What a seat at the table means for federal member Zali Steggall

PASSIONATE: Zali Steggall has campaigned on environmental issues. Picture: Simon Bennett
PASSIONATE: Zali Steggall has campaigned on environmental issues. Picture: Simon Bennett

It's more than a year since Federal Member for Warringah Zali Steggall ousted former PM Tony Abbott. But as we chat in the sun of Manly Esplanade - ferries toing and froing behind us - a stream of people stop to congratulate her. "Keep taking it to them!" one lady says. "I voted for you and I'll do it again!"

Still, there are some problems with traction. On various local Facebook groups, commenters lament they can't see Zali in their area. "Where's Zali?!" is a common refrain. When I mention this to Sarah Whyte, Steggall's media adviser, she sighs in exasperation. "Zali did 20 speeches in parliament in the last fortnight," she says.

It's true she is no slouch. At 46, she has lived three significant lives already: former world champion alpine skier, barrister, and now independent MP and dragon slayer.

Next week, on November 9, she will introduce her Climate Change Bill into parliament. This aims to lock in net zero emissions by 2050, in line with countries including Japan, Germany, New Zealand and the UK. It's something very close to her heart and she has spent many months lobbying her fellow politicians, often a job fraught with frustration.

"I will keep campaigning for this, I will keep pestering," she says. "I think the Prime Minister sees me coming and just goes 'Aw! What's she going to ask me now!' He doesn't look at my turn in question time with delight! Which is great. I feel the Prime Minister got there in a way that wasn't how he planned and it was too soon. I don't know that he has a particular vision for Australia beyond just political survival and at a time like now where we've got serious issues on the table, you do actually have to have a vision of where you're going to take people."

She believes it's important to have a "sensible, centrist" voice to balance the "pie in the sky" ideas and closed-minded attitudes of some parliament personalities.

OUTSIDER: Federal Warringah MP Zali Steggall calls for a climate emergency declaration in her maiden speech.

OUTSIDER: Federal Warringah MP Zali Steggall calls for a climate emergency declaration in her maiden speech.

"There are a lot of days when it is incredibly frustrating. When the facts aren't being properly checked," she says, adding that a meeting with Pauline Hanson to discuss global warming was definitely one of those times. "There's just nothing we were able to agree on."

Asked about the legacy she wants to leave, climate and the environment are top of mind. Besides Net Zero, she has campaigned against the renewal of PEP 11, the petroleum exploration permit from the coastline of Manly to the Central Coast, and called for businesses to "supercharge a green recovery" using tax incentives.

She has been buoyed by differences she says she has been able to make, especially locally, and the support she has received at her quarterly forums and in general.

"I've had huge amounts of people one on one," she says. "The biggest complaint people had about Tony Abbott was you never got a meeting, you never got a response, so for me it's really important that I'm here to hear them. I love when people stop and say well done or thank you and I'm also happy to stop with the people who don't like what I stand for as well. And then I go running and do my sport to let off the frustration."

In Canberra, she says, it is not unusual to work 16-hours without any fresh air, so she has learned to rise early and run around a local track. At home in Manly, she unwinds by doing CrossFit with her marketing executive husband Tim Irving and engaging her love of 100-kilometre "ultra-marathon" trail runs. These hours and hours of running, alone, without food or breaks, sound crazy, but her rationale for doing them provides good insight into her thinking as a trail-blazing politician.

"It does hurt but that doesn't mean you're going to quit," she says. "You're in the middle of nowhere, you're really tired and you really have to ask yourself: why am I doing this? And the answer is because I can! Because why not? You get strength from it later; from knowing you could do it more than being in the moment of it."

BORN AND BRED: Zali Steggall has spent most of her life in Manly. Picture: Simon Bennett

BORN AND BRED: Zali Steggall has spent most of her life in Manly. Picture: Simon Bennett

That resilience stood her in good stead for a pretty bitter campaign battle last year, with insults and online smears pegged at Steggall and her support team. At one stage, she says her husband became upset when interviewed about the toll it was taking on their blended family - it's the second marriage for each of them, after they met in 2007 through the Manly Sea Eagles.

"He cried when he was asked if he was worried for me," she says. "He didn't want anyone to hurt me. Whereas I tend to not give it as much thought. Anyone who has gone through a divorce and anyone who has acted in family law has thick skin."

Born in Manly Hospital, Steggall left for France aged four on "a bit of a ski adventure". The family didn't return for 10 years, by which time she was a skiing champ flip flopping between Queenwood School for Girls in Mosman and the various training camps and competitions on the ski circuit. Encouraged by her success-driven family - her grandfather played rugby for Australia and her brother was an Olympic snowboarder - from the age of 14, she spent long periods alone competing in Europe, pre-Internet or mobile phones, with no credit card.

"It was quite challenging," she says. "I was very responsible young, people always thought I was older than I was. I didn't have your traditional teenage years. I was a very focused, diligent teenager, one of those horribly competitive kids who wanted to win everything and quitting was never an option. Basically, instead of being a teenager and focused on parties and fun, I was focused on my training and sponsors and how do I make it happen."

She left school halfway through Year 12 to compete at her first Olympics, then completed her HSC by correspondence the following year.

"I missed all the formals and dinners and fun, schoolies, none of that," she says, although she is still involved with the school and says all her best friends are from there. "I look back on it and I think: 'my goodness, how did I get it done?' It was all fairly lonely, in the sense that you are isolated and didn't have that social connection you get now through social media."

INDEPENDENT: Federal MP Zali Steggall's climate change bill includes net zero emissions by 2050.

INDEPENDENT: Federal MP Zali Steggall's climate change bill includes net zero emissions by 2050.

These days, when she speaks to schoolkids, she urges them to be brave about their opportunities. "You don't want to live with regret or look back and think, 'wow I wish I'd backed myself or given that a go'," she says. "So many people are afraid of failure and that really holds them back from putting themselves out there."

By the time she retired in 2002, she hadn't missed a ski racing season in 22 years. She had competed in four Olympics and been national champion for 13 years. She was 27 and emotionally drained.

"I look back at it now and I think, 'give yourself a break! Take the time off!'" she says. "I squeezed everything in around it, my HSC, my Bachelor of Arts, Media and Communications, my marriage." Her decision also came after the events of September 11, which made her think she needed to do something "more worthwhile". At her retirement press conference in Salt Lake City, a journalist asked her for the highlight of her life. She remembers thinking: I really hope I haven't had it yet. (Although she now skies recreationally with her family, she has never raced a slalom since; and she says she is still working on the life highlight.)

"I hoped there was plenty more to come," she says. "It's one of the biggest problems athletes have - if you're lucky enough to have been successful, you've lived amazing highs. How do you replicate that for the next 60-odd years? What's going to match it? That's a really hard question to answer.

"It was incredibly sad to be closing that chapter of my life after doing it for so long, and scary in the sense that who knows what the future holds for you? What are you going to achieve, are you going to be as good at anything else? There's a lot of doubt that goes through your mind, but at the same time I felt a huge sense of relief that I could now look at what I wanted to make of the next bit."

After a successful career as a barrister, she was approached to run against Abbott and says it took a split second to decide to do it. "Am I going to sit on the sidelines or am I going to show up?" she says now. "I had always thought politics was a possibility but I wasn't planning it, I wasn't joining any parties or having an active social reform voice. I was busy working, raising my kids, getting married and divorced. But there are moments in time where there are sliding doors. There are opportunities and it's really important to take them. I genuinely felt that we needed to do better and that I had something to contribute.

OUSTED: "I never really identified with Tony Abbott" - Zali Steggall

OUSTED: "I never really identified with Tony Abbott" - Zali Steggall

"I was completely prepared for rejection. If what I had to offer was not what people wanted, that's cool as well. But I didn't want people to feel that we had to continue the way we were before because we didn't have a choice. I never really identified with Tony Abbott. I always felt it would be fitting for a woman to take him on because of how he has behaved on a few issues."

She hasn't looked back: in the middle of all the argy bargy and political gamesmanship, she says, she has a seat at the table deciding on laws that will impact millions of lives.

"There is huge pressure but I feel like this is absolutely the right time in the role," she says. "A huge amount of people are very frustrated, and worried, scared, cautious. Now is when we need better representation. Career politicians have really limited life experience and limited perspective that they bring to the problems they are there to solve and I don't think that is for the benefit of society or future policy. We really need people that have experience outside of the political game."

So, what has she learned from turning outside to insider? "Be patient," she says. "My 18-year-old self was so demanding and driven. Tim has been amazing for me: he is a very patient, positive, really good listener so I think I have become a better listener as a result."

For now, the fierce competitor is focused on the road ahead; on getting her environmental bill through next week, on pestering the career politicians. "I'm not a partier, I don't particularly drink," she says. "I work, I train, I'm with my family. I see the parallels with my life as an Olympian. I'm equipped for it. I've put in the years."