Champions of same sex marriage and Indigenous affairs honoured for political leadership

Image of Councillor Vonda Malone and Senator Dean Smith.
McKinnon Prize winners Coucillor Vonda Malone and Senator Dean Smith pictured together with their awards. Image: Jorge de Araujo

Senator Dean Smith and Councillor Vonda Malone were honoured last night as the inaugural winners of the McKinnon Prize for Political Leadership, a new, non-partisan award recognising courageous, visionary and collaborative leaders.

Senator Dean Smith was named the McKinnon Political Leader of the Year for his bipartisan leadership on same sex marriage and his demonstration of courageous backbench leadership in the face of internal opposition.

In accepting his award, Senator Smith recounted his journey from 'No' to 'Yes' in the Same Sex Marriage campaign.

"It was on a plane travelling from Perth to Albany in early 2015," Senator Smith said.

"I found myself reflecting on the terrible events at the Lindt café and I kept thinking of Tori Johnson. He was the café manager and on that day he was as brave as any of our country's finest.

"Tori was strong, courageous and he had a partner, Thomas. As I said in the Senate, I thought of their love, I thought of their loss and it changed me."

Senator Smith said the McKinnon Prize was a reflection of the "yearn" of Australians for their elected representatives to focus on solutions and common ground, saying there is much to learn from Councillor Vonda Malone.

"Councillor Vonda Malone is the mayor of a small, remote community. To be a mayor of such a small community is to be an on-call social worker, parish priest, mediator and elected official all rolled into one and regional mayors, do it all for love, not reward," Senator Smith said.

Councillor Vonda Malone was named the McKinnon Emerging Political Leader of the Year, for politicians with less than five years in office, for bringing together her community and shedding light on pressing issues of the region.

Councillor Malone said that Torres Strait Islanders had tried to elevate their existence and issues to successive Australian Governments but were not classified as an Indigenous Council, even with an Indigenous population of 75 per cent.

"Having being classified as a mainstream council provides a complexity as it sits within an Indigenous island region," Councillor Malone said.

"As a [regular] council we do not receive much needed additional assistance from governments compared to our neighbouring sister Indigenous Councils. Our Indigenous people are not counted and not in receipt of programs that target remote Indigenous communities when addressing close the gap targets."

She also encouraged governments to take a more "localised", "genuine" approach to addressing community needs.

"Politicians and policy makers are more comfortable asserting sweeping national positions rather than engaging with difference and distinctiveness," Councillor Malone said.

The first female Mayor of Torres Shire Council, Councillor Malone said that receiving the McKinnon Prize for Emerging Political Leader of the Year also provided a much-needed platform to showcase the contributions Indigenous women make to society.

"As a minority group we need stronger voices at the national and international level to embed our existence and to expose the important contribution we make to Australia," she said.

The McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership is a collaboration between the Susan McKinnon Foundation and the University of Melbourne.

University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis chaired the inaugural selection panel for the McKinnon Prize, which included former Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and John Howard as well as distinguished business, political, education and sporting leaders.

Senator Smith congratulated the University of Melbourne's School of Government and McKinnon Foundation for the initiative.

"I am a big believer in schools of government. I believe we need to see more of them. Not because I believe government is the answer to every human problem but because schools of government cultivate the ethos of service so often lost in our modern life," Senator Smith said.