THE political memoirs of Fiona Patten will be very unlike most. Scandalous tales of drug use and brothel work and, apparently, unexpected uses for a zucchini. Except these stories, set to be released in a couple of months, don’t scandalise the politician who, by conventional thinking, should be doing her best to cover them up.
When Stellar meets Patten, 54, she’s eating lunch at a Brunswick pub, a few doors down from her electoral office in inner-city Melbourne, nibbling on chips and greens, and chatting about the stresses of an upcoming state election. Her smile, ever-present, frequently breaks into a throaty laugh.
She has just missed a call from Robbie Swan, her partner of 26 years. He wrote the memoirs on her behalf, including the details of (brief) sex worker stints in the early 1990s, her abortion, and her use of cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana (she inhales the latter, for the record, and enjoys it). For any other politician, these would be secrets: for Patten, they are life experiences that help explain how she has grown to be, as the ABC’s Jon Faine says, “Australia’s most effective legislator.”
Certainly, she is the biggest surprise of Victorian politics. With a shock upper house return for the Australian Sex Party (now called Reason), Patten has forged reforms that have eluded other politicians with bigger credentials, including voluntary assisted dying laws, safe access zones around abortion clinics and supervised injecting rooms.
Patten, with typical lightness, credits her political successes to “naïveté”: “We probably didn’t know what we couldn’t do,” she says. “And then, I suppose, we were surprised when we did it. I don’t think there are many other MPs in their first term who have been successful in the campaigns that we ran.”
The “we” she speaks of is Swan. The two are devoted to one another; today, by 1pm, they have spoken seven times and average about 14 phone calls a day. Theirs is an unconventional pairing. They live in different states and have an open relationship.
“It doesn’t work for everyone, but it has worked for us,” she says. They became aware of one another in the letters pages of a Canberra newspaper. In the early 1990s, they formed sex industry lobby group Eros, and Swan managed her first electoral tilt in 1992. They fought for “the freedom for unconventional morality”. Their principles have evolved, but remain essentially the same.
Patten has made choices that would disqualify her from candidacy for a major party. She does not hide from her unorthodox journey, partly because she seeks to destigmatise issues far removed from traditional powerbrokers.
Her sex work began as an impulse — she was in a Canberra brothel one night in 1990, doing outreach work, when it was short-staffed. A client had been waiting a long time and she declared she would service him. She enjoyed the experience and continued providing sex for money for a few months. She doesn’t mind that some people judge her for it, even if she argues that being a waitress, business owner, competitive swimmer and setting up an industry association were just as formative. “Having sex for something other than love, than lust, is not uncommon,” she says. “We’ve all done it. Which is why sex work is not necessarily a hard thing. But the stigma and the secrecy? That’s the hard thing.”
Patten learnt much about winning in the 1990s, when she represented the sex industry against conservative firebrands such as Fred Nile and Senator Brian Harradine. To them, she tells Stellar without a hint of sarcasm, she offers her thanks.
“I truly have great respect for [Harradine]. I don’t agree with a single thing he believed in. But he was formidable.” Harradine can take backhanded credit for what she has achieved in Victorian politics in the past few years. “When you talk about the adult industry, an adversarial approach is not the best approach,” she says. “You’ve actually got to win people over and you’ve got to get them to come onboard with the idea. I think that’s how I try and work in Parliament now. I try and find that common ground.”
Her most notable win in Parliament has been her bill for voluntary assisted dying laws in Victoria. She recalls the cringe-worthy moments — an MP asked a doctor if he just wanted to “pop people”. The laws passed in a form that would not aid the early dementia people she had sympathised with, but Patten is still proud. “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good,” she says.
Patten says she never imagined a life in politics — her first four unsuccessful runs were about garnering attention for sex industry causes. Her priorities are natural extensions of her experiences. Patten was 17 when she went to Sydney from her hometown of Canberra to have a legal abortion. The protesters outside the clinic — “old, white men” — informed her private member’s bill for the buffer zones outside Melbourne abortion clinics more than three decades later.
A safe injecting room in Richmond, opened in July, came from her bill. It followed her extensive work with needle-exchange programs in Canberra from the late 1980s. Her own mother found hashish in her sock drawer when she was 17. A drug counsellor explained to her mother that Patten was not doomed to be an addict.
The oldest of three, she spent four years from age 11 living in America. She is convinced she was sent to Sunday school only so her parents had some guaranteed bedroom time each week.
She’s good at telling stories about sex and sexual freedom, probably because she’s been doing so for decades.
Now, in both deeds and name, her Reason party has a wider policy platform. “I certainly feel that the name change has helped us,” she says of her federal aspirations. “We haven’t lost any policies of Sex but we’ve grown… and if we want representation in other jurisdictions we had to bite the bullet at some stage.”
Patten, however, is taking it one autobiography — and one election — at a time. “We’re probably not going to change the curtains at The Lodge any time soon,” she says. “We’re not quite that aspirational.”
PATRICK CARLYON, Stellar Magazine
Photo by Ren Pidgeon, Stellar Magazine