Aus­tralia’s for­mer Gov­er­nor-gen­eral Dame Quentin Bryce on why she’s de­ter­mined to im­prove the lives of chil­dren and mums.

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Photography JAMIE HANSON Words KYLIE LANG

Golden au­tumn light streams into the ele­gant cor­ner of­fice of Dame Quentin Bryce. The third-floor space, in a hand­some her­itage build­ing on the Queens­land Univer­sity of Technology cam­pus, com­mands sweep­ing views of the City Botanic Gar­dens and, just after 4pm ev­ery day, the kook­abur­ras be­gin to laugh, their cho­rus si­lenc­ing the ca­coph­ony of chat­ter­ing stu­dents below.

“How beau­ti­ful it is,” trills Bryce, sip­ping gin­ger tea from a pretty pur­ple gilt-rimmed cup. “I just love be­ing back on cam­pus; it is so vi­va­cious and en­er­getic here.”

Look­ing al­most ethe­real in an ivory Col­lette Din­ni­gan frock em­bel­lished with daisies and dia­man­tés, large sil­ver ear­rings glint­ing be­neath her coif­fured blonde bob, one of Aus­tralia’s most recog­nised women is de­lighted to be talk­ing about her favourite sub­ject: chil­dren.

“Chil­dren have been the fo­cus of my life, all my life,” she says. “What­ever else I might have been do­ing, chil­dren, not just my own chil­dren but all chil­dren, have been at the cen­tre.

“Dur­ing my re­cent work on do­mes­tic vi­o­lence [as chair of a Queens­land govern­ment task­force], I’ve just con­stantly said to my­self at the end of the day, ‘What about the chil­dren?’”

At 74, Aus­tralia’s for­mer governorgeneral and grand­mother of 11 (with num­ber 12 on the way) couldn’t be more pleased with her role as an am­bas­sador for the Mur­doch Chil­drens Re­search In­sti­tute (MCRI).

“I find it ex­hil­a­rat­ing.” she says. “We sit there rapt when these top sci­en­tists come in and talk about their work, and we feel quite at ease ask­ing the same ques­tions – can you just ex­plain again about those stem cells?”

The “we” is a co­hort of em­i­nent Aus­tralian women ded­i­cated to rais­ing aware­ness about the Mel­bourne-based in­sti­tute, now in its 31st year.

There’s Dame Marie Bashir (for­mer gov­er­nor of New South Wales), Paula Fox (wife of truck­ing mag­nate Lind­say Fox), Ros Packer (widow of me­dia baron Kerry Packer), Jeanne Pratt (widow of pack­ag­ing and re­cy­cling king Richard Pratt), Lady Prim­rose Pot­ter (arts ad­min­is­tra­tor and widow of Sir Ian Pot­ter), Frances Un­der­wood (widow of Gov­er­nor of Tas­ma­nia Peter Un­der­wood), Jean Miller (prop­erty de­vel­oper) and Janet Calvert-jones, daugh­ter of the in­sti­tute’s co-founder Dame Elis­a­beth Mur­doch (son Ru­pert is ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of News Corp, pub­lisher of this mag­a­zine).

Their com­bined life ex­pe­ri­ence, phil­an­thropic pas­sion, po­lit­i­cal nous and busi­ness acu­men is for­mi­da­ble.

As for the MCRI di­rec­tor Pro­fes­sor Kathryn North, a whip-smart

pae­di­a­tri­cian, neu­rol­o­gist and clin­i­cal ge­neti­cist, Bryce en­thuses, “We’re all madly in love with her.”

Far from be­ing a mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion so­ci­ety, how­ever, the Coun­cil of Am­bas­sadors “gets down to busi­ness”, host­ing fundrais­ers to sup­port the in­sti­tute’s ground­break­ing re­search into al­ler­gies, ge­net­ics and a new ro­tavirus vac­cine tipped to save mil­lions of ba­bies world­wide.

One event on April 20 in Mel­bourne raised more than $1 mil­lion, a por­tion of that from the auc­tion of an orig­i­nal paint­ing by Bris­bane-based artist Pip Spiro who, as a mother of a healthy 10-month old girl, didn’t hes­i­tate to con­trib­ute to the cause.

Bryce says the power of fe­male col­lab­o­ra­tion is “one of life’s most won­der­ful things”.

Look­ing back, she first ex­pe­ri­enced it as a 20-some­thing mother with five chil­dren, one of whom was des­per­ately sick.

“Our youngest, Tom, had a blood dis­ease, aplas­tic anaemia, when he was a tod­dler, and in those days 95 per cent of chil­dren died from leukaemia. There is noth­ing as scary, that fills you with such fear and anx­i­ety, as hav­ing a child that’s ill,” she says, her voice grow­ing faint.

If it takes a vil­lage to raise a child, then her vil­lage was St Lu­cia, in Bris­bane’s leafy west. She still calls it her “patch” – she and ar­chi­tect-de­signer hus­band Michael, 78, now live in the neigh­bour­ing sub­urb of In­dooroop­illy.

“Be­fore I was 30 I had five chil­dren, which wasn’t such a dif­fer­ent pic­ture back then. Our whole neigh­bour­hood were fam­i­lies with four or more chil­dren, and they were out on the streets play­ing.

“Through our moth­er­ing, it’s the friend­ships and con­nec­tions we make, when we’re re­ally de­pend­ing on each other. We all have ups and downs,

wor­ries and anx­i­eties, and all moth­ers need to be re­as­sured and en­cour­aged.”

QUENTIN ALICE LOUISE Stra­chan was born in Bris­bane at Tur­rawan Hos­pi­tal (now the board­ing house for Clay­field Col­lege) on De­cem­ber 23, 1942.

She was the third of four chil­dren for Nor­man Stra­chan and Ed­wina Wet­zel. Trag­i­cally, Bryce’s im­me­di­ate el­der sis­ter died from “a con­di­tion that to­day would be di­ag­nosed and treated. I don’t re­ally talk about it… fam­i­lies my age, par­tic­u­larly peo­ple in re­mote and ru­ral Aus­tralia, all have stories like that, and we marvel at the sci­ence to­day.”

Her early child­hood was spent in Il­fra­combe, near Lon­greach in Cen­tral West Queens­land, be­fore the fam­ily moved briefly to Tas­ma­nia and then to Bris­bane, where Bryce at­tended Camp Hill State School and later boarded at More­ton Bay Col­lege.

At 17, she be­gan study­ing law at the Univer­sity of Queens­land – one of only two women in her co­hort – and was ad­mit­ted to the bar in 1965, a year after mar­ry­ing Michael Bryce, whom she knew in pri­mary school.

Chil­dren Jack, Revy, Ru­pert, Chloe and Tom fol­lowed in 1966, ’67, ’69, ’71 and ’73 re­spec­tively. “From be­ing a young mother in the com­mu­nity with my neigh­bours, it be­came more than that, it be­came po­lit­i­cal,” ex­plains Bryce, who tu­tored at the Univer­sity of Queens­land Law School from 1968 un­til 1983 and helped set up the cam­pus kindy to help other moth­ers pur­sue their ca­reers.

“In the 1970s there was a big move­ment to en­hance hos­pi­tal poli­cies for fam­i­lies. Back then, par­ents weren’t al­lowed to stay overnight with their chil­dren – it was con­sid­ered a very rad­i­cal thing – and I be­came the first na­tional pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion for the Wel­fare of Chil­dren in Hos­pi­tal. We were tak­ing on doc­tors, nurses and health pro­fes­sion­als and it took a lot of per­sua­sion and meet­ings, and all that won­der­ful com­mu­nity ac­tivism and en­gage­ment, peo­ple work­ing to­gether. Now hos­pi­tals are full of par­ents help­ing care for their lit­tle ones.”

It is clear from the ex­cite­ment in her voice that Bryce loves net­work­ing and ag­i­tat­ing for change.

It is re­flected in her trail­blaz­ing achieve­ments and ap­point­ments, which in­clude: in­au­gu­ral di­rec­tor of the Queens­land Women’s In­for­ma­tion Ser­vice; fed­eral sex dis­crim­i­na­tion com­mis­sioner; found­ing chair and CEO of the Na­tional Child­care Ac­cred­i­ta­tion Coun­cil; gov­er­nor of Queens­land for five years; and, of course, Aus­tralia’s first fe­male gov­er­nor-gen­eral.

Her ca­reer, while not with­out con­tro­versy, has been de­fined by push­ing bound­aries and chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo.

This is some­thing she has tried to pass on to her chil­dren as they raise fam­i­lies of their own.

Bryce’s daugh­ter Chloe, who is mar­ried to Fed­eral Op­po­si­tion Leader Bill Shorten, has just re­leased a book on blended fam­i­lies, Take Heart: A Story For Mod­ern Step­fam­i­lies.

Mum couldn’t be more proud. “It’s thor­oughly re­searched and very per­sonal, as well,” Bryce says. “It’s a book she says she wished that she’d had when go­ing through the ex­tra­or­di­nary change that many peo­ple do for a blended fam­ily [Chloe has two teenage chil­dren from her first mar­riage, and a seven-year-old daugh­ter with Shorten].


“It’s a very good book… but she re­leased it the same week as mine!” she says, roar­ing with laugh­ter.

Her book, Dear Quentin: Let­ters Of A Gov­er­nor-gen­eral, is a rich col­lec­tion of cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Bryce and the peo­ple she met dur­ing her six-year term, with roy­al­ties go­ing to the MCRI.

One let­ter is to Lucy Mar­shall, who wrote to Bryce after a SA Ru­ral Women’s Gath­er­ing in 2009. Mar­shall ques­tioned her iden­tity, hav­ing given up a ca­reer in which she was known for her pro­fes­sional achieve­ments to be­ing known as some­one’s wife and mother. “It has made me won­der if fem­i­nism has sold me a pup,” Bryce says. And has it? Bryce be­lieves women can have it all, but not at the same time.

“I’m so amazed by the ca­pac­ity of young moth­ers to­day to be out with their tiny ba­bies. Gosh, I was in my pink che­nille dress­ing gown for three months when I had a baby!

“These days fam­i­lies are so much more mo­bile, and moth­ers don’t have around them the grand­par­ents they used to, and more women have ca­reers that are thriv­ing.

“Re­mem­ber, you have a long time ahead. It’s im­por­tant to keep in touch with your pro­fes­sional life, but you can’t do ev­ery­thing. The ad­vice I al­ways give is: ev­ery time baby goes in the bas­ket, mother gets on the bed!

“You must take care of your­self – it’s eas­ier to be a workaholic than it is to have a dis­ci­plined life, where you leave space to look after your­self.”

So what does re­lax­ation look like to Quentin Bryce?

“I do yoga, I walk and I swim; oh, and I read, but more and more I lis­ten to mu­sic. I es­pe­cially love the great cello and vi­olin con­cer­tos – I dig through my CDS and find some­thing like El­gar’s Cello Con­certo In E Mi­nor, and then I play it again and again. But I also like new mu­sic: I love Deb­o­rah Con­way.”

Hav­ing spent all of April trav­el­ling to pro­mote her book – “I find it nerver­ack­ing, but I’m very de­ter­mined to get the book out there to sup­port the in­sti­tute” – Bryce is happy that May looks to be a gen­tler month.

Just don’t ex­pect her to re­tire any­time soon. “Re­tire is a word that doesn’t have much mean­ing. There are so many things to do – I of­ten say I don’t know how I had time to ever go to work.”

Bryce will host a pri­vate event at Philip Ba­con Gal­leries in Bris­bane to­mor­row, but come Mother’s Day next week, it will be all about fam­ily. “There are five moth­ers and me, and other grand­par­ents, too. We’ll all get to­gether, per­haps just not all at once, be­cause there are a lot of us.”

She says Mother’s Day is for all moth­ers. “I trav­elled to 55 coun­tries when I was gov­er­nor-gen­eral and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve walked away from things where peo­ple are fac­ing dis­ad­van­tage and tough gul­lies, and how of­ten I’ve thought, ‘Thank God for moth­ers who hang in there.’

“I sup­pose I re­flect on these things a lot – hope­fully, I’ve be­come wiser with ex­pe­ri­ence and I think that as you get older, you have a stronger sense of self, and as el­ders, a big re­spon­si­bil­ity not just for our own chil­dren, but for all chil­dren.”

GRANDE DAME Quentin Bryce rel­ishes her role as a cham­pion for chil­dren; (below) with artist Pip Spiro.

DY­NAMIC DUO (from left) Chloe Shorten hugs Bryce as she is farewelled as governorgeneral; mother and daugh­ter are now both pub­lished au­thors.

GRAND­MOTHER GEN­ERAL Bryce with daugh­ter Chloe and some of her 11 grand­chil­dren.

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