Most political memoirs should come with a warning that there might be boring bits. Fiona Patten’s is anything but boring. Indeed, and I know this is a big call, it may well be the most unusual and provocative political memoir to written to date by a sitting member of an Australian parliament.
First a disclaimer: at the 2016 federal election I was the lead Senate candidate in NSW for Patten’s Australian Sex Party. And shortly before I met her in 1994, my book Soaring was named erotic novel of the year by sex industry lobby group the Eros Association.
Patten’s unlikely journey from highly paid Canberra sex worker to influential crossbencher in the Victorian upper house (where she holds the balance of power) is nothing short of remarkable. This is especially the case given the barriers that women, let alone sex workers, generally face in getting into politics.
In the first half of the book, Patten is a lobbyist and anti-politician, working with state and federal backbenchers, ministers, political advisers and party executives to support the sex industry agenda. That experience was clearly invaluable.
The second half of the book describes her transformation into an able and successful politician who continues to use many of the lessons she learned along the way.
Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll opens with her maiden speech in the Victorian Legislative Council in February 2015, where she declared: “I may be the first former sex worker to be elected to a parliament anywhere in this country.” And then, after a short pause: “However, I am sure the clients of sex workers have been elected in far greater numbers before me!”
Later in the book she reports that some of the male MPs present in the chamber ‘‘just looked at their shoes”.
Her family history is full of surprises, with a direct lineage back to one of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson’s commanders, and the famous Australian suffragette Jessie Street was her great aunt.
Patten describes her coming-of-age experiences and late adolescence in gritty detail, including being raped on a NSW south coast beach, falling pregnant at the age of 16 and having an abortion at a clinic in Sydney’s Surry Hills where she and her mother had to run the gauntlet of religious protesters. (Later in the book she notes the sweet revenge she extracted when her 2015 private member’s bill led to the enactment of exclusion zones around Victorian abortion clinics.
Patten also chronicles her drug use and her life in prostitution, including the moment, at Tiffany’s brothel in the Canberra suburb of Fyshwick, when she went from being a receptionist to a sex worker.
Sex, however, is not the main game in this fascinating memoir. It’s Patten’s battles with political and social conservatives over moral issues that make this book, at least in part, a brief history of the great Australian morality debates of the 1990s and 2000s.
There is plenty to entertain, too, in a book full of political anecdotes. These include Patten’s first meeting with Peta Credlin, which is utterly hilarious.
Patten was the first political leader in Australia to call for a royal commission into child sex abuse in the church. Her expose of how and why the church initially covered up that abuse by using the sex industry as a scapegoat is an eye-opener.
Patten’s collegiate manner is evident throughout. As a result, she has made friends on all sides of politics. Renaming the Australian Sex Party late last year to the less sexy sounding, but perhaps more politically savvy, Reason Party was difficult for Patten. But problems dealing with Facebook and Google (their algorithms thought it was an actual ‘‘sex party’’) plus a lack of funding and a need to expand the policy platform all contributed to the name change.
This memoir features Patten’s distinctive brand of humour, which often caused me to laugh out loud. There are some great photos. My favourite is that of Patten’s long-term lover and muse Robbie Swan in the guise of his female alter ego, Caroline Cumming-Sweetly. As the book reveals, in 1990 Swan initially attempted to woo Patten by sending videos from Ms Sweetly at the same time he was pursuing her as himself.
Although being a crossbencher often does not allow an MP to do much of consequence, since she was elected in late 2014 Patten has been the driving force behind Victoria’s new abortion laws, legalising voluntary assisted dying, introducing medically supervised injecting centres, legalising Uber, introducing online petitions to state parliament and initiating the largest parliamentary inquiry into drug law reform that Australia has seen.
She has achieved all this by using forceful logic and rhetoric, combined with more than a modicum of charm. Her book is equally charming and should be compulsory reading for current and aspiring parliamentarians.
Ross Fitzgerald’s books include the political/sexual satire So Far, So Good: An Entertainment.
Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll
By Fiona Patten
Allen & Unwin, 366pp, $32.99