Jodi McKay
Jodi McKay

Jodi McKay: ‘My husband gave up his job for me’

THE wily political observer Annabel Crabb spent years contemplating why it seemed so difficult for women to get ahead in politics and eventually came to this conclusion: they don't have wives.

In other words, while male politicians usually had partners who would raise their children and run their households, female politicians rarely had such selfless spouses.

And that is why when Jodi McKay became leader of a shell-shocked Labor Party in Australia's most populated state, the first political scalp she claimed was that of her husband, Stephen Fenn.

The veteran political advisor went from cracking skulls to cracking eggs. "When I got this job, he gave up his," McKay tells Stellar.

"He does all the cooking. In fact, he called me after a meeting about the abortion issue and [said], 'I just wanted to tell you I think I've mastered making an omelette.'"

McKay laughs - but she is certainly not laughing at the subject matter at hand.

McKay speaking during question time in Parliament in July, a month after becoming the NSW Opposition Leader. (Picture: AAP)
McKay speaking during question time in Parliament in July, a month after becoming the NSW Opposition Leader. (Picture: AAP)

As we chat informally, long before the rallies and the righteous rage, the newly minted NSW Opposition Leader confides she is deeply worried the abortion debate is about to explode.

Within days, what should have been a simple piece of legislative housekeeping is threatening to tear down Premier Gladys Berejiklian's leadership.

Then suddenly her own leadership is put to the test when NSW Labor General Secretary Kaila Murnain, a critical ally of McKay, is caught up in a donations scandal.

Without hesitation McKay publicly announces that Murnain has been suspended from the position.

And so... who is she? It's a question most voters would have been literally unable to answer just six months ago.

The NSW Labor Party looked set to snatch a surprise victory in the March election, only to implode after then-leader Michael Daley was derailed by a racism row. Two months later, federal Labor was also crushed against all expectations.

For the long road to redemption, federal Labor turned to Anthony Albanese, while NSW went for a nice girl from the country - seemingly an odd choice in a state where politics is a bloodsport.

 

Who is Jodi McKay? (Picture: Jedd Cooney for Stellar)
Who is Jodi McKay? (Picture: Jedd Cooney for Stellar)

But it doesn't take long to figure out why. McKay has all the qualities that ought to be compulsory for any political leader and yet are surprisingly rare: common sense, honesty and heart. In short, what you'd expect in a nice girl from the country.

And like all good country girls, she knows how to make a clean kill.

She was born in Gloucester, a small town about 120 kilometres from Newcastle. Her parents were conservative and religious. She kept the religion, ditched the conservatism and became a journalist. After a few years she was Novocastrian royalty, anchoring the TV news, but it wasn't enough.

"I wanted to be a journalist and for me journalism is a way to see the world differently," she says. "But I got sick of just seeing what was going on and decided that I was going to start being an active participant instead of an observer."

Another person observing was then-premier Morris Iemma, who saw something in her and intervened to get her preselected over the sitting Newcastle MP for the 2007 election.

This was the beginning of McKay's baptism of fire in the toughest of Labor towns.

The Labor stalwart she displaced ran against her as an independent in a vicious race that split the left. Even Iemma himself thought she was done for, yet she pulled off a miracle win and was elevated to the ministry the following year.

But the miracle was short-lived. Like so many MPs, she lost her seat in the bloodbath that was the 2011 election, only to later discover that Labor powerbroker Joe Tripodi was secretly involved in a smear campaign against her.

This betrayal moved her to tears and she swore off politics forever, but she was enticed to a Sydney seat in the 2015 election and came back stronger and wiser.

 

“I got sick of just seeing what was going on and decided that I was going to start being an active participant instead of an observer.” (Picture: Jedd Cooney for Stellar)
“I got sick of just seeing what was going on and decided that I was going to start being an active participant instead of an observer.” (Picture: Jedd Cooney for Stellar)

The Jodi McKay I'm talking to seems a world away from the woman I met over a decade ago. She's warm without being weak and unbreakable without being hard.

Now 50, she had always thought she would have children but, after focusing on her work for so long, realised too late that feminism's promise of being able to "have it all" was a myth - at least for her.

"I think that's absolutely true - time just slipped away from me and I didn't realise by the time I met Stephen, we just had a few years left," she says. "I'm not one of those that think you can have it all, to be honest."

Yet there is no hint of blame or regret, even after the couple unsuccessfully went through IVF. "Stephen and I tried, but it didn't work out," she says. "But I have the most beautiful stepdaughter."

Is there is any sadness?

"No," she says. "I am so blessed to be where I am, and I have my stepdaughter, so no I don't have any regrets about it at all. I always thought I would have children, but time just slipped away. I married my husband late, I focused on my career and that's what I'm still doing."

 

Dear Stellar features every week in Stellar magazine.
Dear Stellar features every week in Stellar magazine.

 

There is something remarkable about a woman who has been through the most brutal political meatgrinder and made the ultimate personal sacrifice, yet who refuses to seek sympathy.

It is so refreshing it is almost shocking. Instead, she'd rather talk about those she believes really do deserve sympathy, about tackling homelessness and disability. These are the people she will devote her leadership to.

"That's not going to win us any votes," she says frankly, "but it's in our DNA."

And she is determined to win back the working-class and regional Australians who feel Labor has abandoned them.

Yes, she will tackle climate change, but she'll also take care of coal workers. "Because when someone walks into a coal mine, they don't do it because they're damaging the environment, they actually do it because they are putting food on the table for their family."

But perhaps the biggest shock of becoming leader is that it hasn't been that shocking. That the job actually fits her, instead of the other way around.

"It's just lovely I can go wherever I go and still feel I'm Jodi," she says.

"Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am the leader. I'm still trying to get my head around it."

With her husband Stephen Fenn in Sydney in 2009. (Picture: Supplied)
With her husband Stephen Fenn in Sydney in 2009. (Picture: Supplied)


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Air crews on standby as firefighters expect worse weather

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