Top photo: Heidi Victoria
By Thorsten Eisingerich
Heidi Victoria, an Austro-Australian dual citizen, has until recently served as the Minister for the Arts, Women’s Affairs and Consumer Affairs of the State of Victoria, Australia. In December 2014, she became Shadow Minister for Tourism and Major Events, Arts and Culture, and Aboriginal Affairs in Victoria.
Where is your family originally from and do you still maintain contact with relatives in Austria?
My mother was a New Zealander, but my Dad is from Steyr, Upper Austria - my birth family name was Mitterlehner. I still have a favorite aunt and cousin in Pinsdorf, Upper Austria.
In your previous career, you were a successful photographer. What made you turn to politics?
Coincidentally, it was my Austrian heritage and belief that all children should learn a second (and possible third or more) language that made me take the leap into the unknown. The bi-lingual school I intended to send my daughter to had just lost its language program funding. So I fought to have it restored. That funding then also continued in another 10+ schools around our state. I am proud to say that, nine years later, the program is going stronger than ever (now for over 30 years)! It was the initial catalyst for my decision to stand for parliament; after that, I discovered the other opportunities being missed out on in my community and just couldn’t sit still.
After setting up the EU friendship group in the Victorian parliament some years ago, you have launched a friendship group with Austria, which you are also chairing. How is that playing out - does this function bring you back home to Austria more often?
The concept of the parliamentary friendship groups is to foster business and cultural ties between nations. However, my last visit to Austria already dates back to 2012 when I traveled to Vienna with high ranking colleagues, meeting with some of your senior Ministers and bureaucrats.
As to the EU friendship group, it got to a terrific start but, in hindsight, covered too broad an area. So when I decided to set up the Austrian group late last year, it was very satisfying that so many parliamentarians from all sides of politics attended the inaugural meeting, including ministers and the former speaker, as I would love to see more official interaction between the two countries I love so dearly. Since then, we have already had esteemed visitors speaking to our group, including the Ambassador.
We have also identified areas of mutual interest, which obviously include the arts, culture and international convention tourism since Austria has such an amazing cultural background and thriving arts scene. The first visit to Austria by our group is scheduled for the second half of 2016 and I would be interested to know if any jurisdiction in Austria has set up a reciprocal “Parliamentary Friends of Australia” group (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
And what about the Trans-Pacific relations to the USA?
Interestingly, the other group I am chairing is the friendship group with the USA, which has been thriving over many parliamentary terms, given the importance of trade between the two countries. It obviously has bi-partisan support, with many current and former ministers as members.
Personally, I have visited the eastern, western and southern United States on probably 10-12 occasions already; in more recent years predominantly to further develop policy in my interest areas, namely film and arts; but we have also much to learn from the excellent indigenous cultural tourism offerings across the USA, so that is an area I am continuing to investigate.
The next chance to do that will be during my upcoming visit to the U.S. in July this year. The schedule is already incredibly full, visiting California, Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, North Carolina and New York in just 2 and a half weeks!
Did you already have an opportunity to meet the arguably best-known Austrian politician in the world - former Californian “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Arnold was a huge ‘hit’ at our Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix in March this year: He actually came to attend one of his body building competitions, and I was present as shadow minister for major events. So I had the pleasure of greeting him with a ‘Grüss Gott’ and got a ‘Servus’ and a smile in return!
Have you ever been tempted by federal politics?
Never! No, state politics is where my heart lies. Our job is to deal with issues that affect people on a daily, intimate basis. For example, we fund major roads, transport, schools, hospitals, cultural programs, etc. Naturally, there are areas of overlap with my federal colleagues, and while international politics interest me, I’m very happy making my contribution at the state level.
The present issue of Austrian Information has women/gender issues as its Leitmotif:
As a former Director of the National Council of Women of Australia and until recently the Victorian Minister for Women’s Affairs, are there any milestones you could achieve during your tenures? On the other hand, did you encounter gender-specific prejudice in your political career, which made you redouble your resolve?
As someone who has always worked in areas of traditional male dominance, I can honestly say that I have not been subject to gender prejudices. I’m a firm believer of the best ‘person’ for a role, and have always strived to be the very best I can be. Of course, some cultures don’t give women the same opportunities, as we are lucky enough to have in Australia. As a former national board member on the National Council of Women of Australia, I actively advocated for equality for women and children around the globe. In my ministerial capacity, some of the programs I helped introduce in our state were very successful and therefore very satisfying.
For example, the Women’s Economic Participation Strategy enabled hundreds of women to gain confidence to (re-) enter the workforce – a major boost to their independence and self-esteem. We did this by creating opportunities for leadership, education, self-employment and many other varied pathways. Every thankyou letter from a successful participant made me realize just how much of a real difference we were able to make.
As a Cabinet Member of the Victorian Shadow Government, you have added Aboriginal Affairs to your portfolio: do you have any personal bonding to the world’s oldest uninterrupted human civilization?
As the former Minister for the Arts, there was constant interaction with the indigenous community: From funding the amazing new exhibit called ‘First Peoples’ at the Melbourne Museum area called Bunjilaka, to increasing the prize money for the Victorian Indigenous Art Awards, pushing for the central relocation of the Koorie Heritage Trust or listening to the Elders give their inspiring “Welcome to Country” on so many occasions. They are proud people, and I look forward to working closely with them.
In spite of your tight schedule as a politician and former Minister, how do you find the energy to continue your charity work? On top of that, fulfilling the duties of a caring single mother sounds like an impossible further challenge. How do you cope with all this and how does your young and bright daughter experience this “life on steroids” in between a multitude of cultural events?
I’m so lucky that Charlotte not only understands culture but also embraces it with open arms! Ask any busy person how they cope and you’ll find the answer is usually the same, “I just do it!” Some weeks I work 80-85 hours, so I’m sitting at my desk long after she goes to sleep. As the old saying goes: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” I am deeply honored to serve in my position as Member for Bayswater and in the Shadow Cabinet. Would I rather be at home, cleaning my house or watching TV? ...Not in a million years!
My family had the privilege to savor your homemade Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings). Which other Austrian dishes would you count among your favorites?
Marillenknödel (and Zwetschkenknödel) are my weakness, but there’s nothing better than a good Schnitzel with Semmelknödel, Sauerkraut and Saft! My family thinks it’s an odd combination, but my taste buds disagree.