Where are they now? Cheryl Kernot, former leader of Australian Democrats

Cheryl Kernot, 67, was a household name in the 1990’s, gracing out TV screen on a daily basis. She was a successful politician for more than 11 years and in that time she set an inspiring example to young women everywhere. It was only after she retired from politics in 2002 and she wrote her autobiography when news of her affair with Gareth Evans was leaked and her life became a front page scandal.

For Cheryl, this is all behind her now. She is semi-retired and enjoys spending time with with her grandson and lives in sunny Port Stephens on the stunning NSW coast.

“It all comes together – it all works out in the end. But you have to be 60 to find out how it all works out.”

Enjoying semi-retirement
“I often think, my goodness – how did I get here? How did I get to this age? I think it’s like the John Lennon quote: Life keeps happening while you’re making other plans. . .,” she says. Then adds, “But it’s a lovely time. I don’t feel any social isolation because I had such a busy life. I really love my quiet time."

"I’ve moved back up to the Hunter Valley at Port Stephens. It is a beautiful part of the world. I think it’s each to their own but I am perfectly happy with my own company. I sometimes feel antisocial – after being in parliament it’s no wonder I enjoy not being at everyone else’s beck and call. But I feel it’s good to remain engaged with what’s going on and the way the world works – or doesn’t,” she says.

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Cheryl works at UNSW as the Director of Social Business at the Centre for Social Impact (Photo: Linkedin)

Still working for social change
You could describe Cheryl as a political activist and this hasn’t changed. Recently, she worked in the UK as the programme director for the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurs at the Said Business School at Oxford University and later, as the director of learning at the School for Social Entrepreneurs in London. After six years in these roles in the UK, she moved back to Australia and she’s now the Director of Social Business at the Centre for Social Impact, based at the University of NSW.

“What I do now is actually more about creating social change. I think that’s the main thing I wanted to achieve,” she says. “In my current role, I have to keep on top of government policy and I am interested in mentoring future leaders – and I like teaching.” Cheryl was originally a school teacher for over ten years before she went into politics. She also worked as a radio producer and press secretary before winning a Queensland Senate seat for the Australian Democrats in 1990.

Supporting positive business ideas
Cheryl is excited that what she does now still influences social impact. “We hear about the environmental impact or the financial impact of things, but it’s only now that we are starting to hear about the social impact so I am hoping Malcolm Turnbull is up to speed with the huge changes happening in cross sector partnership working,” she says.

“A prime example is a mattress recycling company called Soft Landing. The actual purpose of this company is to create employment for people who are at the bottom of the ‘getting a job’ ladder. Mattresses are just the vehicle.”

“It’s a social business. They don’t exist to make money for their shareholders,” she adds. “You don’t only have to have business for profit distribution. You can reinvest profits in social goals. The big bonus is they recycle every part of old mattresses. The foam gets sold as carpet underlay and the fabric gets shredded and goes into sports equipment. Councils love the way they reduce landfill.”

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Back when Cheryl Kernot was the Australia Democratic Leader in 1997. Brett Paterson (left),  Vicki Dimond (right) (Photo: Facebook)

Inspired by others
Constantly inspired by her teaching role, Cheryl adds, “I’ve been meeting the most amazing people in my course and I’ve enjoyed every single class I’ve taught. We have the most amazing mixture of people in each class. They might have been a lawyer or a corporate middle manager who just got fed up with it – they’re looking for some meaning in their lives. These people are my hope that the world’s not all the ‘doom and gloom’ we read about.”

“We’ve now got the first aboriginal graduate, Peter Cooley. He started a monthly market called the Blak markets for employing local aboriginal residents out at La Perouse at Bare Island, in Sydney. Now Westpac is backing him – he’s an example of someone who has come through this course,” she adds.

Still a political activist
Is Cheryl still a political activist? “I think politics is a bit paralysed at the moment. With what I’m doing now, I’m still creating social change. Even when you’re in politics, if you’re in the opposition and you don’t win for ten years, you’re not creating much change,” she says. “But politics is still deeply in my system. I watch Question Time when it’s on. I read everything – it’s in my genes. My grandfather was very interested in politics but he decided to work at campaign level.”

Change in the political arena
What does she think about the changes in the political arena over the past fifteen years? Cheryl says, “I think it’s become worse – I’m just wondering if Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten can rescue it like they say they want to. It’s become more personal and mean. I think the media used to report and now they comment a lot more. Every now and then I get people asking me to go back into politics and I just can’t do it while it’s like it is. But then I also think I’d still like to do more, somehow.”

Greatest achievements?
Proud of helping make paid parental leave a reality Cheryl adds, “We started the conversation about this at the Industrial Relations Commission so that parents were able to legitimately take leave to care for a sick child or elderly parents. I was pleased to be in the native title debate and to get through that was a challenge. Being nominated for Australian of the Year for bringing Style and Substance to Politics was great – largely because it was the ideas about politics that attracted me to it in the first place.”

“I’m a National Living Treasure of Australia – that was elected by national trust members so that means a lot to me,” she says. Then adds, “I really appreciate the fact people still come up to me these days and tell me it really meant a lot to them that I was there – in politics – and I was a woman. I was determined that women’s choices should be there in equal numbers. This wasn’t really something I set out to do but life handed it to me and I appreciate it now. You don’t realise what an impression it makes when younger women see you in the situations I was in.”

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Cheryl speaks to the vibrant community of students and alumni for the Centre for Social Impact (Photo: Twitter / Centre Social Impact)

Any regrets?
“I didn’t maintain a long term partnership. I think they’re very hard work when you’re in a job such as I was. I mean, there’s Kelly O’Dwyer in there with a 10-week old – I think she’ll be incredibly tired,” Cheryl adds.

“It’s up to us as a society to make sure the structures are there for women to contribute – as CEOs, in politics, on company boards. I know I used to hate leaving my daughter when I was going to Canberra. For the first couple of years it was very hard. Meeting times weren’t convenient for women. We need to be a lot more flexible,” she says.

How does she relax?
She’s quick to confess to a new interest in gardening: “I think I have a green thumb. I’m growing vegetables, strawberries, flowers. . . and I’m reading a lot and watching the cricket when it’s on.” Cheryl was one of Australia’s first female qualified cricket umpires but she hastens to add: “Narelle Grout (Wally’s daughter) qualified with me at the same time. I really love cricket and my grandson is showing an interest. I’m trying to keep up with him - it’s wonderful having a little person in my life again.”

(Feature image: Reportage Online)

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