With the federal election race well under way, Woroni sat down with former ANU academic and Independent candidate for the Senate Kim Rubenstein in the federal election. We discussed Kim’s approach to a federal ICAC, climate action plan, and how her background in academia informs her candidacy.

Woroni: So, first of all, what motivates you to run for the Senate, and what informed your decision to run as an independent?

Kim: The independent part is key to what’s motivating me to run. Throughout my academic life […] all of my work as an academic has always been linked into public policy output, in terms of my citizenship work, my government accountability work. To do that in a way that is relevant to both parties, it’s always been key for me to be independent and to give my expert opinion to […] whoever’s in Government, and to critique both sides, and that’s been consistent for 25 years. 

This has been the first time that I’ve felt that I could stay true to myself in running in a campaign as an independent.. Helen Haines and Cathy McGowan in Indi were […] part of that foundation […] for me, seeing that people were taking independents seriously. Here was an opportunity for me to stay true to myself and put my hand up.. 

And second thing is, all of the things I’ve been working on have really amplified over COVID-19. Questions to do with integrity and accountability in Government, and the rorting and the whittling down of really key structures like Freedom of Information and tribunals, that’s all got worse and worse over the last few years. So I feel like my expertise is ready to be used inside of parliament. 

And then the third thing is very personal for me, in the sense that I’ve always been an advocate for women in parliament, and I’ve actually written about it in a constitutional sense. But, with a growing family throughout my academic life, the thought of going into politics was not attractive because of the sacrifices that it would involve – plus also party politics never looked particularly attractive to me. So I’d felt like I could balance work and life in a valuable contribution through public policy as an academic, and I see that role as one that is a really great expression of active citizenship. But for the first time, I could use that in a way that is authentic to me, without sacrificing family, by putting my hand up for the Senate. 

W: What differentiates you from other progressive candidates? For example, why would voters preference you over Labor or the Greens?

K: We have an opportunity for the first time in the Senate to really empower people to elect an independent, in the sense that we know that there are a lot of people that are dissatisfied with the parties. And part of my critique is that parties are actually part of the problem at the moment, that the really toxic adversarial nature of decision making in our parliament has been a real hurdle to really key important issues. So running as an independent is a differentiator from the parties ’cause I’m not gonna be caught up in the party political system; I’ll be directly representing Canberrans. 

And then, of course, there’s another independent in the running, and [we have] different backgrounds and styles. He’s a very decent person, and it reminds people that it’s really important to think about this race. Because of our differences, people can see that I’ve been doing this stuff for the last 25 years and I’m ready to roll from day one. We only get three years as a Senator for the ACT, so every day is going to be really important.

W: You’ve mentioned that one of your key policy priorities is climate action. What specific policies are you advocating for in this area? You’ve also mentioned a desire to help industrialising economies transition to renewable power. How do you think we will achieve this?

K: We [can]  look at the climate in three areas: our own reduction of emissions,  our export and industry, and then do we support those communities that have been relying on that export, that we need to transition to renewables, to transition in a way that is socially cohesive [and] not disruptive. 

Next week [at time of interview] I’m issuing my climate policy […] it is quite an exciting initiative, that links in these three things, that is ultimately about what we need to do as soon as parliament sits. If I’m holding the balance of power in the Senate, [it] could really be a trigger for real climate change action immediately.

Note: see Kim’s climate policy here 

W: What do you see as the most pressing issues impacting students at the moment, and how would you advocate for students in parliament?

K: Coming from the academic sector myself, I think the support for higher education needs much greater attention. It’s both at the student level and also at the academic level. [This includes] funding for academics in terms of research, impartial decision making about research funding and government not interfering with peer review of good research, and then just in terms of the support for all different disciplinary endeavours at university. 

Universities have a positive output in terms of the technical aspects of things that may flow for society, but it is also about really enriching the nation on ideas and using universities as a basis for real entrepreneurship in an intellectual sense, as well as in a practical sense. he last period over successive governments has seen a diminishing of the value of the university in a democratic society that plays into both the support for students’ breadth of interest in what they want to study, plus also support for the independence of the academy in actually pushing us in society to think outside of the box. 

W: Housing affordability is a prominent issue at the moment, especially for students attempting to rent in Canberra. How would you address the lack of affordable and accessible housing in the Territory?

K: There are three parts to the housing problem. There is, of course, accessibility, the cost of housing, and the increase over the last year of around 20% in the cost of entering the market, so that’s prohibitive. Then, the skyrocketing of rental prices makes it just so difficult for people who are not even able to think about entering the housing market but just the affordability in a rental sense. The third part is social housing, we have almost 40,000 people living in poverty, which is a remarkable number in Canberra, and so access to housing is key. 

So all of those three things relate back to both a mix of policy and funding – and this is probably going to be a common answer to things that are perhaps generally more local, ACT Government as opposed to federal – but the reality is that the financial models of federal funding for each of the states and territories has always been an imbalanced one, in terms of the Commonwealth raising the taxes and expenditure. The problem in the ACT is because we’ve always had safe seats in terms of the lower house and the strong Labor support, but also a Liberal and Labor in the Upper House, the parties have never taken Canberra that seriously. So we haven’t had our proper fair share of funding in that federal-territory balance. 

So, the policy that I announced last week is one that will address this both specifically but also even more fundamentally, and that is to increase the number of Senators for the ACT. It’s very difficult for the small parties or independents when you’ve only got two seats, but if we double that, it really would, as a matter of proportional representation, make it more straightforward for Canberrans to be properly represented. So it’s not just about self-interest for independents. It’s really about the community having proportional representation in a way that reflects that range of interests, which would then have the flow-on effect of making the parties take Canberra seriously because everything is up for grabs.  

So from a housing perspective, changing the model will be of assistance. There’s so many examples around the world of different collaborative frameworks for government and individuals, co-owning and being able to buy out, or rental frameworks.

You know, more social housing type options that we could experiment with. And I think we’d be able to if we had a bit more clout.

W: You’ve also stated your intent to support the establishment of a federal ICAC; what powers do you think this ICAC needs to be effective? Do you support the current proposed model under the Coalition Government, the proposed model led by Independent MP Helen Haines or a different model?

K: We’ve only got to this point of even needing to have to discuss an ICAC because of the breakdown of a lot of the institutional safeguards that had been put in place in the 1970s and 1980s, things like Freedom of Information legislation and independent Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Ombudsman’s office. 

Now, all those things were set up to keep the balance between those who have power and those of us who vote in those who have power in between elections. The idea that your representatives are continually accountable to you, because you can get access to information, or you can go to a tribunal to review a decision, or you can get the Ombudsman to investigate things. Over the last 15 or so years, both sides of Government have really been whittling away those structures. So I don’t know if you know, but last week they announced for the first time in seven years an FOI Commissioner being appointed.

[With] the Administrative Appeals Tribunal last week […] they just appointed a whole lot of former politicians and advisors that goes against any semblance. My starting point about integrity and an independent commission is we will need it less if we actually reinstate the things that are there to help remind politicians about the culture of service and accountability.

I think [the] Helen Haines bill itself is a really good model to work on. She got advice through the Law Council. I’m more than happy to be sitting down and assisting that get through the Senate. 

W: How do you think your background as an academic in constitutional and administrative law informs your approach to politics? As a member of the ANU community, do universities need more support? 

K: The whole frame of me being an academic is really consistent with me wanting to have a go at this, in that I’ve been thinking about, and writing about, and commenting about our legal, constitutional frameworks, which are foundational to how parliament works and all those integrity issues that we’ve just talked about. And then also on citizenship matters, about membership of the community. 

It totally informs me wanting to go into parliament in that I’ve got to the point where I really feel that that skillset and background will actually be of value to every piece of legislation that goes through the Senate. I’ll have that sort of holistic frame to analyse as to how that fits in our liberal democratic framework.And then, from a policy perspective, how it fits with liberal democratic values. 

W: You’ve done a lot of work around representation of women. I believe you’re a member of the ANU Gender Institute and the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation. How does that influence your approach to female representation in politics, and how would you work to ensure parliament is representative, especially when it comes to gender?

K: One of the first pieces I wrote as a junior academic in 1995 was about gender and representation in our constitutional system. [I] advocated that you could make a case, constitutionally, that to be a truly representative democracy, you needed equal numbers of women. The concept of more diversity in parliament is not only along gender lines but also about our multicultural society. It’s time to have more women’s voices from a diverse range of backgrounds.

 [In] the last few years, the sharing of what Parliament House has been like to work in has reinforced profound issues that we need to confront about gender in society, more broadly, violence and bullying and a very toxic culture. The more diverse parliament is, the more likely we are to have a more equitable framework. You need parliament to set the standard in the way that the Kate Jenkins report titled it. 

W: What’s your favourite walk/hike in Canberra? 

K: I live not far from the base of Red Hill, and walking up Red Hill is a real treat. It’s a treat physically [because] it’s quite a steep incline, so you’ve got 10 minutes of that heart-pumping stuff, and you invariably see kangaroos and so forth. You’d get to the top, and you’ve got that majestic view back over Parliament. And, you know, across to Mount Ainslie and across the airport. 

W: And the last one, what is your favourite pub/cafe/restaurant in Canberra?

K: Oh, I thought you said place! Can I add into my answer that Manuka Pool is one of my favourites? It was the first outdoor pool to be built in Canberra when it became the capital […], and it’s just the most wonderful, wonderful place.

As a family, our favourite place is Yogi’s Indian Kitchen in Barton, and I love the chai at Typica in Manuka. 

This article forms part of Woroni’s ongoing election coverage. Interviews with other candidates will be published over the coming weeks.