November 14, 2014 – 1:25PM
By Keryn Reynolds
Ms Sonia Smith, the National Party candidate in the key goldfields marginal electorate of Buninyong is what many people might call a maverick, an unorthodox or independent-minded person.
But Ms Smith isn’t really happy with the word maverick.
She told UniPollWatch it sounded a bit ‘unpredictable’ which according to her, is far from the truth.
‘I am not unpredictable. My values are consistent with my life and work as a human rights lawyer.’
Recently she contradicted her party’s policy on coal seam gas mining, telling a forum in the electorate that she wanted a ‘frack-free Buninyong’ pledging that fracking will only happen ‘over her dead body.’
Her party, the Nationals, supports the current moratorium on fracking in Victoria but has previously voted against a permanent ban.
Sitting on a couch, sipping tea in her donated campaign office in the back of the Ballan Hotel, Ms Smith spoke to UniPollWatch about her background, passions and policies.
She’s not shy about voicing her opinions or speaking about controversial issues.
‘If I win Buninyong local politics will never be the same again. And I will win.’
She is often described in the media as a ‘lawyer and sheep farmer from Navigators’, a description that skims over her background as an international human rights lawyer.
Growing up on a small family farm in Patchewollock in the Mallee, she went to school at Ballarat and Claredon Colleges where she was the Head Girl. She went on to complete a Bachelors degree in Arts and Law and Honours in politics, at the University of Melbourne.
After graduating she worked for a community legal center and a law firm in Melbourne, before heading overseas for ten years to work as a United Nations human rights lawyer specialising in local development.
Ms Smith also has a Masters in International Relations that she completed in French while working full time with the UN in Geneva, Switzerland.
In a change of academic pace, she later gained a qualification in cordon bleu cooking in France.
While working overseas, she co-founded and chaired a non-governmental group focused on UN reform and later served as the vice-president of the Organisation of Women in International Trade.
Her work overseas, including in India and Africa, strengthened her resolve to stand up for people that ‘lack a voice’.
Since returning from overseas two years ago, Ms Smith has been active in the Ballarat area serving on numerous local business and farming boards.
If she wins Buninyong, she has pledged 10 per cent of her parliamentary salary to projects for the needy in the electorate.
‘Politicians earn much more than the average Aussie wage and are very good at spending other people’s money. But if people put themselves forward as leaders, they should lead by example. This is what I intend to do.’
It’s been a busy year for Ms Smith. In January, when she was endorsed to run as the Nationals candidate, she was five months pregnant with her first child. In May, she went into labour while campaigning. In hospital for 48 hours, she managed to issue two media releases before giving birth.
‘I’m a hard worker. What can I say, I like to use my time well,’ she said laughing.
This is the first time in 25 years that the Nationals are running a candidate in the Ballarat area.
But Ms Smith wasn’t always a National party member.
‘I joined the Liberal Party for about a year, but it wasn’t for me. The Liberals have a born-to-rule mentality. I felt like an outcast. There wasn’t a National Party in Ballarat so I left the Liberals, and set one up.’
She says the National Party first offered her a safer seat, which she won’t name, but she declined because she wanted to run where she lived. She also says The Greens asked her to consider running as the local Buninyong candidate, although it seems that these were only informal conversations.
‘I want to take the Nationals back to their background of being a strong local voice for my community.’
She says she has always had an interest in politics and social justice. Growing up her mother was the Secretary of the National Party in the Mallee and she is related to Sir Henry Bolte, who held the Ballarat seat from the late 1940’s onwards, and was Victoria’s 38th and longest serving premier.
‘I’ve been inspired by my ancestors to try and make a difference and stand up for people.’
Ms Smith lives at the foot of Mount Buninyong on a 115-acre diary farm, which also includes sheep and 450 hazelnut trees. Last weekend she hosted an ‘out of the ground’ festival on her farm; an educational opportunity for visitors to see what it takes to produce locally grown foods.
‘There is nowhere in the world that I would rather live, work and raise my family than here.’
Increasing investment in the region, job creation, strengthening health services and reducing the burden of red tape for businesses are her highest priorities, she says.
‘We need to unlock the potential of Buninyong so it becomes a world class region.’
Ms Smith has set up four small campaign offices across the electorate in Ballan, Buninyong, Sebastopol and Smythesdale. The office space has been donated by local businesses.
If she wins the election she says she will make the offices permanent and staff them with young people who are interested in both local issues and politics.
Currently on maternity leave from her job as a lawyer at a Ballarat firm, she works full time on the campaign, regularly cris-crossing the 3100 square kilometer electorate to attend events and meet as many people as possible.
‘I do my campaigning differently. It’s a grass-roots campaign about people.’
She regularly updates Facebook and is not shy about using Twitter to get her message out. She recently reminded people that she runs her campaign on a shoestring budget paid out of her savings, ending it with #mummysgotballs.
When challenged on Facebook by Federation University students on her environmental position she replied with ‘Its brekky time and I’m feeding my baby son, can’t you guys give me 5 minutes to reply without getting antsy?’
She’s been accused of being an ‘independent’ rather than a Nationals candidate, but insists this is not true.
‘I will continue to speak out about the issues that are important for my electorate The Nationals are a pale shadow of the Liberal Party if they don’t focus on the country.’
Over the last months, Ms Smith has run three self-funded summits in the electorate focusing on food, agriculture and the environment. This weekend she’s running a ‘cost of living’ summit because utility bills are crippling farms businesses and household, she says.
As well capping key utility bills to CPI, Ms Smith wants to revive regional train lines between Ballarat, Geelong and Bendigo; supports a multi-use park in the Canadian Forest (despite the Nationals recently announcing they will have no new parks, ‘I disagree with this decision,’ Ms Smith said); return 500 mega litres of water to the Moorabool River; cut red-tape to allow farmers to have dams that are sustainable and build a new secondary school at Ballan.
Ms Smith enjoys sports, particularly walking, cycling and canoeing, having finished the Murray Marathon a few years ago. She’s keen to get more bike paths across the electorate.
She says she is an environmentalist, and that climate change is ‘one of the biggest issues that face us in this century. We are custodians of the environment and trustees for future generations.’
She told UniPollWatch that she would cross the floor of parliament on environmental issues if necessary, because ‘it is a matter of conscience and personal values.’
While supporting wind power, she wants the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the industry.
On Federal and Victorian renewable energy targets, she thinks local councils should be empowered to decide their own targets.
She also has a daring long-term vision for Buninyong that’s bound to cause controversy. She wants to make Buninyong totally powered by renewable energy sources including recycled waste products, wind, solar, geo-thermal and bio-energy.
‘It’s a big decision that would be unpopular with vested interests like the energy companies. It will be a revolution.’
When asked how she would do this, she said she would start with the small towns like Elaine, making them energy self-sufficient, ultimately leading to Ballarat becoming the first city in Australia totally powered by renewables.
‘I see myself as a reformer. I will work with anyone to achieve this vision.’
When asked about preferences, Ms Smith said ‘A vote for me is not a vote for the Liberals. People should decide preferences for themselves.’
When asked if she would go against her party’s local preference decisions if she disagreed, she declined to comment.
‘I suppose I could always print my own preferences cards,’ she mused.
Maverick might not be the right word, but there is no doubting that Ms Smith will be a force to be reckoned with, not least within the National Party. As the fight for Buninyong heats up, it’s just possible Ms Smith might just pull off a surprising electoral victory on 29 November 2014.
Keryn Reynolds is a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne