Public life and politics are bruising and demanding ways to serve the community. But Penny Taylor was not put off. Here she shares something of her experience in running for public office. Penny Taylor ran for the Seat of Nedlands at the 2017 WA State Election.
It’s been a year now that I’ve been campaigning for public office. In March I stood for Labor in the seat of Nedlands in the WA state election, and as I write this, I’m a week away from the end of Local Government elections where I’m running for Mayor of Subiaco, WA. Looking back this looks like a planned progression, but I assure you it’s not!
I first became interested in politics, policy and government in the mid 2000s, when living in the Pilbara, as I saw how different aspects of community life—from education to health, policing and public housing and further—were all interrelated and had a direct influence on the quality of life in our community. I had begun to write letters to Government agencies over some concerns I was seeing locally. I received little by way of reply, until once I cc’d the letter to the local state Member of Parliament. Then the replies were actioned immediately. I learnt that lesson, and from then on directed any letters to the minister and the local member. I wasn’t a serial letter writer, but I did write a few each year on the major concerns our community was experiencing. As part of that advocacy, I would take the opportunity to meet politicians when they made themselves available. I met and wrote to various politicians from different parties. The politician who mainly replied was Mark McGowan, now the WA Premier.
WA was riding the mining boom but with little planning in place for the inevitable downturn. State debts and deficits were increasing and the looming GST shortfall was entirely predictable. I could see investment in buildings but not in people. It’s people who change people. Government grants for capital only—and not operations—means schools and other community supports don’t have the sustainable employment structures to make a real difference in our communities. This is particularly apparent in regional areas. My watching of politics from a layperson’s perspective led me to wonder whether I should change from watching to doing. WA was crashing hard after the mining boom. Many people were hurting and many felt like the current government had completely stopped listening to them.
After prayerful consideration I decided that I couldn’t just watch the State election, but I had to run in it. I chose the seemingly suicidal mission of contesting the seat I live in: Nedlands, a blue-ribbon Liberal seat in the affluent, leafy, inner-city suburbs of Perth. A senior, yet not hugely popular Liberal Minister held the seat by a 19% margin. I think the only people who thought this was a good idea were Mark McGowan and me. I braced myself for the negativity of politics and ploughed in with my extreme naivety and inexperience
As the State campaign heated up, I wrote this:
‘No politician is the saviour of the world. No political party, nor even an excellent government can offer true salvation. Christians who serve in government are no more doing God's work than any Christian in their workplace when they strive to live according to God's word as a sinner saved by grace. But leaders and representatives have an important role in our community. There are policies on all sides of government that don't align with God's plan for this world, and I don't agree with every policy of the Labor Party. We live in a fallen world that has no hope for eternity except for the redemption offered in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
However, I do believe that this opportunity has arisen with God’s help and I believe that I can make a substantial contribution to our community through this endeavour. I presented my Christian faith clearly to Mr McGowan and he and the Labor Party welcomed me to join. Since declaring my candidacy, I frequently have had the opportunity to share my faith in a variety of settings. To date this has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, but I will be faithful to Christ even if it’s difficult. You know I am a committed Christian and I will bring my Christianity to bear in the decisions that I will make. I do believe I have come to this moment for such a time as this.
Politically, some considered it practically impossible for me to win. This is one of the safest seats in WA. But nothing is too hard for God. If I win this seat in March there will be absolutely no denying that this is of God. Because I have complete confidence of my position before God, only by the redemption Christ has won me at the cross, do I dare attempt this. Without his confidence and the peace that passes all understanding, I couldn't do it. Win or lose, I belong to him.’
It was crazy and impossible but I can do all things through him who strengthens me. I had been a member of the Labor Party for a short period of time and did not enjoy any backing from a branch. The party viewed the seat as unwinnable and understandably didn’t want to waste too much money on a battle they couldn’t win. I did have the backing of my family, of the Leader of the Opposition and of my own convictions. I know that many people support a Party like they support a football team. You don’t like everything about them, but you barrack for them anyway. And where I live, that team is the Liberal Party.
Two things happened in the campaign gave me the confidence to just do it and then keep working hard. The first was the good fortune to be seated next to the soon-to-be-Premier at an event. The second was the overwhelming positive feedback from community members. People were stopping me in the street to tell me they were so glad I was standing at the election. I had braced myself for the negativity of politics, especially in this Liberal-held heartland. But instead I found many educated and sincere people wanting a genuine candidate who listened and understood their concerns.
So. I didn’t win. But I did have a sizeable swing—almost 11%, which The Australian said was the ‘shock result’ of the State Election. Overall, Labor won the election in a landslide, bringing the Hon Mr McGowan the Premiership. For me, without a faith in Jesus and the belief (relief?) of eternity this would have been a crazy, impossible venture. Instead I found it overwhelmingly positive. After it was all over, I got back to working in the family business, but I do have some observations on what’s it like as a Christian when you move from advocacy and prayer, into seeking to do the work of a politician.
Firstly, realise that there may not be a rush of support for you from your fellow church members. Despite having sat in church while we all pray for Christians to enter politics, my experience was that there’s not so much support once you actually do. Maybe it was because I ran for Labor, a party that has appeared to be anti-Christian to some. But maybe it is because it’s easier to pray about political involvement than actually to do something about it. ‘Sex, religion and politics—do we really want to have be the ones talking about these things?’ asks the comfortable middle class Christian. Many people think ‘Good on you’, but that’s it. Don’t expect it to be a respected decision. The distrust of politicians (including candidates) extends into churches.
Secondly, I learned that political parties simply reflect their membership. This means that if Christians are positive contributors and active in political parties then perhaps political parties will reflect this in their policies. I say ‘perhaps’, because as church attendance has dwindled, so has membership of political parties. And parties aren’t about recruiting members, they are about recruiting volunteers and winning elections. It’s a very different brief to churches.
Thirdly, I have learned not to underestimate the power of a well-written factual letter. Politicians can better help those who make it easy for them to be helped. They’re human too and encouragement and support (and dare I say love) is always welcome in the face of constant negative comments and scrutiny from the public.
But my story doesn’t end with the State election. I’m in my second election campaign for 2017, for, even after the State campaign ended, many people continued to raise their concerns with me (even though I did point out I wasn’t the person to see). Not a week would go by without someone stopping me to say I should be running for local government. I have served as a councillor before, in Port Hedland, and so I know local government, but the persistent encouragement of others gave me courage and confidence to seek election as Mayor of Subiaco. I was having trouble not advocating on local issues and for good governance anyway, so it made sense.
This campaign too, has its serendipitous moment. As my penchant for politics was becoming known in Christian circles, I was given the unexpected honour of being invited to pray at the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast and sit next to the former WA Premier, the Hon Colin Barnett MLA.
After that encounter, Mr Barnett unexpectedly came out supporting me for Mayor of Subiaco. I love that Local Government is independent! In this election I do have the backing of my family, many in my church and in the community. My electorate is well-educated and kind. The negative campaign tactics have been much worse in this local government campaign, but it makes me more disappointed about my community than for myself. There’s a job to do. The Mayoral race is simply a job interview where the good people of Subiaco are the ones who decide who should get the job. If I don’t win, I’ve had an amazing learning experience and have met many wonderful people. If I do win, I will seek to do my best to serve my community as Mayor of the City of Subiaco. Whether I win or lose, my life is for the Lord.
I know many of you have been praying for more Christians to enter politics. I know this because I've been sitting with you when you've been doing it. Well, God works in mysterious ways and even I didn't see this as a possibility 12 months ago. At every step of the way there has been prayerful consideration and a genuine desire to serve Jesus in this world as he sees fit. I’m not alone in seeking to serve Christ in this way. Thank you for your prayers for Christian politicians (we hope to see them answered!) and thanks for your encouragement to us as we work for better government for the common good.
Postscript: Penny Taylor was elected Mayor of Subiaco on October 21 (Ed.)