Published: 12 October 2019

HER boots and tights tell me she loves purple, but Tasmanian politician and former midwife Ruth Forrest, 57, is no shrinking violet. The Murchison MLC could not have chosen a more fitting colour to wear when we meet to talk about an honour that would make any good feminist proud.

A member of the state’s Legislative Council since 2005, Forrest is the only Tasmanian finalist in the 2019 Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence Awards.

Nominated by Speaker Sue Hickey in the public affairs category, Forrest has been recognised for her recent contributions to debate and reform around marriage equality and gender law and her advocacy in a host of women’s issues over decades.

Forrest seems chuffed by her inclusion when we meet at the designer Salamanca terrace she shares with husband Rob Woolley when they are in Hobart rather than at home at Wynyard.

The honour brings a higher profile, but Forrest is OK with that, saying Hickey also nominated her as a role model for other women. The mother of four understands the power of example-setting. “‘It is harder to be what you can’t see’,” she says, quoting a contemporary women’s movement slogan. “This is a major reason I try to keep visible and engage with other women of all ages and stages of life and work constructively with men.”

One of Forrest’s highest-profile pieces of work related to women, men and to people who do not wholly identify with either sex. While few of us think about the male or female on our birth certificates, it is a perplexing document for intersex, transgender and gender-diverse people.

Though she brought to the gender law reform proposal deep insight and compassion, Forrest also believed the amendments needed fine-tuning, having overreached in regard to data management. While supporting changes that would enable the freedom of individuals to choose their sex or gender on their birth certificates, or to leave the descriptor off the document, Forrest strongly backed maintaining the integrity of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Register as a central database rather than the creation of a separate database.

“I spent weeks and weeks working with Parliamentary Council to try to deal with what I saw as a really important issue, the proposal for which would have created a number of significant issues with legislation,” she says.

With the recent passage of the Marriage and Gender Amendments Act 2019 (also known as the JRL Act), parents can now decide whether or not to include a record of sex on their child’s birth certificate. The requirement to register the sex as male or female of any child born in Tasmania stands.

Additionally, anyone aged 16 or over can now change their registered gender without parental permission to male, female, indeterminate, non-binary or another phrase that reflects their self-perception as neither entirely male or female. And the requirement for a person to have reassignment surgery before changing their registered gender has been removed.

“The important part about the Tasmanian legislation is that you can now get a birth certificate with gender that you identify as, and you can have a birth certificate without any reference to gender,” says Forrest.

“It takes a while for things to change, but since that legislation has passed and the regulations have gone through and been enacted, I’ve had a number of people contact me, mostly the parents of adolescents who are going through a transition, to say how important this has been for them. One woman whose child was about to turn 18 said she was going to get a birth certificate that met her child’s needs for their birthday.”

Forrest’s decades as a midwife shaped her response to gender law reform. She has seen the confusion and heartache firsthand — and the way the old requirements compounded them.

“Being intersex is not wrong,” she says. “It’s just the way some babies are born, but it’s very confusing for parents. So I think it certainly informed my approach.

“It’s really difficult for the parents because, I mean, the first question most people ask when a baby is born is ‘What is it? Is it a boy or a girl?’ But when that first look is not clear, it’s really difficult because, then suddenly [the parents wonder] ‘what do we tell the family? What do we tell anybody?’ It’s a really difficult time and it requires a lot of really considered care and advice.

“One thing the Act can do is give parents in that situation longer to register the birth if they need more time to really be clear about what sex they want to put on the register.”

You see a lot over the years as a midwife, working in hospital environments at such profound and vulnerable times in the lives of mothers, babies and families. “Over the years as a midwife, I became more outspoken, I guess, in standing up for some of the decisions that were taken out of the mother’s hands,” says Forrest, when I ask how she found her way into politics.

“Circumcision of baby boys, which was a routine procedure when I started, was one of those things. It was the midwife’s job to hold the baby down while it was done, on day four or five, with no anaesthetic, while the baby screamed the place down.

“When you are a student midwife you do what you’re told to do, but over time it became apparent to me that there was no solid reason for doing it.”

Forrest says that “what really swung it for me one day” was returning a distressed baby to his mother after the surgery, only to realise the mother had not really understood what she had consented to.

“She just burst into tears and cried and cried and cried. And I thought, how can this happen? It made me question some of what was actually happening around women having ‘choice’ about what was happening to their bodies and their children’s bodies. I was seeing things that didn’t seem quite right.”

Forrest also witnessed women in the North-West being denied access to pregnancy termination — and abortions being quietly carried on at other times.

“There was great stigma about it, but what used to happen back then was they were put on the gynaecological list, where it might be called a curette, which is a common procedure, but with a little marker beside it so everyone knew what it was, and anyone who had an objection didn’t have to be involved.”

Forrest has a clear position on abortion — she wants the surgical procedure performed in public hospitals. And she wants some people to come out of La La Land.

“Personally, I’d rather not see termination of pregnancy,” she says. “It would be lovely if every pregnancy was planned and the baby was really wanted and loved, but we know that is not always the case.”

She remembers comforting and counselling a pregnant friend whose baby’s rare condition showed only mid-term. When Forrest hears hardline positions from anti-abortionists saying termination should never occur after 20 weeks, she thinks back to her friend’s situation and many others like it.

“She was getting really unwell herself and she ended up making a decision [to] terminate the pregnancy because this child was not going to survive, anyway.”

In conversation, Forrest often calls on vivid — and sometimes shocking — stories to illustrate her point. The combination of her broad accent, matter-of-fact candour and soulful eyes leaves the listener in no doubt of her sincerity and care.

She shares anecdotes with palpable compassion that extends to her chosen terminology, such as “bringing on labour early” when everybody knows a baby cannot survive.

“Another one I assisted with, at 32 weeks [gestation], the baby had no brain, and back in those days it wasn’t picked up. People who make these claims have no idea what it’s like [to be a parent in those situations].”

In her first shift in a labour ward as a student midwife in 1982, Forrest assisted with a termination for a baby with anencephaly, where the foetus has a face but not a brain or the top section of its head.

“It was my job to look after the mother on my very first day, and I think that experience helped me to see that life’s not always perfect,” she says.

“Experiences like these helped me to see that where things are difficult for women — men have difficult times, too, but I’ve worked in this space — that we really need to be sure that we provide good advice and absolutely non-judgmental care, and to do it with great kindness.”

What does she make of the ongoing difficulty for women to easily access affordable elective surgical terminations in Tasmania? Though abortion was decriminalised in the state in 2013, elective surgical and medical abortions are not available through the public health system, the State Government having refused to fund it. “I think it’s appalling,” says Forrest.

“What we have here is the right legislation but the wrong policy. In some countries you have all the goodwill in the world and the policy intent is that women can make decisions about their own bodies without interference, but they don’t have the legislation. Here, we’ve had the legislation right since 2013, but we have a government with a policy that puts its own ideologies ahead of the health needs of women.

“It is a policy void, really, by a government too gutless to act on what the parliament has agreed is a women’s health issue.

“For as long as there is [inadequate provision of access], there is no equality, there is no equity. There will be ongoing shaming and stigmatisation of women until we fix this.”

Forrest’s abortion advocacy and support for same sex marriage earned her the ire of at least one Christian group before her re-election two years ago, but she is unapologetic.

Forrest is a fierce guardian of women’s rights in an era where wind-back unthinkable just a few years ago is happening in many places. “Sometimes I think we are going backwards in the way that women are being treated, and how women are seeing themselves,” she says.

Her bedside reading is See What You Made Me Do (Black Inc, $32.99) by investigative journalist Jess Hill that puts domestic violence perpetrators in the spotlight. Forrest says its findings are deeply disturbing.

She is also alarmed and dismayed by the recent appointment to a family law inquiry of One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson, as deputy chair, with conservative christian Liberal backbencher Kevin Andrews as chair.

Forrest echoes anti-violence campaigner Rosie Batty’s concern that with Hanson and Andrews at the helm the inquiry will not be balanced and could become a platform for men’s rights activists.

Forrest and Woolley’s Salamanca home is a former port officer’s residence built in the 1830s. Totally overhauled two years ago by Launceston architect Jack Birrell, it is a stunning, light-filled space with two exposed sandstone walls.

A barbecue and multi-tiered pot of herbs on a sheltered deck overlooking the River Derwent are homely touches in the designer space. Furniture including a dining suite by Launceston maker Dunsmuir is custom-made in a range of Tasmanian timbers. All the artwork is Tasmanian, too.

Collecting it is a passion the politician shares with the entrepreneurial Woolley, who is the former chairman and driving force behind Bellamy’s infant formula at the time of the company’s outstanding share market performance, and TasFoods.

They’ve been together for almost seven years, marrying here in their Hobart pad last year in the company of surprised dinner guests and several family members. They exchanged vows in a service led by a marriage celebrant with pro-same sex marriage credentials.

Though Forrest’s parents did not attend, they were privy to the secret plan, Ruth and Rob having driven up to the old family farm at Riana, where the elderly cattle farmers still live, to share the happy plan.

“We had both said we wouldn’t get married again,” says Forrest, beaming. Woolley had already made it clear to me, in a recent interview about the sale of Bellamy’s, how proud he is of his wife’s advocacy and achievements and how contented he feels with her by his side.

Despite his rocky road with Bellamy’s and other business challenges over the past two years, he said his happiness with Forrest helps him keep things in perspective.

“Life is good,” he said.

The couple met after she was first elected, rubbing shoulders at various meetings and events. They enjoyed discussing politics and a friendship developed. “I really liked the way he thought and he challenged my thinking,” Forrest remembers. “We had some really interesting, robust discussions.”

Forrest says despite some differences, they share a deep social conscience and political engagement. They are also mad-keen North Melbourne AFL supporters and keen travellers.

“Rob has been a real soulmate and major supporter of and for me, an honest critic and deep thinker who is not afraid to challenge my ideas, thinking and approach to topics.

“I always appreciate his insights into the work I am doing and he nearly always travels with me, which is great for two reasons. First, we get to spend a lot of time together where we can chat and explore topics, ideas and politics generally.

“Secondly, as I have Meniere’s Disease, which can completely incapacitate me for many hours, I feel much safer, especially when travelling in remote parts of the state with little or no phone reception. When Rob can’t travel around the electorate with me, my wonderful executive assistant Yvonne Stone does.”

Forrest’s mother tells her, perhaps euphemistically, that she was always a very “busy” child. “I spent a lot of time out with my dad on the farm to keep me occupied,” says Forrest. “I am sure they were relieved when I was old enough for school.”

After attending Riana primary school, she went on to Ulverstone High School, then Hellyer College, where she did maths, physics, chemistry and computer studies. She graduated in just one year, even after a bedridden month with glandular fever.

She started nursing at the old Burnie Hospital just before she turned 17. “I was actually ‘doing things’ to patients six weeks after preliminary training school,” she says.

“In many ways it was a great way to learn, but you were seriously thrown in the deep end. I also did an intensive care course at Burnie Hospital before starting midwifery training there when I was 21.”

She had found her vocation and spent decades on the job, pausing to have four babies of her own. She says that until she stood for power in 2005, she never aspired to do anything politically. She was active, though, through an industry body from the late 1980s as a member of the Australian College of Midwives. As Tasmanian branch president and national delegate for many years, she advocated for a model that provided continuity of care with the same midwife throughout pregnancy, during labour and birth, and into the postnatal period.

When Burnie Private Hospital opened, she moved there and helped secure the funding to set up a popular alternative birthing services program with the same-midwife model she embraced.

So successful was this way of working and relating to patients that the hospital continued the program when public funding ran out. Epidural, caesarean and episiotomy rates all fell, she says. Maternal care was excellent and mothers to be were generally more at ease. “And the satisfaction from the midwives was enormous,” she says.

She also advocated, not as successfully as she’d have liked, for Medicare coverage and professional indemnity insurance for midwives, particularly those working in private practice and as homebirth midwives.

It was former Liberal Senator Stephen Parry, the husband of her old nursing friend Allison Vincent, who suggested over dinner one night that Forrest stand for the Legislative Council when long-time Murchison MLC Tony Fletcher stepped down. Initially sceptical, she pondered the idea further later that night.

“When I got home, I thought, well, maybe I could do it, if it meant I could get inside the door to gain better access to ministers more easily. I would have to be independent though, I thought, because I wouldn’t be able to stay in a party. It would kick me out because I wouldn’t toe the line. You can ask my mother about that, and my father.”

She laughs. Decision made, Forrest — whose marriage had ended two years before — redrew on her home loan to come up with the $12,000 maximum campaign spend and started doorknocking.

Little did she realise what an astonishing popularity base she had delivered along with all those babies over the years.

“Because I’d been doing caseload midwifery, I’d delivered all the grandchildren of some of the people I met. I was often doorknocking during the day when a lot of older people are at home, I’d introduce myself at the door and hear ‘Oh Ruth, you delivered my grandson!’”

She would ask for their daughter or son’s name and the memories would come. “’Oh yes, that was a big baby, wasn’t it.’ Or ‘Well, she had a long labour didn’t she, but anyway, it was a good outcome.’ I had such a deep connection with parents and extended family from looking after women from right across the region, so while I didn’t top a lot of polls, I had a high rating and broad support right across the electorate.”

Forrest also has a special connection with one of TasWeekend’s team as she was the midwife who attended the delivery of editor Kirsty Eade’s two daughters.

“I remember Ruth well, as she helped bring both of my girls into the world, 19 and 17 years ago respectively,” Eade says.

“The first thing I remember about Ruth is that she had extremely cold hands when she was feeling my stomach and checking that my babies were OK during our ‘get to know your midwife’ sessions.

“And just as the old saying goes, ‘cold hands, warm heart’ is probably the best way I could sum up Ruth Forrest. As a nervous first-time mum I couldn’t have had anyone more wonderful and caring to look after me during those daunting months leading up to the birth of my first child.”

Trusty locals have returned Forrest to her seat twice, though the competition has not been exactly overwhelming. In 2011, she was the only candidate, and one of only two candidates in 2017 when she beat Daryl Quilliam.

Behind the scenes, too, she has had trusted confidantes and advisors. Known for her financial acumen and deftness with detail, Forrest remembers feeling panic-stricken by her “huge deficit” when first elected 14 years ago.

“When you are elected in May, you are pretty much straight into the budget sessions. I’d never even read a budget sheet, or even really budgeted for the household, so I had a really steep learning curve.”

Enter ‘secret’ weapon John Lawrence, a Wynyard accountant and economist. Forrest forged a close relationship with her trusted adviser over gnarly aspects of the forestry managed investment scheme.

“Let me put it this way,” says Forrest, with a laugh. “He was really patient, and he really helped me understand it, and we have worked together ever since. For a long time we were in the closet, not telling anyone he was working for me — you don’t want the government of the day to have any way of undermining you.”

It’s all open, now, though — unlike the outcome of her mediation with former Liberal MP Rene Hidding following an incident at a parliamentary dinner in 2016.

While she discusses the confrontation in detail with TasWeekend, it seems pointless to rehash it here.

Forrest is much more interested in developing positive relationships with Tasmanian politicians. She gets on well with Sue Hickey, though she says their political styles are different. She is thrilled by Meg Webb’s addition to the Leg Co, having encouraged her to stand, and she has a lot of time for Senator Jacqui Lambie, though they agree to disagree on marriage equality.

“I am proactive in having and maintaining a good relationship with Jacqui, because she is my constituent and I’m hers,” says Forrest. “We catch up when we can. Her heart is in the right place and she admits when she’s made mistakes.

“When she went in she was pretty naïve and green, the same as I was. You learn by doing.”

Some things don’t change, though. Or not fast enough.

“As a woman I think you are always conscious of finding that balance between a level of assertiveness that doesn’t make you appear bossy, angry or out of control while also maintaining your womanhood and your femininity. I think a lot of men fear sharing power, because they feel that by giving up some of that past power they are losing it all. But it must be shared if it’s going to be equal.”

The winner of the 100 Women of Influence Awards will be announced on October 22.


The Mercury Saturday 12 October, 2019

Go Back