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?

I do very much think it’s a trend that will continue because when I look over, I can remember when there was one vegetarian restaurant in Sydney up 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 just changed enormously, and it’s not like things are just going up and down, there’s steady expansion of people’s understanding and more people are becoming vegan, that are, as you say, high profile people. So yes, I think it will continue. I do also respect that eating for a lot of people is a private thing and I think having that respect is very important for vegans, but at the same time it’s pretty exciting when high profile politicians are taking it on and I think it’s because they’ve become more aware. Maybe they think there’s an electoral advantage but I think considering it is such a personal issue, I think it would be from a personal commitment – maybe for health reasons, maybe for climate change reasons, maybe for animal welfare. That’s all good.

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, there is still prejudice there. I think you saw it with Gillard. When Christine Milne was leader of the Greens, I saw it. I think it’s interesting, just to jump sideways, why that is. In many ways, because I often saw women were excessively critical, and I think it’s because even really strong feminists, we are used to it, all of us: who do we see on television most of the time? Men in suits with a male voice, looking like a male. That’s the dominant paradigm that we see. So then women come along and that’s one of the factors of discrimination. So then if you’re a high profile woman leader and you’re also a vegan, and usually they’re progressive as well, well it can sort of be another line of attack. I’ve got to say for myself, I haven’t been questioned about being vegan but I wouldn’t put myself in that leadership category of Gillard and Christine, obviously. So I think that’s got a lot to do with it.

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

Women do really dominate in terms of animal welfare, animal rescue, animal rights. Women are really in the leading role or behind the scenes role in probably all the organisations I’ve come across, and probably more so in other areas. It used to be like that in the environment movement but that’s changed, but the animal rights / animal welfare movement is really, really, women doing amazing work. So I really want to emphasise, that it’s not just some women. I mean, I can name some women but I really wanted to emphasise the incredible, fantastic role, and it is, in my mind, it is leadership, if you’re a behind the scenes person giving advice to Lyn White, that’s huge. That contribution. So people like Lyn White, Verna Simpson, Lynda Stoner, Christine Townsend. It is really significant and that’s why I think it’s really important to talk and bring those two threads together as you are.

What history teaches us, and it’s certainly something I believe in, in terms of social change, and to my mind that is effectively what we’re dealing with here, we’re looking to create a fairer, more just world for animals as well as ourselves, and what history shows us is that building very broad-based alliances of a range of people and organisations is absolutely critical. There are some individuals who like working on their own and they do amazing work, but in terms of driving the change, you need those movements. And that’s what I was very fortunate to grow up with. When I was at school, the Vietnam War was raging, then there was the Apartheid, the women’s movement, the environment movement, then I can remember when Peter Singer wrote his book which put a lot of animal issues on the stage, and the fact they took the name “Animal Liberation”. That was about building a movement, and movements are about people and those alliances are critical. I believed that generally before being a politician, but once you are a politician you have opportunities. You have good resources, staff, so it’s, to my mind, your responsibility to work with a range of people.

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 all talking to people all the time. The conversations are incredibly important. 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. I think those conversations, and they need to be respectful as I said, but you can start a conversation, like, “What are you having for lunch?”. “Well, I tried this, and I really enjoy being a vegan”. Those conversations often spark a bit of interest. But also, a lot of people when they start to become involved, they’ll start thinking about what they’re doing on digital platforms. A lot of that is useful. I think there’s a place for petitions, because that’s where you really can start a conversation, and yes in terms of being presented to parliament, that’s part of the journey as well, but actually having the conversations about the issue you’re petitioning about. For a group of people to go and see their local MP I think is really worth it. People often think “Oh, I can’t see an MP!”, but a lot of them will say yes, particularly these days. There is a change. They recognise they have to know their constituency. So engaging with your community, I think, is always important, particularly when you’re first getting into it. It’s a way you can become more confident, you learn how to present your argument, like where I started, as in having a conversation in the lunch queue, well you do have to think these through, what the language is, being sensitive to people, get them thinking. There are all different ways.

Questions from Kathy Divine

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

I don’t know actually. It is a good question. When I was in state parliament, Carl Scully, a Labor Party minister, was a vegan. And actually, when I was in state parliament, one of the meals was called The Rhiannon Salad For Vegans, which I thought was a very nice meal. It’s not on the menu anymore, so some things come and go. I’m sure there are some. There’d certainly be a number of staffers in parliament who would be vegan, but in terms of MP’s, I can’t say I’ve come across anybody flying the flag. Probability would say some are. [Kathy talks about people being vegan / eating being private and respecting that] Just on that respect, we’re trying to win more people to be vegans and speaking out about it, so I think that respect is an important way to achieve it.

Would you encourage vegans to enter into politics?

Yes, I would encourage vegans into politics. Having said that, just in general, because people often rock along to me and say “Oh, I’d love to do that job!”. It’s certainly very rewarding. At parliament, we have school tours and I’ve talked to them about the work, but I don’t just talk about parliament, as a progressive Greens MP I talk about how you achieve social change. Parliament is just one tool in terms of achieving that. It’s not the pinnacle of great wisdom that sits at the top of the hill. History shows us that. Like, why did women get the vote? Not because somebody turned up and sat down on the leather couches and decided ‘we’ll move legislation today’. 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 social movement became so strong they had to. Similar with union rights. Why do we have a lunch break? Penalty rates, those sorts of things? Because people organised, formed unions and went on strike and won better pay and conditions. And you see that across the board. So parliament is a tool, not the font of all wisdom.

So getting involved in public life is very rewarding. I think it’s a good way to live your life, both in terms of you’re giving back something, we are a collective social animal, so I think it’s a pretty natural way to operate, because so many people, they do want to look for solutions to things, and I think more people are seeing veganism as not just being about what you eat, but about being solutions. So I think all those things come into it.

There is involvement in public life, political life, whatever you want to call it, in your communities, and then there is, do I become a politician? So I think having a diversity of views in politics is important, I would always hope that that diversity is on the progressive side of politics, because I think the likes of Malcolm Roberts and Malcolm Turnbull are a set back for Australia.

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 can give you a campaign hook. They’ve got a real advantage when you’re trying to get a campaign going and trying to think “how do we make the public understand it?”, things like that, and make you focus on what you’re talking about and what you’re calling for, so that’s where I think they have a real advantage. I think also, they’re a hook-in with politicians, which I’m not downplaying, but engaging with politicians is part of it, and actually going along to see them. But you don’t need a petition to go along and see your local MP’s but they’re very worthwhile. You need to have a lot of other tactics as well. In terms of wasting your time, no, but I’m answering that in the context of not necessarily that a petition of even 10,000 people is going to change the MP’s, but if you’ve got 10,000 people, you’ve probably had 5,000 or 2,000 useful conversations. Seriously, campaigns need to have a diversity of tactics. You might have some legal people having this great big court case, but at the end of the day you need lots of people out there and I can’t emphasise that enough. Why we’re pretty privileged in our life in Australia now is because our forebears actually got out and did things.

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 Independent Office of Animal Welfare we’ve been running on for quite a while, as I know have other parties as well, but we still don’t have it. We’ve really got to remember the word “independent” in this because when you look at what Labor was saying, and the Coalition were barely there, but what Labor was saying was the Office still came under the Department of Agriculture, and that’s just not good enough. We have to get it out of the Department of Agriculture.

I obviously acknowledge that so much of the animal welfare laws, rules and regulations are done at the state level, but there’s a lot that the federal level of parliament can do, the federal level of government can do, and so that’s my worry. And I think it’s because of the effectiveness of animal groups in lobbying for it, is that Labor and the Coalition are talking about it, but they’re muddying the waters in what form it takes. So that’s where we’ve really, really got to watch how that plays out.

We’ve got a Private Members’ Bill for the Independent Office of Animal Welfare. We’ve placed it in the Department of the Attorney General’s because we thought that that was the place where it could best keep its independence, and we really, really have to get it out of the Department of Agriculture because I just regard that as pointless. It’s saying you’ve done something when you haven’t actually. [Kathy: Is that coming from the Liberal Party?] Mainly Labor, but I think the Liberals would latch onto that one. The Liberals haven’t said so much about it, so I imagine they’d use that tactic as well. So that’s one to watch in terms of the language and the detail that they’re presenting with. If they say, ‘Oh yeah we support an Office for Animal Welfare’, we’ve really got to ask, well, you know, details? Who’s it responsible to?

With regard to the CCTV, that’s been a bit controversial internally for us, because we have been concerned about the loss of privacy for people so it is one to balance out, but I think increasingly and therefore in this case, spying on the workers et cetera, but I think it’s increasingly being recognised that there are advantages in doing it, so we haven’t got a final position on it. It’s sort of like CCTV all along the streets which is now a reality, and there have been cases where it has resulted in crimes being solved where women have been abused and killed, like that tragic case down in Victoria, and they did an amazing job of using all the CCTV footage, so yeah, it’s one where society has to get the balance right, but it appears that there is an area where we can sort of stop the abuse occurring.

Anything else you would like to add?

I just think it’s really great when it popped up, that I could talk about veganism, There’s been a huge expansion in interest, like when I go to the Cruelty Free Festival or anything vegan, every year it gets bigger and bigger. I can remember when I first went into parliament in 1999, there was a vegan society and there was about five of us, and the first event I can remember, was at Petersham Town Hall, and then it got too big, and then it kept going to a bigger and bigger venue.


Senator Lee Rhiannon will be speaking at the Plant-Powered Women Leadership Conference in Sydney on March 17, 2018. For details and to buy tickets, see


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