Polly Stepford (1932–1997)
Labor is not working. Labor is not working. Labor is not working.
—From a speech at a Liberal Party fundraiser in Sydney, May 1985
Liberal Party politician Polly Stepford was born Pauline Lord in the western Sydney suburb of Baynton on 25 August 1932. She came from an influential family; her mother Antonia was a well-known socialite and her father Otto was president of the local branch of the Liberal Party. As well as this, Otto owned more than 50 properties around the city, most of them in a state of such squalor that the Daily Trumpet had named him ‘Slum’ Lord in the 1920s. Polly was educated at a private girls’ school, before commencing an economics degree at the University of Sydney in 1949. It was here that she joined the Australian Liberal Students Federation, penning articles for the organisation’s newsletter and quickly making a name for herself as a formidable debater. Polly was less successful in her academic studies, failing all of her first-year subjects. Shortly before resitting her exams, which Polly passed with flying colours, her father donated $50,000 to the university’s infrastructure development fund. Polly was never to fail another subject.
Polly attended lectures rarely, spending time instead in her role as treasurer for the Australian Liberal Students Federation, and writing and rehearsing speeches for their debating team. Her oratorical style was powerful, if robotic, and mostly consisted of repeating long strings of facts to confuse her opponents; if that did not work, she would compare them to Adolf Hitler, and this was almost always enough to clinch victory. She was only ever bested once, in a debate held in her third year at university in which she spoke in support of the proposition, ‘A woman’s place is in the home.’ Her opponent was a brilliant young Marxist called Mick McCelty, a journalism student taking part in his first debate, and he comprehensively demolished Polly’s arguments. That night, as McCelty celebrated his victory in the Students Union, he was gravely injured after falling down a flight of stairs, and was left permanently paralysed. His accusation that Polly Lord had crept up behind him and pushed him was derided by her allies as class warfare. The resulting police investigation brought no charges against Polly; her alibi, that she was not on campus at the time of the accident, was supported by a dozen fellow Liberal students.
Polly graduated with a first class degree in 1952, leaving university just before the collapse of the Australian Liberal Students Federation, amid claims of gross financial mismanagement. After four years working for her father’s firm, she stood successfully as a Liberal councillor for Baynton in 1956; at only 24 she was the youngest councillor in the country’s history. From the first, her stridently pro-business agenda found many friends outside the council chamber, but few within, where Labor councillors accused her of bullying and intimidation. Polly was particularly active in spearheading reforms to the council’s Planning and Development Approvals Process, slashing the processing time for applications from nine months to just three days. She was also instrumental in helping to push through several massive building developments that required the demolition of a number of historic buildings, despite strident local opposition. In May 1960, after her landslide re-election, Polly was made mayor of Baynton, and shortly afterwards she married Martin Stepford, a protégé of her father’s who had made his fortune from the developments that Polly had ensured were approved. Despite repeated demands from opposition councillors for an inquiry into the Stepfords’ business dealings, and controversy over the mayor’s rapidly ballooning expenses, which included the hire of a limousine to travel 50 metres, Polly Stepford successfully quashed any questioning of her authority. The Baynton Advertiser, recently purchased by her father, was a staunch supporter of the mayor, especially after the sacking of its editor, Mick McCelty.
Stepford weathered a number of political storms over the next few years, but her tenure as mayor came to an end in September 1969 with Baynton Council’s bankruptcy. The council had been tied up in litigation for nearly two years over a parking ticket that had been given to local resident Mick McCelty, now a broadcaster for the ABC. McCelty had been given the ticket for parking in a disabled space, despite displaying the appropriate permit, and he alleged that the mayor had instructed the council parking inspectors to harass him, a claim that was eventually upheld in court. The substantial damages awarded to McCelty came amid reports of serious financial irregularities in the council’s accounts, which eventually led to the appointment of administrators and the resignation of the mayor. Stepford claimed that she had been exonerated when an independent report on the debacle was released, despite it explicitly blaming her for the council’s enormous financial losses. By then Stepford had become a director in her husband’s company, Stepford PLC. The couple’s already sizeable personal fortune increased rapidly after 1971 when Stepford PLC became Australia’s only importer of Miracowall, a remarkably cheap, durable fireproof material used in plasterboard.
After her father’s death in 1970, Polly Stepford took over his position as president of the local branch of the Liberal Party, and in 1974 she was nominated to stand for the seat of Baynton at the federal election. Her campaign was notable for her absolute adherence to the party line, and even achieved a measure of notoriety when a linguist at Newcastle University released an analysis of all Stepford’s speeches and interviews in a one-year period, and found that she never used a word that did not appear in the Liberal Party’s election manifesto. Her oratory, which had become ever more mechanical since her student days, earned her the nickname ‘The Stepford Wife’ from bored journalists.
After the Liberal victory in 1974, Stepford was made deputy minister for education, and despite a blatant conflict of interest exposed by Mick McCelty on the ABC’s 45 Minutes, her husband’s company was awarded contracts to build dozens of primary school buildings throughout the country, undercutting other tenders by more than half thanks to the revolutionary Miracowall. Stepford proved a capable deputy, and her unwavering loyalty was rewarded in a 1980 cabinet reshuffle when she was appointed education minister. For a brief time she was embraced as an icon for the feminist movement, but Stepford was quick to distance herself from feminism, insisting she had gotten to where she was by hard work, and had never encountered sexism in her life. Her heightened media profile saw her being interviewed more often, which only served to reveal her disconnectedness from her constituents; Stepford was in the habit of deploying bizarre idioms such as ‘Don’t pass the potato’, which she believed ordinary Australians used.
Stepford’s greatest strength lay in her adeptness at not answering questions. In one hour-long ABC interview, every question, including ‘How are you today, Minister?’ and ‘You were close to your father; how did his death affect you?’ was steered to the topic of the Labor Party’s plan to raise taxes. In opposition after 1983 Stepford was credited with pioneering the use of the ‘four-word slogan’, a rhetorical device later embraced and finessed by Tony Abbott. At a Liberal Party fundraiser in 1985, Stepford’s barnstorming 30-minute speech consisted of only four words, ‘Labor is not working’, which she repeated, to increasingly frenzied applause, more than 180 times. The Liberal Party briefly adopted her slogan until it was revealed that it had been plagiarised from the British Conservative Party’s 1979 election campaign. This furore, however, was as nothing compared to the scandal that erupted in 1986, and which threatened to destroy Stepford’s political career.
In July of that year, the ABC’s flagship current affairs show Triangle broke the story of a huge unexplained spike in cases of childhood leukaemia throughout Australia. Thanks to the tireless research of Mick McCelty and his team, the cause of this increase was eventually traced back to Miracowall, which Stepford PLC had used in the construction and renovation of primary schools in the 1970s; the material was found to be riddled with carcinogens. Over the next five years, more than 3000 children were hospitalised and received radiotherapy, and more than 100 died. The removal of Miracowall from the nation’s schools cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Martin Stepford was arrested in November 1986 after releasing a statement that he alone was to blame for the Miracowall disaster. After only a week in custody, he died from a heart attack. Polly Stepford was only saved from arrest by a fire that destroyed most of Stepford PLC’s records. She insisted she had done nothing wrong, but she could not ignore the national outrage and calls for her resignation. Finally, in January 1987, Stepford released a 3000-word statement of apology, which did not include the words ‘sorry’ or ‘apologise’. She resigned from parliament two days later.
Stepford disappeared from public life for several years, gradually rebuilding her support in the party, and emerging once again to run for the seat of Baynton in 1993 after a federal inquiry into the Miracowall scandal, which Labor had boycotted, cleared her of any wrongdoing. Stepford began the campaign 20 points behind Labor in the polls, and she had been all but written off before deciding on a new strategy. Aware of a growing intolerance in Australian public life, Stepford became adept at exploiting it for her own ends, after a few false starts. At first, Stepford insisted there were too many Italians in Australia who were on benefits and stealing jobs, but when polling showed this line was not working, she moved onto the Greeks, with a similar lack of success. At last she settled on demonising Asians, which saw her popularity soar. Stepford’s dog whistling proved popular not only in Baynton but around the country, as did her new catchphrase, beginning every sentence in interviews with ‘As a battler myself …’ Not even her faux pas of attempting to eat a Chiko Roll with a knife and fork at a photo op could dent her popularity.
Bankrolled by the coal and gas industries, Stepford outspent her opponent by a factor of three and was elected with a massive majority, despite the many protests reminding the public of her role in the Miracowall scandal. Stepford was appointed deputy minister at the Department of the Environment, and immediately set about rolling back environmental protection legislation. She became the darling of the party’s hard right faction and in 1994 the Daily Trumpet predicted she would become Australia’s first female prime minister by the end of the decade. But this was not to be. In June of that year, Stepford claimed $250,000 on her parliamentary expenses for the renovation of her Baynton offices. After almost a year of investigations, Mick McCelty revealed on ABC News that only $10,000 of the money had gone to the builder; Stepford had kept the remainder for herself. Once again facing calls for her to resign, Stepford gave a tearful interview to 45 Minutes, claiming that she had always been a feminist, and McCelty’s lifelong persecution of her was simply because she was a woman.
Stepford’s gambit failed, and a month later, with ill grace, she resigned and went to the back benches, announcing her retirement from politics at the next election. In a January 1997 interview with Coal magazine, Stepford spoke of the lucrative offers made to her to become a consultant for the coal industry, while simultaneously hinting at a return to politics. In February Stepford became ill, and was hospitalised due to breathing difficulties. Though she had never smoked, she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and she died in hospital on 14 April 1997. A routine health and safety inspection of her Baynton office shortly after revealed her cause of death; Stepford had given so little money to the builder for the 1994 renovations of her offices that he had used the cheapest material he could find: Miracowall.