Biggest threat to Tony Abbot’s seat
WHEN you meet Zali Steggall you get the feeling that Tony Abbott's trademark physicality and aggression has met its match.
Not that the 44-year-old comes across as aggressive. The North Balgowlah resident appears calm and measured but then she starts to talk about her Olympic career, her work as a barrister, her ultra marathon runs and the fact that she makes her whole family do CrossFit with her. As Ms Steggall notes: "Look, I'm no wallflower".
Born in Manly, Ms Steggall spent much of her childhood in France after her parents decided to move there for a "mountain change". They only planned to go for a couple of years but stayed for longer when they realised Ms Steggall had a talent for ski racing.
From a young age she was ambitious and at age 13 she realised she wanted to be an Olympian.
"All the indicators were there that I had the talent and capability physically. But also mentally, I think I had the determination," she told news.com.au.
"I remember watching the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary and I thinking 'well, someone's got to get to the top so why can't it be me?'.
News.com.au met with Ms Steggall and her husband of 10 years, Tim Irving, at Clontarf Reserve last weekend, just a week after she announced her intention to run as an independent in the safe Liberal seat.
She has no illusions about the battle she is facing. Mr Abbott has already labelled Ms Steggall the "carbon tax candidate" and also sharpened his attack on Ms Steggall's Liberal credentials during an interview on The Bolt Report.
"I don't see how anyone who is a fair dinkum Liberal would not want to return a Liberal member for Warringah," Mr Abbott said.
"And I don't see anyone who is a real Liberal - as opposed to a Liberal of passing convenience - would want to see a Shorten government brought closer."
Ms Steggall is standing as an independent in Warringah and is putting herself forward as candidate for the "sensible centre" hoping to ride the wave of discontent that has seen independents like Dr Kerryn Phelps and Cathy McGowan elected in previously safe Liberal seats.
While Ms Steggall said she has voted Liberal at state and local elections, she admits she has never voted for Tony Abbott.
"Where federal Liberals have gone is just so far right, that I think they've completely lost the centre," she said.
Ms Steggall believes Mr Abbott's time has come and that she has the support she needs to deliver a strong campaign.
"I'm not naive, I do know what I'm getting myself into. I'm up for a challenge," she said.
"My current sport of choice is ultra (trail) running, where you're doing 100km events.
"I'm not built for running … but what I like about ultra running is it's a mental game, it's a long game."
She said it was all about preparation, planning and how you reacted to challenges because nothing actually went to plan.
"I think it's a great parallel to life because you might have an idea of what you're going to do but you have to be able to adapt and adjust as you go," she said.
"It's going to be challenging but you're going to have to dig deep."
This mental toughness is something Ms Steggall also seems keen to pass on to her children.
She has two sons from an earlier marriage and her husband Tim also has three daughters from his previous marriage.
Three of the kids still live at home and in the Steggall household they are required to do sport.
Ms Steggall and her husband go to CrossFit classes two to three times a week. These are high-intensity sessions where super-fit people do things like handstand push-ups and lift heavy weights in a hyper competitive environment.
Their children have to join them if they aren't doing any other sport, or come along for at least one session per week even if they do.
"I think it's a really interesting environment where having parents and teenagers battling it out physically you can earn a bit of respect for just being able to tough it out a bit," Ms Steggall said.
This ability to tough it out appears to have helped Ms Steggall carve out her own successful career as an Olympic bronze medallist and barrister.
When Ms Steggall began ski racing she was probably one of the most unlikely to succeed.
She remembers how other students used to laugh when they realised the school that was winning inter-school competitions for skiing was located in Mosman, overlooking Balmoral Beach.
While she had the support of her parents, back then there was very little funding or support so they had to develop everything themselves.
"I had to employ my own coaches," she said. "You had to find your own funding."
For years she followed the ski seasons, living in Australia for part of the year and then heading overseas for the European winter, all while continuing her high school studies.
When she 17 years old and in Year 12 at the Mosman girls' school, Queenwood, she set her sights on qualifying for the 1992 Winter Olympic Games.
Her parents, who were very supportive of her ambitions, suggested she defer her high school certificate (HSC) so she could concentrate on competing.
She left school halfway through Year 12 and managed to secure a spot at the games. She came 23rd out of 44 entries in the giant slalom event but failed to finish the slalom or the combined event. She built on this experience, going on to qualify for the 1994 and then the 1998 Olympics, where she won Australia's first individual Olympic medal with a bronze in slalom skiing.
In 1999 she won the slalom at the World Championships in the US before retiring at the 2002 Olympics, aged 28.
In between competitions Ms Steggall managed to complete her HSC as well as a degree in communications and media studies followed by a second degree in law. She had to do the degrees separately because it wasn't possible to do a combined degree by correspondence.
There was also no Facetime and internet communication so long-distance education was not as easy as it is now.
"I had to take all the textbooks and everything with me and every time I went to a hotel, I had to find the fax number to write my essay and fax it back so it was quite a process," she said.
Faced with these challenges many young people would have chosen to drop their studies but Ms Steggall said she liked the balance of focusing on things other than skiing.
"You live through really big highs and lows in sport, depending on if you have a good day or a bad day and I found it was really important to have my studies chugging along in parallel.
"It was interesting thinking of other things but … I (also) felt like it was a safety net. Your sporting career can finish any day."
After retiring from sport she became a barrister, which she found a good extension of her life as an athlete.
"It's a competitive environment, it's adversarial, you have to be really organised … when you get to a litigation … you really have to be prepared.
"I found that very similar to life as an athlete but in a cerebral way."
Now she has taken on another challenge.
Early this year she appeared on the Instagram page of Vote Tony Out in a Time's Up Tony T-shirt with a post that said "Australia deserves a lot more".
Days after this post, she contacted the group through a friend to find out how things were progressing with finding a candidate to stand against Mr Abbott. She went through a vetting process involving Vote Tony Out, Voices of Warringah and North Shore Environmental Stewards.
Vote Tony Out and another group Think Twice Warringah have now endorsed her as their chosen candidate to run against Mr Abbott, while Voices of Warringah will put out a scorecard on all the candidates once nominations are closed.
One of the biggest concerns for those campaigning to unseat Mr Abbott has been the possibility of a large number of candidates standing, which could split the vote. But in a testament to how highly Ms Steggall is regarded, two of the other candidates have now withdrawn from the race.
Alice Thompson, who is a former adviser to Malcolm Turnbull, as well as the singer Darryl Lovegrove have both pulled out and are instead backing Ms Steggall.
So far indigenous candidate Susan Moylan-Coombs is still running. When asked whether she would preference against Mr Abbott and support Ms Steggall, campaign director Virginia Laugesen said she "hadn't had those talks" yet.
Ms Steggall will have to reduce Mr Abbott's primary vote to the low 40 per cent mark in order to have a chance to unseat him.
Last election Mr Abbott got a primary vote of 51.6 per cent, a drop of nine per cent compared to the previous election.
Mr Abbott told The Bolt Report he was "confident" he would win on his strong local and national record.
"As far as I can make out I'm the only candidate with a positive local message," he said. "I'm for things, I'm not just against an individual."
But even Mr Abbott has acknowledged what a strong candidate Ms Steggall is and said: "I'm treating this as a marginal seat".
Politics is in Ms Steggall's blood. Her mother was a volunteer for former Manly mayor Peter Macdonald's campaign when he stood as an independent against Mr Abbott in 2001 and her grandmother Phemie Wallis was a staunch Liberal Party member in the lower Hunter Valley area of Maitland.
Ms Steggall said she had never been a member of a political party, partly because she wasn't exposed to them in universities but also because she thought it was important to be apolitical as an athlete.
However, she has always been engaged on issues and interested in the idea of being a politician. Ms Steggall almost studied journalism and political science at uni but it wasn't available via correspondence.
"It was always sort of on my radar, in terms of being socially engaged," she said.
"I feel I've been lucky to have great opportunities and so I feel there is a certain responsibility to be a role model and give back."
Ms Steggall said her campaign was being funded by community members through donations to her website including disenfranchised, traditionally Liberal voters.
"They feel completely repelled by where the party's gone," she said.
"The first and foremost major distinction between Tony and I is I do think I am a new generation. His views have not changed in 25 years and I don't say that in a negative way, he's always been very clear about what he stands for, but I think the reality is, the electorate has … evolved."
The same-sex marriage survey was a prime example of this, Ms Steggall suggests.
"This might be a conservative electorate but it voted 75 per cent in favour of same sex marriage.
"There's overwhelming concern for our treatment of refugees - it's socially progressive - and an overwhelming concern on climate."
Ms Steggall rejects the idea of "clean coal" and said there needed to be an orderly retirement of coal.
"I guess what I'm saying for Warringah is you've got a choice," she said.
"There's no point in everyone turning around in two years time and going … why aren't we making progress on this issue? You've got a chance."
She has also told the Mosman Daily that in principle she was in favour of the Beaches Link tunnel that would bypass Mosman but she needed to understand more about the cost, timing and if there were other solutions.
Mr Abbott has put his support for the tunnel front and centre of his campaign, telling The Bolt Report he supported it 120 per cent. He also said he wanted better toilets in Manly, in a Twitter post that has been widely mocked.
Ms Steggall said she did not have all the answers but is willing to take advice and listen to the concerns of local people. She thinks Australians are looking for a more respectful debate.
"I think the Australian people are really tired of aggressive, negative politics," she said.
"As a resident I want politicians to get on with the job … to focus on the issues and come up with a strategy that is best for Australia - not limited interests."
However, Ms Steggall is bracing herself for the three-word slogans and scare tactics, although she hopes people will see through them.
"Look I'm no wallflower, I've done competitive sport at the high level, that's a mind game," she said.
"Ability, preparation and talent get you so far, the last bit is mind and determination, being able to handle the pressure. I'm comfortable with that.
"(Being in court) is a high pressure situation as well.
"I don't think I intimidate too easily."
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