Postcard from Sydney: Preparing the next generation of political leaders

After 12 years in politics, the Hon. Gabrielle Upton shared with Advance her global Australian roots, and her post-parliamentary endeavours to improve gender equality outcomes in Australian politics. 

How did you find yourself living in New York for 6 years? How did the experience shape you?

Introducing the Return and Earn container deposit scheme from December 2017.

I left my corporate law career to pursue an MBA at New York University’s Stern School of Business in 1993. It was a bold decision at the time and an exhilarating adventure that then allowed me to work with global financial institutions like Deutsche Bank and Toronto Dominion Bank. Living in the vibrant and diverse city, and working on Wall Street opened my eyes to new ideas and possibilities. The experience also played a pivotal role in shaping my path in public service and beyond, particularly recognising the depth of Australian talent working away in cities around the world. I will always cherish the memories and the valuable lessons I learned during my time in the Big Apple. 

What motivated you to transition into parliament?

I was always interested in economic development policy and how to build better communities. Before I started my MBA I found an opportunity as an intern at the Manhattan Borough President’s office, and during the summer break I interned at the Partnership for New York City. The experiences sharpened my interest in politics and when I returned to Australia, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I ended up winning the Seat of Vaucluse in a landslide at the 2011 state election. It was quite a ride!

Throughout my time in politics, I held a range of positions including Minister for Sport and Recreation, Minister for Family and Community Services, Minister for the Environment and Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier. Being the first female Attorney General (2015-2017) was a real privilege, because the Attorney General is that accessible face between the rule of law and the people of NSW, and plays an important role in building a better justice system.

12 years in NSW Parliament, at the electorate office in Vaucluse

Of course, the journey as a Minister isn’t always smooth sailing. There were moments of scrutiny and criticism, but I stayed true to my values. I introduced game-changing initiatives like Return and Earn, the container deposit scheme to tackle litter in NSW and fought to protect our precious koalas with the first $45m Koala Strategy. Leading the development of the “Turning Ideas into Jobs” R&D Action Plan has cemented my keen interest in the innovation economy, and I know my global experience in finance and law helped shape my perspective. I look back on my time in politics with a sense of pride and fulfilment. 

As of March this year, you left parliament and shared insight on how women could be better prepared for parliamentary life. What is your goal from this?

After stepping back from politics in March, I wanted to capture my learnings and tap into my networks to support other women in their political careers. While there has been a concerted effort to increase the representation of women in parliaments, there has been a lack of adequate support for them once they are elected. 

I’m pleased that federal MPs from different political parties are collaborating to address this issue, by training and mentoring women for political careers at all levels of government, and actively encouraging women to consider running for office. It is crucial to demonstrate to women that there is a clear pathway into public office and other avenues for a political career.

Drawing inspiration from my recent study tour to the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, my report to the NSW Parliament “On the Record – Building Know-How for New Women MPs” proposes a short practical bipartisan training program for all new women MPs. I also propose embedding formalised cross-party women’s committees in the Parliament so women’s issues including those of women MPs can be properly considered. My report also highlights the historical male-dominated nature of Australian parliaments and the challenges faced by women MPs in navigating and succeeding in such environments. It underscores the importance of achieving a critical mass of women MPs to bring about cultural change and create better working conditions for all women in politics.

Reflecting on my own political career, I hope that these initiatives will prepare women for the competitiveness of parliament and provide them with practical training for media appearances and strategies to address the disproportionate social media abuse endured by female MPs. Ultimately, my goal is to create a more inclusive and supportive political environment for women, promoting gender equality and enhancing women’s representation in politics.

The Trailblazers – Celebrating the women of the Parliament of New South Wales, June 2018


Female MPs lead push to drive more women into parliament

Valedictory Speech – 15 Nov 2022