Sunday, 23 May 2010
It’s Kelly’s Time to Shine
Wheelchair-bound Kelly Vincent reveals her trepidation – and excitement – at suddenly being foisted into the political spotlight. SARAH MENNIE spent the first week in Parliament with SA’s “accidental MP”
LIKE her life, Kelly Vincent’s political career did not have a smooth start. She was born on October 25, 1988, 13 weeks premature and weighing just 773g – the same as a carton of eggs. But, as she’s done within the walls of Parliament House in the past month, Kelly is prepared to face – and triumph – over adversity.
When delivering her maiden speech on May 13, those in the Legislative Council – MPs and supporters – held their collective breath. Exactly a week earlier, the 21-year-old sat at her custom-made bench and broke down as she made her first comments in the chamber after being sworn in. “I’m not off to a good start,” she said, overwhelmed by her first day as an MP and, specifically, speaking about the death of Dr Paul Collier, Dignity for Disability’s No. 1 candidate in the March election. Dr Collier died from a brain haemorrhage less than two weeks before the poll, which saw Kelly elevated to become the party’s No. 1 candidate in the Upper House.
Dr Collier’s name remained on the ballot paper and his votes flowed to Kelly, but few expected her to earn enough votes to win and become an MP. Remarkably, she did. And while she is still quite amazed at how events have unfolded, she sees it as an opportunity to make a difference for South Australians living with disabilities.
Her mother, Colleen Hunt, was right by Kelly’s side for her swearing-in on May 6. A nurse who works in aged care, she is a strong woman who doesn’t like to focus too much on emotion, but concedes she worries about her daughter.
“I’m nervous for her because it’s all so new and she’s only 21, but I’m also very proud and confident she’ll do well,” Colleen says.
And like her daughter, she’s still getting used to the idea that Kelly is a politician. “I think we’re all surprised, because it only came around because of Paul, unfortunately,” Colleen says. “So it was not necessarily a choice but one that she’s decided to go with, so it was a surprise but she’s going to put her heart and soul into it.”
As Colleen speaks, Kelly sits a few metres away in her wheelchair in the hallway behind the Council chamber. She looks overwhelmed and unsure.
There are not many women MPs in the SA Parliament (seven in the Legislative Council compared with 15 men) – and they are all older and able-bodied. Then there is Kelly Vincent. She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. And she was initially reluctant at the thought of being an MP.
She agreed to put her name as No. 2 on the D4D ticket, believing the party would struggle to get enough votes for Dr Collier to be elected – and that she could go back to being a playwright.
Kelly Vincent wasn’t meant to get in but, through circumstances, she has become known as “the accidental MP”. But since the swearing-in and her maiden speech, family and supporters have noticed the change in her.
While it wasn’t what she expected to be doing at 21, she’s already embracing her new career, yearning to make a difference for people with disabilities. And, she’s come to realise, she might just be good at it.
“To start with, I had this feeling that I was going to end up doing a lot and I was scared of it, so Paul had to really talk me into putting my name down,” Kelly said.
She’s still coming to terms with the fact her life as she knew it has been ripped from under her. “I’m embracing it slowly,” she says. “I don’t have any normal time anymore.”
During her first week as a parliamentarian, the strain of adjusting to her new life showed. She was constantly bombarded by people and organisations wanting a piece of her time. There were endless meetings, documents to read and complex issues to understand.
And each day, she feels the weight of that responsibility.
But each day, she wakes up at the Bridgewater home she shares with her mum, her mum’s partner, Geoffrey Hale (Kelly refuses to speak about her dad), and her brothers, Shane, 23, and Cody, 18, and manages to meditate, listen to ABC891 and watch a bit of French or Spanish news to keep up her language skills before heading off to work.
Krassy, the taxi driver who has been driving her for seven years, picks her up about 9am to take her to her office in Parliament House.
Krassy can’t believe the woman he’s been driving since she was a schoolgirl has become a politician.
“I’m very proud of her,” he says, beaming during Kelly’s celebratory party at the Sebel Playford hotel the night of her swearing-in. Indeed, there are many people – some very influential – who are supporting her.
Liberal leader Tony Abbott dropped in unannounced to the Sebel Playford, during a visit to Adelaide, to congratulate her.
Numerous other politicians – both current and former – have called or written to offer their congratulations.
At a recent Liberal Party fundraiser, the federal Liberal Member for Sturt, Christopher Pyne, went so far as to say Kelly was more popular than Mr Abbott (who was in the room at the time), such was the reception she received when introduced.
Former Australian Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja, too, is an admirer. “I don’t usually hang around chambers a lot these days,” Ms Stott Despoja said at the swearing-in. “It’s an historic day, and her day. Kelly’s the youngest-ever woman (to be sworn into the SA Parliament).”
But that doesn’t worry Kelly. As she says: “I’ve always been told that I’ve been quite mature for my age,” adding that she was writing at the age of four and reading novels by the time she was six. She might look like a young woman in her 20s – funky-patterned tights, black boots and hip dresses – but she doesn’t speak like one.
She’s incredibly wise, empathetic, opinionated – and funny. She has a strength and purpose about her. And above all else she’s a fighter. She’s had to be. “There was quite a lot of fear, almost certainty, that I wouldn’t make it,” she says of being born 13 weeks premature. I was very small and weak, but here I am.”
Staff at Flinders Medical Centre were in awe of her strength. In fact, Kelly recently received a congratulatory letter from one of the neonatologists who cared for her.
The woman hadn’t had any contact with her since Kelly was discharged from hospital in January 1989 and now lives in Western Australia, but learned of Kelly’s election on TV.
“I remember you very well,” she wrote, detailing Kelly’s remarkable strength as an infant.
Strong she may have been, but Kelly was incredibly shy as a child. An avid reader, she found solace in her books.
“I’m glad I’m able to express more now and communicate with people, especially doing this job,” she says. While she enjoyed school, in her maiden speech she alluded to the fact it wasn’t easy being a young girl with a disability.
“I was an advocate every time I came home in tears from school because a student made fun of the way I walked,” she says.
Kelly was able to walk using a walking frame until she was 10. It was then that she suffered nerve damage during an operation and has not been able to walk since.
“People talk about it as an ‘accident’ but had I not started to use a wheelchair, I probably wouldn’t be the same writer, the same advocate, the same learner, the same person I am today,” she says.
Writing has always been a huge part of Kelly’s life.
She progressed from keeping diaries and journals to writing short stories and poetry. And now, by 21, she has written two plays.
Her deep thinking comes through in her work – one of the plays is about a woman who has had a miscarriage.
“It’s called StartSpace. It really began as an exploration of catharsis and whether it was possible to achieve emotional catharsis by ridding oneself of physical possessions,” she says.
Her play, Gravity, won a State Theatre Company playwriting competition in 2007, and her performance of A Little Ballerina’s Agony at the Awakenings Festival for disability arts earned her a standing ovation in Horsham, Victoria, the same year.
As her adviser, Sam Paior, says: “If Tony Abbott can find 10 hours a week to run and ride his bike, Kelly can find 10 hours a week to write.”
If she hadn’t been elected to Parliament, Kelly says her life would have been devoted to writing.
She had just received funding for her first fully independent play, something she was incredibly excited about, but has had to put on hold.
Settling into Parliament House has meant making the building more accessible for her.
A bench to accommodate Kelly’s wheelchair in the Legislative Council chamber was built with every detail possible replicated from the existing benches to make it look like it has always been there. Yet, it still looks somehow out of place, jutting out.
And, she said on the day of her swearing in, it felt a bit like that, too.
“In that moment it did sort of hit me,” Kelly said. “I’m here at this bench, while everyone else is up there or over there. It’s not a complaint, just an observation.”
Outside of the chamber, she was doing it tough as well.
There were numerous times when she appeared so overwhelmed she could barely speak.
There were big issues to deal with, like the pressure of delivering outcomes for people with disabilities in SA, many of whom have put great faith in her. And there were smaller issues. She couldn’t reach her favourite juice in the Parliamentary lunch room fridge and when she asked the canteen staff to move it to a lower shelf they said it would be “too difficult” to arrange.
“We’re happy to get it for you,” staff said.
Kelly responded that she would like to be able to do it herself. To her delight, a day later, the juice was moved to a lower shelf.
“I just think the people (who work in the canteen) didn’t understand how important it can be for people with disabilities to be independent wherever possible,” Kelly said. “But obviously it occurred to them eventually.”
It hasn’t been the only hiccup. There was the former female MP who wrote to Kelly, criticising her comments about being a representative for people with disabilities.
The woman was offended, saying she had represented people with disabilities as an MP for many years.
Another woman wrote that Kelly ought to wear longer dresses, because her attire was “unladylike”.
Moments like these are hard but, in a short time, she has become very aware of the attention on her and the task ahead.
A week before her maiden speech she sat in the chamber – vulnerable, exhausted, emotional and afraid. Independent MP John Darley handed her a box of tissues while she cried about the death of Paul Collier and the enormity of the task confronting her.
Darley came to Kelly’s assistance again during her maiden speech, this time turning the pages of her script.
“I’m having a disability moment,” she said as she motioned for Darley to lend a hand.
SHE spoke honestly of how she came to be in Parliament, of how she was “the quintessential accidental politician”.
“The circumstances under which my election came to pass are tragic, even macabre, and very difficult to deal with,” Kelly said.
“But what option do I, and we as a party, have but to embrace this wonderful opportunity and privilege as best as we possibly can in order to achieve the best possible outcome for people with disabilities and their networks in SA, and to help Dr Paul Collier live on.
“I did not earn Paul’s votes in the election. I cannot earn a place on this Earth in lieu of Paul Collier. But I can earn the respect of both our constituents, and my colleagues.
“I can earn your trust, and I do not doubt that, more often that not, I will earn your criticism. “But I am ready and willing to earn all of these things until people with disabilities, their families and allies do not have to fight for, and ultimately earn, something that is seemingly a birthright to all others: dignity through choice.”
It’s been an extraordinary few weeks for Kelly Vincent, an extraordinary young woman. She knows the next eight years – the term of Upper House MPs – are going to be tough. Asked if she’s tired after the hurly-burly, Kelly can’t wipe the smile from her face. “No. I’m just so happy to have given that speech in Parliament, I’ve been writing it for so long,” she says.
“How long?” I ask. “My whole life,” she says.
HER VIEWS ABOUT…
They’re people. The reason these politicians are in the chamber is they believe they are there to make the world a better place – that’s an extremely difficult job.
Lowering the voting age to 16
There will always be the 16-year-olds who won’t have the maturity to know what a privilege it is to vote but there will always be the 16-year-olds who don’t want to wait until they are 18 to make a difference in the world. The power of youth is that they’re not jaded.
Some people with disabilities, they are effectively asylum seekers in their own country. I’m not suggesting people with disabilities are comparable with asylum seekers from war-torn countries but just people who wake up and just want to be OK in life. They are asylum seekers. If we were to turn people with disabilities away from Australia we would be denying ourselves some of the greatest human beings that have ever lived. How do we know that we’re not doing the same thing by turning away asylum seekers?
I always worry about these children who are not aborted but are born to a 15-year-old mother who has smoked through her pregnancy with no money, nor the maturity, to look after a child. If a child is born to parents that don’t love it, that’s a sentence worse than death.
Perhaps life without joy and all of the things that make a life worth living, maybe that, too, is a sentence worse than death. There is some call from people with disabilities to have that right.
It’s happening. Climate change is the planet’s way of letting us know we need to give it something back. It’s high time we listened to it.
To me, the definition of a marriage is the union of two souls, not two bodies – and I don’t believe that souls have a gender. There are some people who are against the idea of gay marriage who behave as if the minute it’s made legal they’ll have to get a divorce because the meaning of marriage will have changed. There will be no lightning strikes if gay marriage came to be here.
Banning the burqa
To me, asking a woman to go out of the house without her burqa is like asking me to go without my wheelchair. It would be making people prisoners in their own home.
The war against terrorism
The irony of the words war against terrorism. That’s all I’d like to say.
Link to article Part 1