23 September 2021

Suzanne Orr: how a Facebook boss and Tony Abbott made a Gungahlin MLA

| Dominic Giannini
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Suzanne Orr

Suzanne Orr is a Labor member for the Gungahlin-based electorate of Yerrabi. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Suzanne Orr may be as Canberran as they come, jumping from hospitality and tourism to the public sector and local government.

The Yerrabi MLA wears her Canberra origins on her sleeve as she talks passionately about her local area and how her three decades in Giralang shaped the way she approaches her job.

But it was American business powerhouse, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg – and Tony Abbott, oddly enough – who propelled her into Labor politics.

With a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning and Graduate Certificate in Public Administration, she was pushed into politics when the former Liberal Prime Minister gutted the program she was working on when he became Prime Minister.

After joining the local branch of the Labor party in 2013, she preferred to work behind the scenes on ACT Labor’s environment and infrastructure committee. Putting herself up for pre-selection and parachuting into the public eye was never really on the agenda.

Until she was told to Lean In.

“I noticed all the women that were being approached were saying, ‘oh no, I could never do that’, and I realised I was doing the same thing and discounting myself before I even gave it a shot,” she said.

“It was around the time that [American business executive and philanthropist] Sheryl Sandberg released her book Lean In, and someone said to me, ‘why don’t you just lean in?'”

Three years into her first term, she entered the ministry.

And although she lost that portfolio in a re-shuffle following the Greens’ strong showing in the last election, her passion for finding local solutions to local problems continues to motivate her.

“I will get that built,” she says with determination when talking about the seemingly endless Giralang shops saga.

Suzanne Orr and Dougie Herd

Suzanne Orr with the Chair of the Disability Reference Group Dougie Herd in her previous role of Minister for Disability. Photo: Supplied.

She’s lived in the area for almost four decades, including 30 years in Giralang. She says it’s the needs of the diverse Gungahlin community during Canberra’s lockdown and the tumultuous COVID situation emanating from NSW that requires immediate attention to keep people safe and up-to-date.

Gungahlin’s vulnerable and linguistically diverse communities especially need this extra support during this period of uncertainty, she said. But she hasn’t forgotten about the rest of the area.

Despite Gungahlin only being around two decades old – a youngling compared to other Canberra suburbs – Ms Orr says it’s anything but a nascent suburb or Canberra’s younger brother up north filled with nothing but young professionals and families.

“We are not quite as young as some people might think,” she said.

“We have a much broader population than just young people, and getting in and understanding what our community is and what the needs are is important.

“As we grow, our supports and our infrastructure need to grow with [us].”

Infrastructure isn’t the sexiest policy area, but for the former urban planner, it’s central to Orr’s goals for the year ahead.

This includes plans for the much-needed Gungahlin Community Arts Centre.

“[The centre] needs to reflect the needs and the wants of our community and really gets out there and builds our community,” she said.

Suzanne Orr and Pradeep Sornaraj

Member for Yerrabi Suzanne Orr and Pradeep Sornaraj are pushing to make period products more accessible in the ACT. Photo: Supplied.

When Ms Orr lost her ministry portfolios, including community services, disability and employment and workplace safety, she decided to take the setback in her stride and find the silver lining by spending more time in her own community.

“There is always opportunity and it is what you make of it. Seeing some of my colleagues lose their seats was very humbling.

“[Now I can be] more intensely in the community as a backbencher,” she explained.

It was during this time she began working with Pradeep Sornaraj – a Tamil migrant from India – to end period poverty in Canberra.

The two are working towards changes in the ACT to increase the accessibility and availability of women’s sanitary items.

Ms Orr is then expected to bring the changes to the Legislative Assembly in either the form of a motion of private members bill, which she has more freedom over now that she’s a backbencher.

Original Article published by Dominic Giannini on The RiotACT.

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