HARD work and having a go – they are the values that define Leanne Castley, a proud single Mum-of-two, country music singer and lover of cars, motorbikes and engines.
Leanne’s passions are small business and working hard for the people in her electorate of Yerrabi, so the fast-growing area continues to be a great place to live and raise a family.
Politics was never on Leanne’s radar but she was encouraged to contest the October 2020 ACT election and was thrilled and humbled to be elected.
“The chick from Charny” and a battler; that’s how Leanne described herself in her first speech on December 3, 2020, adding that she wanted to show that politics can be for hard-working, ordinary family battlers like herself.
Canberra has been home to Leanne since she was five years old, when her Dad left her Mum, so Mum Lorraine moved Leanne and older brother Barton to the ACT.
Leanne’s Auntie Lou lived in Canberra and her Mum’s parents had a sheep and cattle farm at Bookham, beyond Yass, where Leanne spent fun weekends and holidays mustering sheep and riding dirt bikes.
Leanne and her 2 kids, Lachlan and Bethany
Lorraine was a nurse and money was tight; she instilled in her kids the importance of hard work and personal responsibility.
Leanne is proud to say she has always worked, with jobs such as office cleaner, Tupperware lady, stocking vending machines, singing teacher, tuck shop lady at her kids’ school, mechanics’ trade assistant and running a beauty parlour from her spare bedroom.
School was Flynn Primary, Charnwood High and Copland College, with Leanne’s first full-time job as an accounts clerk at Gerald Slaven Holden.
Leanne understands small business; she and her former husband ran three caryards employing five staff which, for a long time, were a great success.
Around this time she also recorded her country music album Perfect Day.
But business success didn’t last. The global financial crisis hit. They liquidated the caryards, lost the house and the marriage went too.
Then began a long career in IT, an area Leanne knew nothing about. Her first job was on an IT Help Desk.
Leanne gained a Diploma in Project Management, took all the training she could and landed roles at the AFP and Defence, managing teams of up to 10 people.
Leanne and her mum on a Facetime call with her brother Barton on the day of Leanne's 1st speech
Leanne is concerned the Labor government has been in power for so long they have lost touch with the Canberra battlers; people who want to get on, who want their kids to have a good education, to learn good manners and values and to have good jobs and opportunities.
To quote from Leanne’s first speech: “The issues, views and aspirations of my electorate, that’s what matters to me. Yerrabi residents and families do not want politicians telling them what to do. They can do that perfectly well on their own.
“But they do want politicians to be honest, to listen and to fix problems.
“I assure the good folk in my electorate that my two feet will stay firmly planted in Gungahlin soil.
“I am the chick from Charny and I don’t want to lose that. That’s who I am.”
Leanne points to her 19-year-old daughter and 24-year-old son as her proudest achievements.
Away from politics, she loves hitting the open road on her motorbike and performing in pubs and clubs around town.
First Speech December 3, 2020
First speech to the Legislative Assembly. Leanne Castley - Liberal MLA for Yerrabi. Wednesday December 2, 2020
I begin my first speech by acknowledging the traditional owners of the Australian Capital Territory, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their culture and their elders.
As a country music singer I have performed in pubs and clubs all over the ACT and Australia wide, but this gig of politics is one I never saw coming.
For this proud 'chick from Charny', it's still sinking in.
A few weeks ago Assembly staff addressed me, “Ms Castley, may we order some new crockery for your office?”
No one has ever spoken to me that way.
Working in office admin in Kingston many years ago, I remember my boss sighing as she said, “Leanne, could you sound less Charnwood and more Kingston.”
The perks and privileges for politicians, the deferential treatment – it throws me.
Few people receive their own free car space, and with the politicians’ car park being next to the public one, I am conscious of that privilege every day, as I see ordinary workers lining up to pay for parking tickets.
Having said that, I have enormous respect for our parliamentary democracy, so I humbly come into this place with my head held high, vowing to smash it for the people in my electorate of Yerrabi.
As I have said, I am the proud chick from Charny – think the 1980s; V8 Commodore's and beat up Datsun's, footy shorts, mullets and flannelette shirts and hanging out at the Charny shops in desert boots and black jeans.
School was Flynn Primary and Charnwood High, but school didn't interest me much – I wanted to earn money and get on with life.
Sewing and cooking were my high school fortes – I was a 'Suzy Homemaker” and my Year 10 sewing project was my hot pink taffeta formal dress.
My first job at 14 was actually in a sewing shop, but the lady was always cranky and didn't pay me so I knocked on the door of Charnwood dental surgery to apply for the dental assistant position.
Graham Shaw interviewed me on the spot and I got the job. I have worked on and off for Graham for years and, with two ex-husbands, I often joke that Graham has been the most stable man in my life.
Canberra has been good to my family and we needed it to be – I was five when Dad left Mum so the three of us – Mum Lorraine, my older brother Barton and I – moved to the ACT from Sydney.
Mum's sister Auntie Lou was here and Mum's parents had a sheep and cattle farm at Bookham, beyond Yass.
My fondest childhood memories are weekends and school holidays at the farm; mustering the sheep at sheering time, riding dirt bikes with my cousins and turning off the highway onto the long dirt road when I'd sit on my grandparents' lap and steer the car all the way to the farmhouse.
And so began my love of big engines and loud motors.
Mum, Barton and I were a team and Mum did what she needed to survive. At times we were completely broke. Barton and I knew money was tight and I felt the weight of it.
Mum was a nurse working four days on/four days off.
I'll never forget the day she came home with her first pay cheque, waving it out the car window as she pulled into the driveway. “Get in the car,” she yelled, “we're going to Pizza Hut for dinner.”
We headed straight to Kippax, only to be kicked out of the restaurant because Barton had no shoes on.
We got takeaway instead.
Mum is a fighter. So I am. So are the people in my electorate of Yerrabi. We're a great fit.
I am proud to say I have always worked.
I once worked as an office cleaner with shifts starting at 5am and 9.30pm, and I strongly believe that people who can work, should work, particularly young people.
Work is not punishment nor about power or control. Work is good. It gives dignity and promotes well-being.
Having said that, life is tough, and I understand there are times when people cannot work, for family or health reasons for example, and those people need care and support.
My first full-time job after school was as an accounts clerk at Gerald Slaven Holden which I loved – 50 blokes, three girls and a yard full of grease and engines.
I did the accounts, mastered the 12-line telephone system and drove a stack load of cars to the Dickson Motor Vehicle Registry to pick up new number plates.
The fellas helped me buy my first motorbike when I was 18.
I do love my bikes and cars, they are fun. It's great to know you can wrangle a machine, there’s nothing like the rumble of a big engine.
I had a great time stripping my Kingswood HZ which had a 350 Chev motor, which I ended up selling for furniture because I had no money.
Another inner revhead was Australia's Dame Nellie Melba. One of the first women to sing the praises of the “horseless carriage”, the prima donna kept “a motor” on three continents.
My first husband was a salesman at the caryard where I worked and we married three weeks before I turned 21. I had my son Lachlan when I was 22 and my daughter Bethany at 28.
Life was good. We owned three successful car yards, employed five staff, made lots of money and bought a big house in Fraser.
I salute the courage of small family businesses, because it takes a stack of courage to start and run a business, take on the responsibility of staff and slog it out, day after day, to make it work.
It was about this time I also recorded my country music album Perfect Day; perhaps I'll become a music sensation I thought and get my hands on a Golden Guitar.
But running a business is like riding a roller coaster, thrilling highs and crushing lows.
Our success didn’t last; unpaid bills pounded us and the debt collector came knocking on the door. At times we were so skint my Mum kept us in food. I became a Tupperware lady and turned my spare bedroom into a beauty parlour, doing waxing and pedicures to put food on the table.
Life is never easy. We liquidated the business, lost the house and the marriage went too.
I moved into Mum's house, rang my old boss to ask for a job and started a new chapter in my career, in IT of all things; this for a girl who thought clouds were in the sky and a network was a group of professionals.
Talk about sink or swim, my first role was on an IT Help desk.
They trained me and I was grateful.
I gained a Diploma in Project Management and landed roles at the AFP and Defence, managing teams of up to 10 people and setting off from home each morning with a packet of soup and cup in my handbag, hot desking it with the masses.
A far cry from 'Ms Castley, may we order some new crockery for your office?”
My second marriage was not a success but helped me learn more about myself; that I can be resilient. Nothing can break me.
When it comes to politics, this chick from Charny does not fit the mould. I may have smashed the mould, which I think would be a good thing.
Not for me any union official background, blooding as a political staffer or raging and recruiting in the Young Liberal or Labor movement.
When I was growing up, politics was not discussed around the dinner table, because we rarely ate at the dinner table.
Mum would often finish her shift at 9.30pm so she'd leave defrosted chops or sausages on the sink, have potatoes in a saucepan with water and salt and another saucepan with peas and carrots.
Barton and I would cook the vegies and mash them, and grill the meat, and we'd eat our dinner in front of the TV, watching Cop Shop or A Country Practice.
So while I confess to having quiet moments when I think “How on earth did I end up here?” I also think, “Why shouldn't I be here?”
I want to show that someone from a normal average background can be elected to Parliament and succeed.
And as for political labels like conservative or progressive, they mean nothing in my part of town.
The only label you can slap on me is battler.
Why do we in politics put ourselves in such limiting groups, play silly political games behind factional walls and eye each other with suspicion?
Not to mention the greed and corruption we all too often read about, the ego trips, power plays and dirt sheets, and the so-called political 'king-makers' who know how to sharpen knives but not much else.
In so many ways politics has become toxic.
No wonder ordinary people have had a gutful.
It concerns me that the Labor government has been in power for so long that they seem to have lost touch with the Canberra battlers.
That term may seem an oxymoron to some in this place, and to some people in our community, but I know there are many in the burbs like me; proud, hard-working single people and parents wanting to better themselves and their lives.
Mums, Dads and partners who want their kids to have a good education, to learn good manners and values and to have good jobs and opportunities they didn’t have.
Robert Menzies famously called them the Forgotten People, the backbone of Australia, too often taken for granted by government and effectively powerless because they lack connections.
The quiet Canberrans – that's who we are, living outside the Canberra bubble.
We often hear that term, the Canberra bubble, and in some ways it's true.
Being a public service town makes us different.
Just last month came a headline in the Canberra Times, “Public sector an economic safe haven”, referring to new ABS data showing no sector had grown as much during the COVID-19 pandemic as the public sector.
Public sector wages had also increased, while plummeting in almost all other sectors.
Yerrabi residents are younger than the Canberra average and more work fulltime than the norm, but most are not cocooned in the economic safe haven of the public sector – they are clerical staff and community workers, technicians and tradies, sales people and labourers.
Let me share with you some more information about the great people I have been elected to represent.
Yerrabi residents are more likely to be married, and have kids and a mortgage, than other Canberrans.
And there are more migrants in Yerrabi too. The area boasts bigger populations of Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese and Sri Lankans; all family minded people who work hard and want to improve their communities.
Yerrabi people want to get on.
The electorate is my home too, and the place I want to be.
It’s a thrill to be out and about in Yerrabi and, as I said last week at Palmerston District Primary School, if this is what being a politician involves, then bring it on.
We all know Canberra has great teachers and schools, but it also boasts an ARIA-nominated Music Teacher of the Year, CJ Shaw, who has taught at the school more than three years.
Last Wednesday night I joined the first rehearsal of the ‘With One Voice Gungahlin’ Community Choir which has been started by the housing group Common Ground.
Last Friday morning I was delighted to meet Michael and Monica at their Aquaflo Irrigation business in Mitchell; the pair have been in business 15 years, employ more than 15 staff and have recently opened a shopfront too. What legends.
Good on them, and all small family businesses, for their courage and the huge contribution they make to building our Canberra economy and community.
You don’t hear much talk nowadays about a ‘strong work ethic’ which is a shame.
Because it suggests a professionalism, a reliability, that seems to be lacking in some workplaces.
Good manners appear to be fading too; in a society that has become less civil and considerate and more combative and selfish.
In the workplace, it seems some people are more focused on their benefits than their responsibilities, more concerned with their entitlements and being able to dress down than showing loyalty and going the extra mile.
These are generalisations of course.
My attitude has always been, you get to work and do your job.
Nurture a strong work ethic and show you are keen and you'll always be employed and sought after.
In politics we talk about stakeholders.
I have 89,850 of them and their average age is 32 – they're the great people in my electorate of Yerrabi, the people I have described to you.
The issues, views and aspirations of my electorate, that's what matters to me.
Yerrabi residents and families do not want politicians telling them what to do or how to live their lives.
They can do that perfectly well on their own.
But they do want politicians to be honest, to listen and to fix problems – whether it be pot holes in the street, keeping our reserves clean, providing facilities where families can enjoy being outdoors with enough public barbecues and park benches and improving our environment and reducing carbon emissions with sensible policies that don’t break the bank. I assure the good folk of Casey and Crace, Forde and Franklin, of Ngunnawal and Nicholls, plus Giralang, Kaleen and Hall and the rest, that my two feet will stay firmly planted in Gungahlin soil.
Sadly, a recent report lamented that Gungahlin is still playing “catch up to the rest of Canberra when it comes to infrastructure and community facilities.”
The article said major roads had only recently been duplicated, the cinema is still coming, the police station needs an upgrade, the variety of shops is tiny compared to other town centres and there's a shortage of sports facilities, particularly for indoor sports.
Unfortunately, given my electorate is the only electorate in the ACT that does not have a Minister sitting around the Cabinet table, I fear the people of Yerrabi will continue to miss out when it comes to vital infrastructure and important community facilities.
It is a shame that Chief Minister Barr has chosen Labor and Greens Ministers from Canberra’s four other electorates but neglected to give a powerful ministerial voice to Yerrabi.
Instead he has given ministries to four of the five MLAs in his own electorate of Kurrajong – the only Kurrajong member to miss out is our most capable Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee.
Of course I do hope Elizabeth’s time will come.
As a singer, may I use a singing analogy to describe how I approach my new role which I see as all about connecting with the people of Yerrabi.
Singers are in the service industry. You’re there to please. So no matter that you've sung Khe Sanh 1650 times, if the request comes in, you belt it out the best you can.
Because the pub wants you to keep the patrons drinking and rocking on the dance floor.
For me, that song I’ve sung way too many times is The Gambler.
But when you do sing it, the crowd seems to come from miles to join you, and you know you've crossed over at a gig when people let you into their night out.
So too with Yerrabi voters electing me – just like the song I'll keep singing to keep the punters happy, so too I will serve the people who elected me, and I won't tire of that.
Recently I read an extract from former Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove's memoir.
He pens the tale of an ordinary man who achieved high office and accomplished tasks with distinction.
And he writes, “throughout my public life, I have been and remain a very ordinary person … I stand as an example that the jobs I have done aren't just for those of the most marvellous capacity … (but) that an ordinary person can undertake these tasks effectively.”
To my fellow residents in Yerrabi, I stand before you as a single mother of two, happy to point to my 23 year old son and 18 year old daughter as my proudest achievements.
The single mother who once stocked vending machines.
I’d use my own van (which I had for my music gear) and trek to Fyshwick to load up massive eskies with chips, chocolate bars and can drinks which I'd haul to my van on a trolley.
It was school holidays so the kids came with me. I was allowed one packet of chips but of course I gave the kids a few more.
One of my sites was the staff room at JB Hi-Fi in town; I'd park in their loading zone and wheel in the loot.
I've taught singing lessons, been a paid tuck shop lady at my kids' school and worked as a trade assistant for a mechanic, doing the oil changes for the cars and picking up new discs or spare parts.
I am the chick from Charny and I don't want to lose that. That's who I am.
If I can show, like Sir Peter Cosgrove, that this gig of politics is not just for those of “the most marvellous capacity”, but for hard-working, ordinary family battlers like me, I’d see that as achievement indeed.