As I spoke to Kelly O’Dwyer, I got the impression that I was speaking to a future colossus of Australian politics.
Although humble, well mannered and down to earth, O’Dwyer struck me as a politician with steel-strong values and an immovable vision. When asked who her political heroes were growing up, O’Dwyer talked about her respect for Margaret Thatcher, and I couldn’t help thinking she reminded me of the ‘Iron Lady’ herself in her early days.
Speaking on Thatcher, she said: ‘She’s obviously someone who broke through a few glass ceilings to become the Prime Minister of Britain. I think her values were very strong, and particularly articulating and defending those. I admire her for that.’
Unlike her hero’s bumpy road to parliament, O’Dwyer succeeded first time around. She won the safe seat of Higgins – surprising few – in a by-election forced by Costello’s retirement in December 2009.
O’Dwyer is a solid backbencher serving on several committees. She chairs the Coalition’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, deputy chairs the Coalition’s Deregulation Taskforce and works as a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics.
O’Dwyer’s economic and business expertise was gained whilst practicing corporate law. Her political tutelage began as a staffer to Peter Costello, the former treasurer under the Howard government, in 2004. O’Dwyer showed great ambition and became a senior advisor. She was responsible for several key policy areas including: competition law and policy, foreign investment, private equity, corporate and securities law, financial market conduct, corporate governance, accounting policy issues and consumer protection.
‘A variety of backgrounds are very important in politics and political parties,’ says O’Dwyer. ‘Something the Labor party lacks.’
O’Dwyer’s knowledge of the economy and the way business operates are considered her greatest strengths. Many have called for Tony Abbott to overhaul his front bench and recruit more economically astute and business savvy members like O’Dwyer. She finds this amusing, but states: ‘That’s up to the leader of the Liberal Party.’
Disheartened by the 2007 election defeat, O’Dwyer left the Liberals and took a position as an executive at National Australia Bank. However, pre-selection for her home seat of Higgins saw the protégé return in 2010.
O’Dwyer is an old-fashioned Liberal when it comes to the economy and credits her ‘mentor’ Costello as a major teacher of the importance of strong economic values: ‘He demonstrated that you need to be somebody who is strong in values and strong in terms of economic policy.’
Like Costello, she also believes in a strong audit system, appropriate regulation and the cutting of ‘red tape’. She firmly believes that small businesses are the powerhouses of Australian jobs: they should be protected.
Unusually for someone who considers herself an old-fashioned right-wing conservative, O’Dwyer admits to having an affinity with working families. Her passion to become a politician began after the recession during the Keating era. She says her family’s business was ‘hit very hard’ and that this taught her the importance of regulation: ‘It brought home to me how important strong economic policy was, and the impact decisions made in parliament can have on working people.’
She says that, although Labor is the traditional supporters of working families, it is the Liberals superior management of the economy that benefits all Australians.
‘I think the Liberal Party has demonstrated that we are much better, stronger economic managers. This is very important for working families and for all families in Australia,’ says O’Dwyer.
Like her idol Thatcher, O’Dwyer has already broken through glass ceilings of her own. She has faced sexism and doubt from supporters of her own party in succeeding Peter Costello. She has been one of the few members of her party to discuss WorkChoices, and is among a number of backbenchers putting pressure on Abbott to review the Labor government’s Fairwork scheme and bring through a brand new system.
‘I think that those employees who want a more flexible system will continue to make it known publicly. We’ll obviously listen to what people have to say and we will make our policy very clear before the next election,’ says O’Dwyer.
O’Dwyer treads more lightly, however, when asked if the reason Abbott hadn’t talked about WorkChoices was because it was political poison. Without commenting on whether she the WorkChoices scheme was efficient or not, O’Dwyer simply acknowledged that Labor ran a well-financed campaign in the 2007 election.
She also moved quickly to distance herself and the party from suspicions that WorkChoices would return: ‘Categorically, we will not return to WorkChoices. We will look at the government’s policy and we will consider whether improvements need to be made to that,’ says O’Dwyer.
Since taking over the safe Liberal seat of Higgins, O’Dwyer’s political stock and reputation has risen. She has spoken out passionately about what she calls the Labor government’s waste, she has had an economic debate against Labor’s own rising star, Andrew Leigh, and has had spats with treasurer Wayne Swan, famously referring to him as ‘a total and utter flake’.
Many have predicted that if Tony Abbott is elected, O’Dwyer will inevitably be switched to the front-bench and will become an influential asset in the future operations of the party.
When asked about her status as a ‘prodigy’, O’Dwyer found the term humorously humbling, and modestly replied: ’There are many, many, stars in the parliament and as long as I can retain the trust and confidence of the people of Higgins and the job I’m doing for them – that’s enough for me.’
She may be too humble and polite to directly emulate her idol Margaret Thatcher, but her uncompromising politics means that one day O’Dwyer could end up being our very own Iron Lady.
To view profiles of some of the other backbenchers as part of upstart’s Backbench Insiders project, click here.