Lara Giddings made plenty of sacrifices to serve the state – including giving up on love and hurting her chances of having kids. But now, with a loving partner by her side, her dream of becoming a mum will soon come true
Lara Giddings opens up about her career, relationships and being pregnant at 44
The nausea reminds Lara Giddings of a 10-week voyage to Antarctica 20 years ago, when she was invited aboard the icebreaker Aurora Australis. This time the sickness is of the poorly named morning variety: a 24-hour-a-day queasiness indicating the 44-year-old former premier is joyously pregnant. Our interview location is the new MACq01 hotel and Giddings happens to be looking across to the orange hulk of the Aurora as she reflects cheerily on her inability to hold down much besides plain white rice. As with Antarctica, the end result more than makes up for the discomfort of the journey. And, she notes, “you always feel so much better after a good vomit”. Her smiling hazel eyes are striking as they reflect the glittering water.
Throughout her parliamentary career, Giddings has been protective of her private life, never allowing interviews at her home or even photographs, as many politicians do. However, she has made no secret of her desire to have a family and has been vocal in encouraging other career women not to leave it too late.
In revealing her news exclusively to TasWeekend, Giddings, who is now about a month into her second trimester, wants to emphasise the realities of trying to start a family post-40. She speaks candidly about the uphill battle she faced in falling pregnant, and her thankfulness at meeting a partner who was willing to try for a baby early in their relationship.
“I feel if you’re going to be an inspiration to young women and hopefully young men as well, it’s important they get the whole picture,” Giddings says. “You can have a very successful career that’s very fulfilling, but if you do want to have children you have to think about how you bring them into your career plan.”
She aims her message at men as well, noting women can be encouraged by their partners to put off babies until all the travel, house and career plans have been ticked off.
A reality Giddings wants to drive home is that for women in their mid-40s, the chances of conceiving using their own eggs are slim. Women should start early or, if that is not possible, consider freezing their eggs – preferably by age 32 – to keep their options open, she says. Giddings went through 12 months of IVF hormones before conceding her body was no longer producing eggs.
“It hasn’t been an easy journey,” she says. “Part of that was coming to terms with the fact I had gone into perimenopause, probably through the stress of being premier and the workload that it carried. For me, it was a grieving process, coming to terms with the fact I couldn’t have my own child with my own egg.
“But through the gorgeous generosity of women out there who have been prepared to donate eggs, that has given me and Ian a choice to create our own child with the help of a donor.”
Giddings’ partner of about two-and-a-half years is Ian Magill, 40, a Sydney-born pharmacist who grew up in Queensland and settled in Tasmania 12 years ago. He owns a pharmacy at Geeveston and a health-food shop at Huonville. The pair first crossed paths at a public meeting when Giddings’ Labor government was still in power. Magill spoke out at the meeting against a health policy that affected the availability of certain medications and he remembers rolling his eyes at the typical politicians’ response Giddings provided. She, on the other hand, was impressed. “I remember him being quite feisty with me and thinking, ‘Oh, you’re quite nice, I quite like you’,” Giddings says. “But he was married and I saw the wedding ring and thought, ‘Oh well, you’re out of bounds’.”
While premier, Giddings gave up on finding love. “I did have a relationship while I was premier and it wasn’t easy because if you go out for dinner everybody’s looking at you,” she says. “When my partner at the time came to a film opening with me and ended up in the paper with the headline ‘Who’s Lara Giddings’ man?’ I think that was very difficult for him to deal with,” she says. “When that relationship broke down I guess I gave up on even trying to look for a partner.”
When she and Magill met again, brought together by a shared passion for legalising medicinal cannabis, his marriage had ended. Giddings, as a shadow minister, had relatively more time on her hands and was less in the spotlight. Her electorate officer played the role of “wing woman” and lined up a date. “I got off a plane from China to a text message to say, ‘I’ve found you this really gorgeous, intelligent, single, handsome pharmacist, would you like to have lunch with him on Wednesday?’” Giddings says.
Whether this lunch was their first date is a point of friendly contention between Giddings and Magill. In fact, he jokes that they “painfully agree on almost everything – except the number of dates we’ve had”. In his view it was not a date because they were “chaperoned” by the matchmaking staffer (“She knew I would bolt if she didn’t come along,” Giddings says).
However, he did arrive with half a dozen red roses. “It’s difficult meeting a person who is strong and probably knows everything about everything,” Magill says. “So I went to the florist and said, ‘I need some roses, but I don’t want it to be a romantic gesture’. The florist just looked at me and laughed.”
The Centrepoint florist who armed Magill with six “nonromantic” red roses no doubt played a role in how swiftly the relationship moved. As Giddings says, when you are over 40 and keen to have a baby, there is no time to play hard to get. “He hadn’t even got back to his truck (after the lunch) before I texted him ‘I’m free Friday night if you are’” she says.
For Magill, this baby will be number five. He has nine-year-old twin boys, Oliver and Christopher (Kiki), Ginger, 6, and Jaxson, 2. The older children live with their mother in Victoria, while Magill and Giddings have Jaxson every other week.
“I think it’s amazing,” says Magill of his soon-to-be-extended family. “It was pretty much from our first date that we talked about it (trying for a baby) which is a bit strange.”
To clarify, it was over dinner at Mures Upper Deck, not the chaperoned lunch meeting, when Giddings spoke of her regret at not having children.
MY ONLY REGRET WAS NOT BEING ABLE TO HAVE CHILDREN
“It came out of a conversation about pursuing our dreams and I said to him how my only regret was not being able to have my own children and he turned to me and said, ‘Well, you’re not too old’,” she says.
“Luckily for me I’ve found a man who loves children, who was willing to go down a path with me very early in our relationship.”
Within months they were visiting IVF specialist Bill Watkins’ Hobart clinic. “I think that was our fourth date,” Magill jokes.
Giddings announced in May she was stepping down at the next election, refusing to bow to internal Labor party pressure to retire early to make way for former MP David O’Byrne.
O’Byrne is once again running for the seat of Franklin and a pre-election return to Parliament could have helped his chances. “I wanted to be able to choose my own time to retire and not have other people push me out,” Giddings says.
She has experience in staring down her detractors within the party. Ahead of the 2014 election, in the wake of gloomy polling, Giddings faced pressure to hand over the role of premier to O’Byrne. Labor was on the nose after forming an alliance with the Greens, and O’Byrne, a minister at the time, was seen by some within the party as the only hope of survival. Ultimately, however, there was no leadership challenge and O’Byrne lost his seat when the Hodgman Liberal Party won government.
“I don’t think like that,” says Giddings at the suggestion her refusal to retire early was payback for the earlier undermining of her leadership. “Politics is politics and I don’t hold any grudges.”
After her party’s defeat in 2014, Giddings conceded the role of Labor leader to her deputy Bryan Green. While she says this was politically bruising at the time, in hindsight she is grateful. “It gave me 12 months to get over the adrenalin you have pumping through your system as leader and it enabled me to create the space in my life to meet Ian,” she says. “I look back and think, ‘Thanks Bryan’.”
Political scientist Associate Professor Kate Crowley at the University of Tasmania says Giddings is being too generous. “The treatment of Lara Giddings was misogynistic,” Crowley says. “She was Tasmania’s first female premier, she did a skilled job of leading minority government, but she was expected to stand down as thanks. She topped the poll in Franklin and then was bundled out.”
Crowley says Giddings’ achievements in steering the state through the tumultuous post-GFC years and an inherited budget mess have been “entirely glossed over”. “This sends a poor message about the nature of Tasmanian Labor. It also sends a poor message to other female leaders,” she says.
Giddings will not hear a bad word about the party she joined at 18. And while she has spoken before of the extra effort she had to put in because she was a woman, she says she never faced the outright misogyny directed at former prime minister Julia Gillard.
It is worth noting, though, it was always men who dubbed Giddings “La La” while she was premier. This fairly lame attempt at an insult stemmed from Giddings’ mild but stubborn refusal to go back on unpopular policies such as savage health cuts, which she saw as vital to improving the state’s bleak finances. “I actually started calling myself La La as a little girl before I could say Lara so it never bothered me, that sort of pettiness,” Giddings says.
She inherited the role of premier from David Bartlett in early 2011 but it was Bartlett’s predecessor Paul Lennon who taught her the most about backing her decisions and fronting an angry crowd. In 2007, as health minister, Giddings copped abuse at a particularly heated public meeting about the closure of a rural health facility. She brushed off police advice and stayed until she had spoken to the last person in the room. Outside the hospital someone let off firecrackers at her feet.
It was all water off a duck’s back for Giddings, who grew up in Papua New Guinea amid rioting and violence, followed by the vastly different but also brutal world of an elite boarding school for girls in Melbourne. By the time she was first elected in 1996 at 23, the youngest woman to be elected to any parliament in Australia, she was prepared for the rough and tumble of politics.
“I was 12, going on 13, when I was sent to boarding school and I think that’s part of the reason I’ve been able to develop a tough skin,” she says of the schoolyard bullies who derided what she calls her “goody two shoes” nature. “One of the things that got me through was, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, names will never harm me’, and I’ve carried that throughout my life.
“The other was, ‘I’ll run my own race’. I was the kid who didn’t have Levi jeans and when all the other girls were shaving their legs I refused to. If they slipped out on a Saturday night and went nightclubbing I would stay back at the boarding house and say, ‘If that’s what you want to do, you do that, it’s not my scene’.”
Giddings’ older sister Sonya was four years ahead at Methodist Ladies College and recalls young Lara’s “dogged refusal” to bow to peer pressure. Their father, a magistrate in PNG, and mother, who set up the island nation’s probationary service, had taught the girls to steer their own path. “She was strong enough never to sway to that pressure and she was bullied for that,” Sonya says. “I remember one girl who was a real bully. But Lara was always well-liked and held in high regard.”
Even now, Sonya notes she has never heard any dirt on her sister, which is quite remarkable for a politician in a small city. She expects this may have something to do with Giddings’ legendary ability to hold her alcohol, a trait that proved useful while she was premier, particularly in places such as China where downing whisky shots is a ritual of diplomacy.
Former economic adviser Richard Dowling agrees with Crowley that Giddings’ achievements as premier have been largely overlooked. Her attempts at bringing in marriage equality and euthanasia laws in Tasmania failed, but Dowling argues his old boss played a key role in “building up momentum” for change.
“She pursued those social causes at great political cost,” says Dowling, referring to those who wanted Giddings to stick to core government business. “For more politically minded people that was a frustration, but she was iron-willed. She had a determination. She always said, ‘I don’t know why we can’t do more than one thing at a time’, and, ‘If it’s not a priority now, when is it?’.
“Those big social issues do take a long time and I think when we look back historically she will get a lot of credit for starting the debate.”
The baby is due in February, which is ideal timing given the election is likely to be held in March, although the Government is holding the exact date close to its chest.
At Bellerive’s Abundance cafe (their Howrah home is still off-limits), Giddings and Magill are totally at ease in the public eye. Holding hands on top of the table, they speak openly about the joys and challenges of “complicated families” and their plans for the future.
While Giddings will maintain an active behind-the-scenes role within Labor, Magill, who only recently joined the party, is considering a tilt at politics. “I have to give Lara a break first,” he hastens to add.
Seeing them so loved up, I cannot help asking if they have any plans to marry. It is clearly something that has come up in private between them but which they are not keen to spill the beans on just yet.
“It’s not something that’s in our thoughts at this point in time,” says Giddings, diplomatically, after some gentle ribbing of her partner. “Who knows what the future holds, but Ian and I have a beautiful relationship, he’s got beautiful children who have come into my life as well, and there are enough complications for us to work through at this point in time.
“Besides, I would want it to be a surprise if he ever proposed to me. I don’t want to be the modern woman who proposes to the man. I’m a bit old-fashioned like that.”
They are refreshingly not old-fashioned in their parenting, though. Giddings and Magill say their new son or daughter will always know they were created by three adults, not two. It was
fifth time lucky when the embryo created using a donor egg “finally held”, to use Giddings’ term.
With the blessing of their anonymous egg donor, with whom they have been in contact via TasIVF, they plan to introduce their child at an early age to the woman who has made their baby dreams come true.
“The biggest damage I’ve seen to children who are either adopted or as a result of a donation is the secrecy,” Giddings says. “Secrecy causes a lot of pain when that secret comes out, as it always will. I expect at some stage while the child is still young, at an appropriate age, we will introduce the child to the donor so that, too, is part of normal life, so they’re not having identity crises as they head into puberty.”
She hopes her candour may prompt other women to donate. “If I can, I would like to help encourage any other women who are thinking about donating eggs to do so, because you can make something that was impossible for a couple possible.”
When I speak with Sonya by phone she says her parents, now based near Hobart, are overjoyed at their youngest daughter’s news. “We know it’s been her heart’s desire,” she says.
“Lara gave up so much of her life to service the Tasmanian community and when she was told she had no eggs it seemed an incredible sacrifice, to have lost the chance to have a child. Thankfully, through the generosity of a donor she’s been able to realise that dream.”
Magill is in awe of Giddings’ forthright honesty, noting some other “celebrity mums” would not be so upfront about using donor eggs, potentially giving women unrealistic expectations. “I think she’s just an amazing person,” he says. “What you see in the public eye is how she is in private.”
The couple hope their story sends a powerful message about the diversity of loving families. “Three people making a baby is a beautiful thing,” Magill says.
Clockwise from above, Lara Giddings with, from left, father Rick, partner Ian Magill, mum Lynn and sister Sonya de Lacey; Giddings, as deputy premier in 2008, takes the opportunity to cuddle a baby at a community event at Bridgewater; and Giddings, as premier, makes a campaign speech before the 2014 election.