Interview with Ellen Sandell, State MP for Melbourne

Faculty of Arts alumna Ms Ellen Sandell made headlines earlier this month when she was elected as State MP for Melbourne, leading the Greens' to their first ever lower house state seat. Since her time at the University of Melbourne, she has worked in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, served as CEO of a national climate change non-profit organisation, and has received numerous awards for her environmental activism, including the Faculty of Arts' inaugural Rising Star Award in 2013. Following her election victory, we caught up with Ms Sandell to learn more about her journey to the lower house and her plans for the new role.

What do you consider the most important steps or milestones in your career trajectory so far?

A significant step in my career trajectory was realising that I wanted to work in policy rather than as a scientist. I knew that the science of climate change was clear, and in fact, the greatest challenge was communicating climate change and getting our governments to create policies that would help us take action. Becoming the CEO for the climate change not for profit Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) was also a significant learning curve and a big change from my previous work in the public service.

Which project or accomplishment are you most proud of?

Running a campaign that was successful in getting the University of Melbourne to agree to become carbon neutral was the first campaign 'win' I experienced, so that's significant (although we aren't there yet in terms of implementation!)

I'm proud of the campaigns we ran while I was CEO of the AYCC – especially the campaign to replace the dirty coal plants in Port August with Australia's first solar thermal plant. In 2012 over 80 people walked 325km over two weeks from Port August to Adelaide to draw attention to this issue and it's now moving ahead with a demonstration plant and state government support, although it's not 100% there yet. I'm also very proud of the work we've done linking those who are affected by climate change in the Pacific and Nepal to Australia, raising their voices at the UN and supporting their practical projects on-the-ground, which the AYCC continues to do.

Do you have any special memories of your time at the University of Melbourne?

I had some wonderful lecturers – including people like David Karoly in climate science. I loved indulging my passions for science but also for language (I did a double degree in Science/Arts with majors in Genetics, Linguistics and Spanish). But the real learning I did was outside of the classroom – as Environment Officer in the Student Union, where I cut my teeth in campaigning. That's ultimately what led me to work in climate policy in Department of Premier and Cabinet.

Tell us about your extracurricular activities and environmental/political activism at University. How did this encourage you on your path to running for the seat of Melbourne?

While I was at the University of Melbourne I was heavily involved in the student union as the UMSU Environment Officer. I was particularly involved in campaigning to protect our native forests in and around Healesville, which are home to the endangered Leadbeater's Possum, as well as campaigning to get the University to become carbon netural. This activism demonstrated to me the impact of people power, but given we're still fighting to protect these forests now, it also showed me that reform can take time. In my role as Melbourne's State MP I'll be continuing to work against the tax-payer subsidised logging of our native forests.

Tell us about the Greens policy platform about creating a fair society by reversing cuts to education.

The Greens have always stood, and will always stand, against cuts to education funding. The cuts to universities and deregulation at a Federal level means that students will face enormous debt and will make it harder for poorer students to get a university education. These changes will limit the opportunities of hundreds of thousands of Australians. I'm committed to working with our Federal representative Adam Bandt to oppose these cuts. Here in Victoria, TAFEs have faced cuts and deregulation from both Labor and Liberal. There's also a $470 million maintenance backlog in schools and areas (including right here in inner Melbourne) that desperately need a new school built. With two MPs in the lower house and at least 3 MPs in the Upper House, I'm confident that the Greens can affect real change on these important issues.

What does being an alumna of the University of Melbourne (Faculty of Arts) mean to you?

I was incredibly lucky to go to the University of Melbourne and to receive a scholarship to do so. There are people everywhere that don't have the opportunity to pursue tertiary education. It may sound a little clich├ęd, but being lucky enough to be an alumna of the University of Melbourne makes me want to work as hard as I can to ensure others get similar opportunities.

If we contact you a year from now, what do you hope to be able to say you have achieved?

I've already been doing a lot of work with African and refugee communities in Melbourne, and I'm proposing an amendment to the Government's Back to Work Bill to give tax incentives to employers who hire refugees or people from refugee families. These communities are facing a lot of discrimination, and I want to do all I can to help them overcome it.

I also want to work with experts in renewable energy to develop a plan to get Victoria's investment in renewable energy back on track. We're one of the worst performing states and already it has cost the state thousands of jobs. I want to work with the Government to make progress on tackling climate change at a state level.

These are two of my priorities – but I also hope that in a year we will have made significant progress towards creating a 21st century public transport network for Victoria, rather than continuing to invest just in roads.

What do you hope is the next step in your career?

Right now I'm focussed 100% on what I can do in the next four years to best represent the people of Melbourne! I'm committed to being here for the long term and fighting for a clean economy and a fair society.

The best piece of advice I've ever been given is…
It wasn't given to me, exactly, but I love the quote from Winston Churchill: "It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary."
I live by this – there are some big challenges our world is facing and we need to dream big and work hard to do what's necessary to fix them, rather than being happy with the status quo or just going about our daily business.

Now that you have been out in the workforce for a few years, what advice would you give to our brand new graduates?

Don't just work towards a career – work towards something that is going to make the world a better place. Our world faces big challenges and there is no one better to address them than you. In fact, we are the last generation who can solve some of these problems – with something like climate change if we don't do something it will be too late. Ask yourself: If not you, then who? If not now, then when?