I think vegans bring to public life, 


Are petitions to the government an effective lobbying tactic? What are some effective ways people can lobby governments at a grass roots level to help animals get a better deal?


Petitions are a useful campaign tool. They have an advantage when you’re trying to start a campaign. If you are thinking “how do we inform the public of the issues we are concerned about”, petitions are a great way to start conversations with people and to gather up support for a cause. When the petitions are presented to parliament that is another opportunity to highlight the issue to the public and decision makers. As well as petitions I encourage people to write and ring politicians and to make appointments to meet with your local MP. To develop campaigns you need to have a diversity of tactics. Engaging with parliament and initiating legal cases can be useful but the foundation of working for change has to be involving people – I can’t emphasise that enough. Why we have many rights in this country is because our forebears came together collectively and worked for change. We now benefit from the changes they won and I believe we need to continue that work.

What is your vision for the Independent Office of Animal Welfare? What will be their roles and responsibilities? Should it include CCTV for slaughterhouses and if so, how do you envisage this working?


The Greens strongly back an Independent Office of Animal Welfare. I have taken two bills to federal parliament to set up such an office but sadly the Liberals and Nationals do not support the idea at all and Labor want such an office to come under the Agriculture Department which means it would not be independent. 

The Office that the Greens envisage would be an independent animal rights champion. It would be an important step towards changing the culture within government and the factory farming industry. The Office would monitor and recommend improvements to the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, which exposé after exposé shows is failing animals. This body would be a Centre of Excellence on animal welfare science and law and work to harmonise and improve animal welfare laws across the country. The Minister would be obliged to respond to recommendations made by the Office to parliament with the aim of improving the treatment of animals.

An Animal Welfare Advisory Committee made up of experts from the animal welfare and rights movement, consumer groups, scientists and ethicists would assist the Office to perform its duties.

With regard to the use of CCTV, that’s been a bit controversial for the Greens. We have to work out the balance here because CCTV can mean the loss of privacy. But there are advantages using technology in slaughterhouses. The Greens support the mandatory use of CCTV in all abattoirs. The footage from the cameras would be made available to official vets. If animal abuse was found to have occurred companies and individuals could lose their license to operate or face prosecution. This technology is now available and companies should be given six months to comply.

Anything else you would like to add?

 I am proud to be a vegan and enjoy being a vegan immensely. I love vegan events. The food is fantastic. I do like to emphasise that for me it is only one part of working for a fairer world. I have become aware that while a vegan diet does not involve animal cruelty large numbers of children are involved in agriculture. The International Labour Organisation reports that 60 per cent of child labourers aged from five to 17 years work in agriculture. Worldwide this amounts to over 98 million girls and boys who miss out on an education or their education is limited because of their farm work. I am obviously not saying that this is all because of our vegan diets but it is a sobering reminder that we need a holistic approach to social change if we are to build a fair and just world for all people and animals.



Twitter: @leerhiannon

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