Interviewed and written by Erica Musgrove

Eternal Possibilities' 50th post 🎉🎉🎉

Tim Read is the first ever Greens Member of Parliament (MP) who was elected to represent the district of Brunswick, Melbourne in 2018. He is also a community GP and medical researcher who worked in a public HIV and sexual health clinic during his PhD. Tim is an avid bike rider, and loves getting out of the city and spending time in the bush - in 2018 he rafted the Franklin River in Tasmania with his son.

Erica: It is my pleasure to be interviewing Tim Read: (MP), on Friday, 26th of July. Welcome Tim to Eternal Possibilities.

Tim Read:: Thank you.

Erica: I’d like to start with a bit of a varied question, but what’s been your highlight, lowlight and most interesting part of your week so far, given that it’s Friday?

Tim Read:: Sure. Highlight was doing some media. The lowlight was doing some other media. The thing that’s been happening this week is the recycling crisis in Melbourne, and so I’ve been talking about that. I did one radio interview, and one of my staff said you get a four out of ten for that, and he was right. That was the lowlight, but I’ve done some better ones since. It’s been a fun week, and there’s been a lot happening.

Erica: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey in medicine, how you got into medicine and where you’re at now?

Tim Read:: Sure. I got into medicine straight after school, and I think I was 17 at the beginning of first year. I was always interested in science and research, though not necessarily that committed to medicine. I actually had become, through my university time, very interested in politics and after my intern year, decided to go into a cadetship at The Age. I lasted 18 months, partly because The Age was in tumult at the time, but also I felt that my talents probably were better suited to medicine. But my political interest remained. One of the things I’ve just observed throughout medicine, from starting off in general practice working in community health centres, and then more recently when specializing in sexual health and in research, is the importance of government policy in determining people’s fate. I joined the Greens about 10 years ago mainly concerned about climate change. Then, one thing led to another, and here we are.

Erica: That leads me into one of my other questions which is how did you get into politics? My understanding is you were elected into State election last year. Is that correct?

Tim Read:: Sure. I joined the Greens at the end of 2008 when I saw the then government was proposing an emission scheme that was going to reduce our emissions by 5% and I thought, “That’s it, I’m joining the Greens.” A lot of other people joined around the same time. I joined with very little idea of what kind of a contribution I would make. I didn’t even know how political parties work but I wanted to find out, and so I just helped out and observed and contributed where I could.

About five years ago, it became clear they were looking for candidate for Brunswick, and there was a Federal election coming up and they needed a candidate for the overlapping Federal State of Wills. There was no chance we were going to win, and so I thought it would be just an interesting thing to try out. I did that and I liked it and I enjoyed the interaction with local people and the little policy debates that it involves and decided to have a serious tilt at Brunswick. We ran quite a good campaign in 2014 and closed the margin. The sitting member then could see us coming and decided to find an upper house seat, and that made it easier for us to win it last year, but we only just won.

Erica: Interesting. How have you found it so far to officially being in parliament now? Is it your full-time job or are you still doing some medicine?

Tim Read:: It is. From being a paid doctor and Green’s troublemaker by night, I’m now a paid troublemaker. I think that’s really what people mean when they say a disrupter. I just have to figure out what’s the most useful thing to do with the limited time in the day. There’s always a danger of picking up and running with far too many issues and not doing anything with any of them. I’m still figuring that out, but I think I’m getting better at it.

Erica: Good. On the disruption note, I read a story on your website about you being arrested for spray-painting on a cigarette billboard. Is that correct? Can you tell us about that because it caught my attention?

Tim Read:: That was back when I was a medical student and there used to be a cigarette billboard diagonally opposite the [Royal] Children’s Hospital on Flemington Road. And I remember seeing teenagers with asthma who smoked and decided it was time to do something. So, now I’ve got that on my CV which is helpful whether you’re a doctor or a Green’s PM.

Erica: On that note, are there any skills that you’ve developed in medicine that have actually served you well in politics in terms of things that are transferable?

Tim Read:: Well, I can tell you one skill that isn’t helpful, which is that I get a little bit too hung up about evidence. I’ve realized that I have to let go and be willing to make claims at times when we think we’re probably right, but not entirely sure. Before people get too horrified about that, I should stress that it’s more to do with how you communicate things. Political communication just has to be a lot simpler than medical communication, and so you have to stop using qualifying adjectives and be more direct. So, I’ve had to break out of the medical mould for that.

But I do think medicine does help you see the links between policy and behaviour and people’s health. So, I remain interested in health and in health policy. I’m also aware that the most important health policies aren’t in the formal health policy. They are policies that determine, do people sit in their cars on their way to work or do they ride bikes or walk to public transport stops? It’s also in the policies that determine whether we’re exposed to billboards advertising junk food or in the policies around illegal drugs. These are the most important health policies, and the other policies I’m interested in critiquing and maybe having some influence on.

Erica: I saw a little bit of that again looking over your website. You’re a bike rider, aren’t you?

Tim Read:: Yeah. You can see the mud-spattered floral backpack.

Erica: How did your interest in general practice, and I guess more broadly, public health come about? Was that something you always had given your interest in politics?

Tim Read:: Yeah. I guess as a medical student, I saw the relative futility of treating patients one at a time, when at that time, there were cigarette ads everywhere persuading them to smoke. Public health always ... No, sorry, I’ll go back a step. I think healthcare is always working against the headwind when we’ve got corporations advertising to people to do things that are bad for their health. No amount of telling individuals to eat broccoli is very useful when they step out of the surgery and see a three-meter-long Mars Bar. So, we need to change the environment that people live in.

You will have heard of the phrase “The Obesogenic Environment”. That’s one of the things I’d like to work on. That, I think, was why I got interested in public health in the first place and it’s why I remain interested. One of the really interesting things is that people who talk about public health or population health in those terms get accused of wanting in nanny-state. But I think we already live in a nanny state where we have a different nanny, a corporate nanny telling us to eat Mars Bars and drink lots of Chardonnay and drive these amazing SUVs to work. That corporate nanny is telling us what to do and we need to rein her in.

Erica: How do you envisage this change to the obesogenic environment? What would be a positive first step or a couple of steps even?

Tim Read:: Sure. Well, I want to do as much as I can to get rid of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods, at least advertising for them. We can’t ban foods or drink or even drugs, but at the very least we can reduce the amount of promotion that people are exposed to.

Erica: Do you think that promotion extends to the online world now? Because I was listening to a podcast yesterday and they were very much talking about social media and that influence on the younger generation verses maybe us being less engaged in billboards. I don’t even know if our policies extend that far at the moment.

Tim Read:: I’m sure it does. It just makes it a little bit more difficult to regulate them. In the state realm, we’re even more limited in what we can do, but the state owns a lot of billboards in the public transport infrastructure, for example. So, that’s one area where we can make a change.

Erica: If I gave you a magic ward and you could wave it and change one thing about Australia, well, maybe Victoria right now, what would it be and why?

Tim Read:: It would be that we stop burning over a million tons of coal a week, which is a little-known statistic that is impossible to justify knowing what we know. Harking back to an earlier question, one of the skills I did get from medicine was assessing evidence, and the evidence that we’re in a climate emergency is convincing. So, my magic ward would replace our coal fire power stations with clean energy and clean industry. It is technically possible but requires some spending.

Erica: You mentioned before that you did a cadetship at The Age, which is something that I didn’t know. How did you find, I guess, being on the other side of political media?

Tim Read:: Well, I think the media and politicians have changed a lot since then, but I quickly learnt to become resistant and suspicious when I felt people were subjecting me to spin, and when I felt that information was being managed or I was being managed. I do remember hearing about some research findings and ringing a doctor to find out more about them and he was begging with me not to publish it because that information was being embargoed for some dramatic media release with a relevant minister. I remember bridling against that sense of being managed, but in the end, we did as we were asked because we didn’t particularly want to dump a doctor in it even though we had no sympathy whatsoever for the government department that was trying to manipulate everything.

So, now here I’m talking to reporters. Although not being a government minister, I don’t particularly have any secrets or things that I need to manipulate. Our difficulty is more just being acknowledged for our policy contribution. That’s the challenge we’re up against.

Erica: Going back to medicine now, what advice would you give to medical students or junior doctors at the moment who are in that training and particularly those who might be unsure about where their career might be heading, or anyone who might be interested in politics?

Tim Read: Sure. Well, look, I wouldn’t recommend to anybody ever having a career in politics because there’s no job security in politics, and I don’t think the community gets the best benefits out of career politicians. I think we should see parliament and local council, I might add, a much underrated and very important part of our politics. We should see parliaments and councils as a bit like jury service, where the ordinary people doing ordinary jobs take some time out of their life to make a contribution.

I think the most important thing if you’re politically active that you can do, and I’d say this to everybody is to pay closer attention and to be sceptical and to seek out information from a variety of news sources. Also, if you’re feeling like you want to get more involved is to identify whatever for you is the least worst political party and join it. You’ll never find a political party that’s perfect or that matches all your policies but ask yourself what are the big challenges of the times that I want to tackle? What’s the least worst party for dealing with that and join it and make it better. Maybe then, leave and join another one if you’re not happy.

But I essentially encourage people to get involved, but don’t think of yourself as having a political career; think of yourself as maybe being able to make a contribution at some level. The political career happens if a bunch of people get behind you and say, “Hey, we want you.” Political careers, as we all know, come to an end, so you need to think of yourself as having some other identity and the politics is a little bit on the side.

Erica: Yes. Where is your identity lying at the moment then, as someone who’s doing politics full-time but is ultimately a doctor?

Tim Read: I still think of myself as a doctor, although I’m about to suspend my prescription writing rights and everything else, and I’m throwing myself 100% into this. I’m not seeing patients at all. But I see this as some kind of sort of population health at the macro level.

Erica: Do you miss medicine, the daily practice, at all?

Tim Read: Sure. Yeah, I do. But then when you get a chance to talk about policy on a big scale, it is very exciting.  

Erica: That’s true. Well, I’m all out of questions. Do you have anything you want to add for our listeners/readers to know.

Tim Read: The other thing that really, I think, is important is that our parliaments need to be brave enough to stand up to businesses, and I’m talking about big businesses and corporations which really want to exploit whatever they can, right? Whether it’s exploiting the environment or exploiting employees or treating us as a market. Essentially, I think there’s a risk that we’re just a theme park for corporations to have fun in and then they leave. We’re going to dig up your stuff, we’re going to pay you as little as possible; pay as little tax as possible, you can eat the shit we make and see you later. That’s an extreme caricature, but the only reason things aren’t quite that bad is because of regulation and the activity of parliaments. I think standing up to the free market is a critical role, and I think doctors have a unique insight into the importance of that kind of regulation.

Erica: A good note to end on. Thank you so much.

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