Interviewed and written by Erica Musgrove

Australian Greens Parliamentary Leader Richard Di Natale was elected to the federal parliament in 2010 and is the Greens' first Victorian Senator.

Prior to entering parliament, Richard was a general practitioner and public health specialist. He worked in Aboriginal health in the Northern Territory, on HIV prevention in India and in the drug and alcohol sector. His key health priorities include preventative health, public dental care and responding to the health impacts of climate change.

Erica: To begin, tell us a little bit about how you ended up finding your way into a medical career and a little bit about your training.

Richard Di Natale: I'd always wanted to do medicine for as long as I can remember. It’s interesting when you reflect on where you end up in life, but as a young person politics was the farthest thing from my mind. I was, right through my high school years, really committed to training in medicine. I suppose I'd like to think it comes from a good place. It's a profession where you get an opportunity to make a big contribution to people's lives and nothing is more important than people's health. For as long as I can remember I wanted to study medicine. I got into Monash and basically did my 6-year undergraduate degree at Monash. I then did my intern year and my first year of residency and was accepted into a physician pathway. At that point there I thought I'd probably end up becoming a physician.

I do remember being a general physician at the time, and the idea of potentially doing some work in regional Australia was attractive. That was a path that I was on and then I made the, well it turned out to be a very fateful decision to take a year off after I did my internship. I basically took a year off to travel, and spent a year driving around Australia in a four-wheel drive with a mate of mine. He was also in the same stage of his medical career, so we did it together. I did some locum work while I was doing that in Aboriginal health. I realised there was a whole new world of possibilities in that part of medicine. I decided then rather than going back to become a physician, I’d spend some time working in Aboriginal health. That's basically where I think I got an interest in politics.

I ended up working in an Aboriginal community-controlled health organization. This is back in the day when you didn't actually have to have your general practice fellowship to practice as a GP. I was working as a GP in Tennant Creek. I was there for a couple of years working as a GP as part of their community-controlled health clinic. During that time doing a Master of Public Health. I suppose the reason I did that was because I was interested in moving beyond just clinical medicine, into a more population health basis. Obviously, spending time working in an Aboriginal community opens your eyes to the critical importance of population health, rather than just clinical medicine.

Erica: It sounds really interesting. We've certainly gotten a little bit of teaching about public health in our course and it's been fascinating so far.

Richard Di Natale: I thought a public health teaching that we had through our undergraduate degree was really just the tip of the iceberg. It started off as an interest and I thought it was just an interest, and I thought if I wanted to spend working in Aboriginal health then maybe having a much stronger basis in population health was going to be helpful. My interest in politics grew from there.

Erica: That leads me to my next question. How did you end up transitioning into politics? You mentioned earlier it wasn't something you always wanted to do.

Richard Di Natale: I think if you end up doing this job [medicine] you've got to have an understanding that politics is important. I've always felt that, even during my formative years, I’ve always thought politics is really important and always felt that it was really important to engage in politics, even if it's just through advocacy in the health sphere or whatever that might be. I've always seen politics as a very important in improving the health of communities, but more generally in terms of the impact that politics has on people's lives. I was interested but I wasn't somebody who came from a particularly political home environment. I didn't know anybody who was active in politics, so it always seemed to me to be something that was inaccessible, if you like.

Then what happened was I came back to Melbourne, after I'd spent my years in the Northern Territory, and I did a Public Health fellowship. It was run by the Victorian Health Department in conjunction with La Trobe, and was a training program for doctors, but other health professionals as well. I came back to do that, and at that point I decided I'll join a party and get involved. Not really knowing where that would go, but at least knowing that I was getting more frustrated with the state of politics in the world. It was during Howard era. I had spent that time in Aboriginal health and was feeling like I needed to do more than just work behind a desk writing prescriptions. I joined The Greens. I knew a little bit about The Greens. I joined the party knowing a little bit about it, obviously knowing the policy platform, but not knowing a lot about the party because it was a very young party at that point in Victoria. But I knew that I didn't want to join the Liberal or Labor parties, because I was fed up with them. That was pretty much how I made my foray into politics.

Erica: And from there you worked your way up?

Richard Di Natale: Well, to be honest, in those days (and I've said this before) you drove past the office and you were being asked to stand as a candidate. I arrived in town and the party was young, there were elections coming up. I stood as a candidate within a short space of time of being a member. My first federal campaign was as a candidate for the federal seat of Wills and I enjoyed it. I felt like the party was growing. I feel like I had a voice, I felt empowered. It really just grew from there.

Erica: Amazing. Are you still practicing medicine at all? I imagine probably not. Do you miss it?

Richard Di Natale: No. One of the hard things for me was to give that up. I can't say I miss it. There are moments… I mean you certainly miss the immediacy of really making a difference to somebody in a meaningful way and getting that feedback. You don't get that much in politics. You certainly get a lot of feedback from people that don't like what you're doing. You get lots of immediate feedback online, but that's not real.

One of the things about medicine, of course, is you make a big difference to somebody and you see them sometimes at the most difficult part of their life. You see them at the most profound moments - birth and death, and everywhere in between. To be able to share those intimate moments with people and to be able to help them through it is something you don't get in politics. I miss that, but I don't miss the day-to-day grind. There were parts of the job that I didn't enjoy.

Of course, I'm in a very privileged position to be doing something that is immensely satisfying at a personal level, and it gives me a sense of purpose in life. I suppose, putting those two things together, I can't say I miss medicine greatly. So no, I don’t practice. During the first few years in the senate I continued to maintain my registration and professional development and so on, but then in making my transition to leader it just became too difficult, so I don't practice anymore.

Erica: In terms of the skills, are there any skills that you learnt in medicine that you found are useful to politics? Inversely, are there any new skills you had to learn personally for your political career?

Richard Di Natale: A working knowledge of personality disorders helps. I suppose the problem-solving framework work that you learn through medicine is a scientific discipline, but medicine is part science, part art. Politics has certainly, unfortunately, more art than science to it. In some ways it's frustrating, because if you come from a scientific background where evidence is important in drawing conclusions, it's bloody frustrating when people ignore evidence. They ignore what are very clear conclusions, based on quantifiable facts. That's the world we live in and so we just have to work within it.

Erica: I guess the inverse of that question now: are there any new skills you had to learn personally for your political career?

Richard Di Natale: Obviously, in politics your role is much more public and it's real important to try and improve your skills around talking to big groups of people and public speaking in a way that engages with people. It's true there's some of that in medicine, depending on what area of medicine you work in and whether you're teaching and so on. I'd say any other thing in politics, a part of the job particularly in the role that I play, is you've got to be a good manager. The management skills in terms of the way you manage a team of people, the way you work with your colleagues, not just your MPs but your staff and so on, all of those are skills that are not something you're really taught in medicine. At least not while I was studying. They are things that you certainly have to pick up as you work through your political career.

Erica: Certainly. In general, and this is a very broad question, but do you think doctors make good politicians? Why or why not?

Richard Di Natale: Some do, and some don't. I think the skills you learn in medicine are certainly helpful but there’s no guarantee that you'll be a good politician simply because you're trained in medicine. We've had doctors and vets in parliament who don't believe in the science of climate change. It's hard to believe but there are people in parliament who are trained in what should be scientific disciplines who tend to ignore the science if it's not consistent with their ideological views. I suppose that's one of the things you do learn in this job, is that people's ideology sometimes trumps facts and reason. So that’s an interesting little insight into human behaviour. I could cite obviously [Bob] Brown is a mentor for me, and himself a doctor, and I'd say he's one of the most effective politicians in the country. I'm not going to name any others on the other side of the equation, but there are people in the parliament who have been doctors who I'd say have been very ineffective as politicians. Completely lacking not just in science, but also empathy.

Erica: This actually a question from some of my friends asked me to include. A lot of them felt a little bit dispirited after the recent [federal] election results, particularly around the environment. What advice would you give to people who really care about these issues, but who feel powerless to affect any meaningful change?

Richard Di Natale: The first thing I'd say is don't give up. You can't give up. The second thing I'd say is that change is hard. You are fighting against very powerful interest groups who benefit from the status quo, who don't want change because it will impact on them. Big multinational companies, cashed-up, making huge donations to both sides of politics. But there is a movement of people growing right here in Australia and right around the world who are connecting and are going to be the only way we get to change the status quo.

I'm actually very hopeful and optimistic about young people. They are so many young people involved in climates strikes and so on. It's only a matter of time before their voices are heard. So, my advice to them is don't give up. Get involved and stay involved. Join a political party. Hopefully that's the Greens. Make your voice heard through that. Find a cause that you're passionate about, whether it be climate change or an environmental issue, and join an advocacy organization, make your voice heard through them. Make sure you know who your local member is and advocate through them. Make a time to meet with them, hassle them. Get involved, stay involved, advocate. Because the only way things will change is if enough people who understand how critical climate change is and the fact that we're on the brink of one of the great ecological extinctions. It's only people who understand where we're at and the urgency at which we need to act.

Erica: You've had multiple positions as a spokesperson on health. Do you think it's important that the parliamentary representative for a portfolio has some kind of formal training in the area that they are making decisions on?

Richard Di Natale: Look, I think it's helpful, but I don't think it's absolutely critical. I've seen people go into a portfolio area with little or no training or experience in it, and spend time talking to people, understanding the issues and they do a great job. Equally, I've seen people with a background in some areas who come into it thinking that they know it all and come in with a very single-minded perspective and really stuff it up. I don't think it's critical, I think it's helpful and I think if you've got some training or experience in a particular field, providing you can keep an open mind, providing you’re willing to hear from other perspectives on the topic from right across the spectrum, then you'll do a good job of it.

The most important thing is to go in there with an open mind, be really clear about where people are coming from when they try to advocate for the position. Make sure you make use of the resources that you've got at your disposal, both in terms of the bureaucracy and the institution in parliament and then you can arrive at a judgment. Like I said, people who go into the job thinking they know it all don't do a good job of the area that they're working on. It can be a big asset though, and I found that personally for me to be a really big asset. I think for me, what it does do is, people come into the office and they trust you. They trust that you've got an understanding of the topic, they trust that you understand the issues and so you automatically start from that perspective with people. Your bullshit detector is also much more finely tuned if you're trained in that area. So, I think it’s not critical, but helpful providing that you're prepared to go in with an open mind.

Erica: What advice would you give to medical students or junior doctors, generally, and also to those who might be considering or interested in engaging in politics?

Richard Di Natale: A medical degree is a wonderful privilege, and it opens up so many doors and so many possibilities for people. I never for a moment thought that I would end up where I am. As I said when I got into medicine, I saw my life within medicine and not outside of it. I think having a medical degree opened up doors that maybe might not have been opened up to me if I didn't have the background that I have.

The advice I'd give to people is firstly don't feel like you need to know where your life is going to go now. Don't feel the pressure of feeling like you have to make pretty good decisions that will lock you in for the rest of your life. That's more general advice. The people who do best in medicine are the people who I think have a broad range of skills and haven't been down a very narrow path early on.

When it comes specifically to politics, I'd say to people that regardless of wherever they work and whatever they do, politics is going to have an impact on their lives, or have an impact on their professional career, and it will also have an impact on their life more generally. If there are people who have a strong sense of injustice, then really the only way to make change is to actually get involved and be engaged. You can do that by joining a party and that's “capital P” politics I suppose, where you join a party and get involved in the way that I did. But depending on your interests, you could join Doctors for Refugees, or Doctors for the Environment, or even AMA politics. They all give you an opportunity to learn skills in those areas. To understand how power works in a way that you might not appreciate until you're actually in those positions. To know that there's always a possibility of pursuing that if you are fulfilled by it, if you feel like you are achieving something.

There isn't a direct pathway. People often say to me, "How do I get involved in politics?" I'd say to them first thing is try and get some skills in another area and bring something. Bring a perspective and a set of skills and experience that aren’t just skills to do with “capital P” politics. One of the problems we've got in politics is people spend their life doing a political degree at uni, then they go and work as a political staff. They work in political office all their life, and then they end up as MPs. I think it's a good thing to come to it a little later in life and bring skills and experience that actually add something to the parliament. I'd say you don't have to make any of those decisions early. You can make those decisions at any point in your career, but God knows we need good people to engage with the political process, because it's the only way we're going to change things.

Erica: What a great note to end it on. Thank you so much. This has been an absolute pleasure and thanks for squeezing me into what I'm sure is a crazy schedule.

Richard Di Natale: Absolute pleasure, Erica. Good luck.

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