Life & Symes

03 Feb 2018 Herald Sun, Melbourne (Weekend) by Alex White Entering politics may have been an accident, but Jaclyn Symes is hitting her straps JACLYN Symes never planned on being a politician. So it was a bit of a surprise in 2014 when she won the chance to run in the seat of Northern Victoria, the quiet country girl says. Especially as, only months before the polls, she was not even in the race. Symes lucky chance came in May 2014, when a Labor veteran rural candidate unexpectedly bowed out of the Upper House campaign after a health scare. With the clock ticking, the hunt for a Labor replacement was on and Symes hit the campaign trail almost overnight. This stuff just doesnt normally happen, she says, admitting she still pinches herself some days in parliament. The thing with politics is you cant really plan it, you dont know when your opportunities are going to present. Its not about choosing, its about being in the right place at the right time and having the right kind of support around you. Well regarded for her humility and hard work, Symes arrival in State Parliament did not come as a shock to those who knew her personally. Her former boss and one-time deputy leader of the State Government Robert Hulls believes Symes was born for the Victorian Parliament. She might describe herself as accidental but (politics) was always going to be a natural path for her, Hulls says. Hulls had seen something in the young industrial lawyer in 2007, when she appeared in his office applying for a job, exuding quiet confidence and with an infectious pursuit of social justice running in her veins. Years later he maintains she is a thoroughly decent person who is enormously passionate and has steely determination. Previously, Symes had worked as an industrial officer for the Australian Services Union but had grown weary of battling for employee rights in court. However, in government she thrived, shaping the legislation that would potentially protect hundreds of thousands of workers. But in 2010, Victorians went to the polls and delivered an unexpected, crushing blow to the Labor Party as John Brumbys government was spectacularly ousted. When the dust settled, Symes, one of the few advisers left with a job, transferred to Hulls Niddrie electoral office. Being in Opposition proved much quieter than government and soon after, Symes fell pregnant with the first of two children. Little did she know starting a family would set the scene for her next major career battle. Technically, the election loss changed her job title and she was shocked to find the legal loophole meant she no longer was entitled to maternity leave. She applied to the Victorian Parliament to grant her 14 weeks paid leave but the request was rejected by Liberal speaker Ken Smith. Outraged, Symes took the case to Fair Work Australia. Within days her battle hit the headlines and Liberal leader Ted Baillieu caved, stepping in to have the regulations changed. The move was pretty gutsy, according to Hulls, and the win put Symes name on the map in Victorian political circles. But Symes does not brag about the case, instead shrugging her shoulders and saying it simply was not fair. Months later, Hulls announced he was retiring from his inner-city seat and quietly approached Symes to run for preselection. Being in the spotlight had never been a dream for Symes, but she weighed the decision carefully, knowing deep down she could not be an adviser forever. When she told her husband, Gerard Collins, 41, she was making a tilt for the Lower House, he said it was not a great shock. She is smart as hell, he says, laughing. Collins and Symes had never discussed her being a politician, but he says, I knew eventually she would get a tap on the shoulder and if she did, she would go for it. But Symes first Victorian Parliament bid was over as quickly as it began. She was backed by Brumby to run in the northwestern suburbs safe seat, a coveted prize in Labor circles. But the preselection battle was a brutal factional war and eventually the Lower House spot was won by another former adviser, Ben Carroll, who had the blessing of former premier Steve Bracks. Symes, 39, has the utmost respect for Carroll, a fellow rising star in the Andrews government, but says the contest unearthed a desire to enter the halls of power. Missing out on Niddrie was tough. It made me realise I really wanted it, she says. Two years later, when the unexpected Upper House election spot opened up, Symes landed preselection easily. But on election night in 2014, she was gripped by anxiety a second loss would be devastating. It was a close contest for the Northern Victoria seats and Symes was one of the last MPs to have her win confirmed. Originally from Benalla, Symes family moved to Broadford in the heart of her electorate the rest of her family lovingly call it the halfway home. Symes blends effortlessly into the local community. She says that between parliament sittings her life is pretty quiet, attending community functions. But when parliament sits, life gets kind of wacky. In 2015 she was voted Legislative Council whip after embattled Cesar Melhem resigned. Her days are spent negotiating with the Greens and minor parties, a job she says can be hard and rewarding. In the end, we all get along well, but it is what it is, she says. Symes prefers the behind-the-scenes negotiation, rather than playing government attack dog in the chamber. When Victoria heads to the polls this year, Symes has flagged she will run again. She says she still has more to do, but as always, anything can happen. [email protected] THE THING WITH POLITICS IS YOU CANT REALLY PLAN IT Caption Text: Going places: Rising Labor star Jaclyn Symes at her rural Victorian home with husband Gerard Collins and children Archie, 5, and Philippa, 6. PICTURE SARAH MATRAYLicensed by Copyright Agency. You may only copy or communicate this work with a licence.