This is not a story about politics. This is not a story about Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating or the Labor or Liberal Parties. This is a story about The Lady of the House, Queensland’s first female Member of the House of Representatives (1980-1993), her life, her journey and those she met along the way. Her name is Elaine Darling MHR.
On many a Sunday, a tall elegant woman stands at the door of a local church. She smiles and warmly welcomes people as they arrive. She has seen many years and some memories have faded, but she holds volumes of treasured accounts from her extraordinary life, and from these accounts this story is drawn.
Born in Brisbane in 1936, Elaine was the second eldest of seven children. With so many children, it was often hard for the family to make ends meet. There were no financial supplements from the government in those days so making a living and feeding everyone proved difficult.
Despite her humble beginnings, Elaine speaks of a wonderful childhood filled with many happy memories. As a child, her family lived at the bottom of Ekibin Road. The rich people lived at the top.
“We never thought they were any better than us,” says Elaine. “The children in the neighbourhood would come down to our mango trees and gather mangoes with us. The tree was alive with kids.”
She remembers with great fondness going to the dump with her dad to hunt for treasures. She also loved going to Sunday School. Back in those days, church was very popular and most children went to Sunday School.
“I loved church, they were happy days,” says Elaine. She tells of a time when the young people went for a walk up a hill to a lagoon. Elaine thought it would be quicker to go straight through the middle of the lagoon than to go around it. That said, they had to fish her out and had a good laugh over it later.
As she entered her teen years, she enjoyed being part of the youth group and going to dances and balls at the legendary Cloudland Dance Hall in Bowen Hills. The young men had returned from the war and these were good days.
Her father, Jack Melloy, was very involved in politics. He was the State Member for the seat of Nudgee from 1960 – 1977 and Elaine grew up in a political atmosphere. It was a normal part of life to hand out pamphlets and be involved at election time, that’s just what their family did.
Growing up in a low income family gave her a strong drive to fight for justice. At the time, it was only the well-to-do who could afford to go to university.
“It was an assumption that they must’ve been clever to get their degree,” says Elaine. “They were a bit higher and they could go for the better jobs.”
When Gough Whitlam was elected as Prime Minister in 1974 and implemented free university education, Elaine welcomed it with open arms. At the age of 31, Elaine went to university and attained a BA, DipEd (QLD). This opened up many opportunities for her and she went on to become a teacher.
Her political background and drive to stand up for low income families lead her to follow in her father’s footsteps in the arena of politics.
In 1980, after door-knocking and campaigning, Elaine ran in, and won the seat of Lilley becoming the first female Federal member in the House of Representatives for Queensland.
“It is true that I was the first Queensland female Federal politician,” says Elaine. “Some people would make a big deal of it but I was brought up that you didn’t push yourself to the front. You didn’t go around telling people. We thought those people were braggers.”
On her first flight to Canberra, she was delighted to have Paul Keating ask her to sit up the front of the plane with him. She remembers him fondly.
“To those who knew him he was very clever and had a sense of humour,” Elaine recalls. “During parliament he would glide slowly across the floor to the central table where you speak from, then he’d let them have it. He would never shout but the whole house would go still when Keating spoke and he would get straight to the point and receive a good reaction from it.”
At that stage, there were only three female Members in the House of Representatives, Roz Kelly, Joan Childs and Elaine Darling. Elaine recalls a funny occasion when the women joined forces.
‘We’d been included as ‘gentlemen’ for some time so the three of us got together for a chat. When Speaker of the House, Billy Sneddon, walked in with his grand curly wig and golden sceptre and pronounced, “Honourable gentlemen be seated,” there were sniggers and muffled laughter in the room. The speaker looked up to see what it was about and we three women had remained standing. We informed the speaker that “we were the honourable women, we are not men”. There was a lot of laughter. It was good that people just laughed. Things like that which broke the ice and sternness of what we were doing was obvious. From then on we were all referred to as Honourable Members.’
Elaine loved her job. When in Canberra, they would start at 8am and continue through to midnight.
“They were long hours but that was the job,” says Elaine. “We were given the opportunity to choose which portfolio we would support. I chose social things regarding people with disabilities and lower income because that’s what I understood. We would go to our party rooms where we would vote on issues. I would be in there talking from the lower income perspective, and others had their areas. It was very, very interesting.”
Elaine especially enjoyed being a part of the Christian fellowship groups within parliament which she believes are still running. She has good memories of all groups of politicians at the time and, although they were not perfect, she remembers them fondly.
“I found the people down there marvellous. Most were looking for good things,” she recalls. “I would like to think it hasn’t changed. I understand a bit of nastiness has come in. I got up once to speak and had a go at the Liberals and they had a go at me and I ended up bursting out laughing. It had a good feel about it. Both sides would go up into the dining room and have a meal and exchange notes outside of the system. We would both put forward things and object to things.”
Elaine found that televising Parliament spoilt things a bit. People became actors trying to get on the camera. It became very dramatic with people calling out. These are the people you see on the television and in the papers.
“There are noisy people who say things that gets your hair up but that isn’t what most people in the parliament are like. They are good people. They work long hours. That’s how it was.”
After her sessions in Parliament, she would head back to the electorate where life was also busy. Her diary was always full and ‘that’s how it should be’ according to Elaine. When she wasn’t in daily appointments with members of the public, she would be at speaking engagements within churches.
“It is good for people to tell their member what it is they want and demand it. It is their job to represent you,” says Elaine. “Churches would ask me to come along to speak to them about what it was like. People thought it was so hard down there (in Canberra) but I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was just the usual for us. I knew what it was like because of my dad’s background and the understanding of lower income experience. I would go to different churches and it was a wonderful time. There wasn’t a break between churches and Parliament.”
Elaine is stunned at the number of people who don’t understand what goes on in politics. Politicians are there to represent the people so the people should get in their faces and tell them what they want.
Elaine has been married to husband Bob for 56 years. They have three children and six grandchildren. Her daughter, Vicki Darling, followed closely in her mother’s shoes pursuing a career in politics. Vicki was elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly in 2006 as the member for Sandgate and appointed as Minister for the Environment, Resource Management and climate change in 2011.
“My mother was and still is an incredible role model for me,” says Vicki. “Her drive and passion make her a formidable advocate and she will never stop speaking out for those who are not being heard. She would walk across hot coals for family, friends or anyone who needed her.”
Elaine retired from politics in 1993 to help look after her disabled grandson, something that was very close to her heart. She loved being a politician and misses those days but still keeps in touch with current political issues.
“I certainly don’t criticise the system. It was very exciting for me. It was politics and faith. There are always ups and downs but I choose to look at all the good things.”
First published in the Goodlife Magazine Autumn 2015
(c) Rebecca Moore 2015