For Claire Ferres Miles, politics is personal. The chief executive officer of Sustainability Victoria had her last working day on Friday, 25 February, after resigning so she could focus on being elected as the next federal member for Casey, in Victoria.
“I’ve been watching and waiting to find ambition on climate change and the urgency is becoming more critical … I couldn’t wait any longer. I felt I had to step forward on that issue alone,” Ferres Miles says.
“Sometimes you have to be brave, you actually have to step forward to use the skills and values you have in terms of what’s important.”
It is a brave move. As she told The Age: “For the next three months, I do not have a salary, our family does not have an income — because I work full-time and my husband, Colin, runs the house. We have five children … so obviously they are a bit apprehensive as to how we’re going to pay the bills. But they also get it — they are actively interested in the world around them, and their number one issue is our changing climate.”
The seat of Casey encompasses some of the most stunning places within reach of Melbourne, the Yarra Valley, a renowned wine region, and the Dandenong Ranges, as well as outer suburbs. It was greatly affected by the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 when 173 Victorians died. Last year, it was hit by extreme storms.
In an interview with The Fifth Estate Ms Ferres Miles said: “We lost 25,000 trees across the electorate, the landscape is unrecognisable because of loss of trees. There were 4000 homes that were without power for months … there is still community trauma … people lost homes, lost incomes …”
It was the response to this disaster which also deeply concerned the community. “We didn’t have a plan, we put up poles and wires again … we weren’t ready … we built old world infrastructure that another storm will take out again.”
In so many vital ways, Australia is lacking leadership, she said, mentioning how embarrassed she felt as an Australian when the COP26 summit was held in Glasgow last year.
If elected, then action on climate change will be a top focus. As well as doing much more to minimise climate change, she says at a local level, for the seat of Casey, this means being much more resilient, being more prepared and responding quickly when extreme events occur so “we can recover a lot quicker”.
Ferres Miles has her sights set on the “public stewardship of public money”. While CEO of Sustainability Victoria she oversaw a $100 million portfolio. “I am very proud of the fact that it is done through science and evidence … we allocated money according to the highest need and highest impact. When I look to the federal government, I don’t see the same level of integrity. I’ve lost count of the number of rorts at the moment. It’s entirely unacceptable. Most people I’ve spoken to feel appalled.
“It appears elected representatives have too much discretion to make funding decisions over and above the frank and fearless advice the public service is giving. It’s unclear on what criteria they are making decisions … I have never been part of a discussion where the politics of an electorate is part of the discussion … there is a huge gap between what I believe is due process and what is occurring.”
If elected, Ferres Miles says she will be working for the establishment of an Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Another issue that has had her “yelling at the television”, is the treatment of women in the federal parliament.
“My career has been about leading a happy and psychologically safe workplace.
“I find it really confronting that such unacceptable behaviour is occurring.”
Her solution? “We need more women in the building.”
And, of course, the implementation of recommendations from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkin’s report Respect@Work.
Becoming the next federal member for Casey as an independent will be a huge challenge. The seat has been Liberal since 1984. However, the highly-esteemed MP Tony Smith is retiring and won’t be recontesting.
A benefit already being felt by Ferres Miles, her campaign team and volunteers is how much better they are all feeling — there has been a real boost to mental health as despair and apathy are transformed into positive action.
“It gives you hope that our government can be better,” she said. “I went from feeling pretty depressed to meeting people that wanted a different model. I felt much more positive and hopeful by action.
“People are genuinely excited,” she says. “It has been an Incredibly positive, uplifting movement. I can say it’s a completely joyous experience, people are so excited about supporting an independent candidate.”