Katy Gallagher has lived every parent’s worst nightmare during the pandemic. The federal Labor Senator’s youngest child, Evie, caught COVID-19 at school during drama class, and more than two months after contracting the virus, she is still recovering.
From Monday, most school students across NSW, Victoria and the ACT will return to the classroom, and parents and teachers are nervous. Gallagher believes parents need to be better prepared in the event their children do get the virus. She wants a greater understanding that for some kids it won’t be a mild case.
“This throwaway line, ‘Kids get the mild version so don’t worry about it’, that was not our experience at all,” she explains, as we meet for lunch via webcam. “For me, trivialising it like that, you do have the risk of parents not being prepared for what can happen in their home.”
Gallagher, who is shadow finance minister in Anthony Albanese’s opposition and a former ACT chief minister, says she was not ready for the virus when it came into her home.
The 51-year-old has three children. Her eldest daughter Abigail, 24, lives a few streets away from her in Canberra, and is from her previous relationship with Brett Seaman. Seaman was tragically killed in a cycling accident when Gallagher was three months pregnant with Abigail. Her other two children, Charlie, 16, and Evie, 14, are from her relationship with partner Dave Skinner, who works in the ACT Legislative Assembly.
It is early October, and we’re both in lockdown, me in NSW and Gallagher in the ACT. Her wide smile fills my computer screen as she joins me for lunch. Gallagher, who has been a vegetarian since her teenage years, has ordered tofu larb, corn fritters and steamed vegetables from one of her favourite Canberra restaurants, Zaab, which specialises in Thai and Lao street food. I’ve opted for a tempura bento box from Koi Bento in Sydney’s inner west.
Gallagher looks much better on the screen than she did on August 17, when she posted an exhausted and pale picture of herself on social media wearing a face shield and gloves, with dark circles visible under her eyes.
It was on that day that the family received confirmation that Evie had COVID. In the days preceding the 14-year-old’s positive test, she had come down with a sore throat, runny nose, and cough. A fever and rash followed, as did vomiting, diarrhoea and a pain as if someone was standing on her chest. Evie would also become disoriented and agitated; lose her appetite, and later her sense of taste and smell. “She got a lot of different things that just showed how much pressure her body was under,” says Gallagher. However, some of Evie’s classmates who also had COVID remained asymptomatic. “It’s the roll of the dice, you just do not know what it’s going to mean for you.”
Gallagher and her partner were both double vaccinated but a few days after Evie became ill, Skinner became sick and would develop the same symptoms. “He was among the small percentage who have breakthrough COVID,” says Gallagher.
As we chat, nearly two months have passed since Evie and Skinner were diagnosed, and Gallagher says both still haven’t fully regained their sense of smell; Evie also remains very tired.
For Gallagher, one of the hardest parts at the height of their illnesses was not being able to physically comfort either of them, which doctors had advised against, to stop the virus spreading. All four of them were isolating separately in their house, with Gallagher as the carer. “Usually when you care for a sick child you’re able to hold them, hug them, have them in bed with you, if they need it, or sit on the couch with them,” she says. “When Evie was feeling alone, upset and scared, and at her sickest, I had to stand in the room across the path from her, spraying Glen 20 around, and tell her she would be okay, which was really hard. It goes against the way we care for people.”
Gallagher received a lot of support. Her pharmacist dropped off PPE, her doctor did telehealth check-ins on the family twice a day, so she could see Evie and Skinner, and get Gallagher to take their temperatures and check the oxygen levels in their blood, with an oximeter. “I don’t know why, but we had a pulse oximeter in our house,” says Gallagher. “I never purchased it!”
Neighbours dropped off food, as did Anthony Albanese. A friend dropped off a treadmill, knowing that Gallagher usually walks 10 kilometres a day with her five-year-old kelpie-cross, Pip, a rescue dog who appears semi-regularly on Gallagher’s Instagram account.
Other Labor colleagues checked in on Gallagher as did a number from the Coalition, such as Simon Birmingham, Anne Ruston and Bridget McKenzie. “People are kind. I know that we’re all in it for the rough and tumble in politics, but ultimately, we are colleagues, and you form friendships across the aisle.”
Gallagher says she was worried that she might have been infectious with COVID whilst sitting in Parliament, but fortunately, a negative test confirmed that wasn’t the case. “No one wants to be the person who brings COVID in.”
Since April last year, Gallagher has been chair of the Senate committee established to monitor the federal government’s management of the pandemic. Its purpose is also to provide a historical record of what has happened in Australia during this period. But the committee’s efforts to get information from the government on its COVID response has often been stymied by its penchant for secrecy, on matters from when the federal chief medical officer first briefed cabinet on the pandemic to the federal health department’s modelling on how state and territories’ hospital systems would cope opening up at various vaccination thresholds.
Gallagher, who says she believes in open government and pushed it as ACT chief minister in the belief it makes public servants work harder, has been frustrated by the federal government’s lack of transparency, which she argues is undermining the principles of the nation’s democratic institutions. “It might not make a difference to everyone’s day-to-day life, but in terms of how we prepare for the next pandemic, it does matter.”
The knowledge Gallagher gained about the virus through the committee didn’t prepare her at all for tackling it personally. And her situation was all the more worrying because Charlie and Evie weren’t vaccinated at that time of the Canberra outbreak, because of the shortage of supply in the national rollout.
Several months later the ACT is on track to become the most vaccinated city in the world with 99 per cent of its population 12 and over already having had their first jab. NSW and Victoria are on a similar trajectory of high vaccination rates.
Gallagher spent the earlier part of her life caring for others. Her British parents, who emigrated to Australia for its warmer climate on medical advice to improve her father’s terrible asthma, raised her to be focused on community service. Her father was a public servant and her mother a community worker. After university, Gallagher worked with people with disabilities and advocated for their rights. When her partner Brett Seaman died, she left that job and shut the door on that part of her life, including not visiting the suburb they had lived in together for many years.
“In order to do what I had to do, which was basically continue a pregnancy and have a baby, I shut out everything that was going to provide additional hurt. I lived on the other side of town. I didn’t really want to socialise with anybody because I didn’t want everyone’s pity.”
However, two women, Wendy Caird and Margaret Gillespie, would intervene. They worked for the Community and Public Sector Union, and had hired Seaman, who was supposed to start a new job there. Instead, they gave Gallagher, who was then 27, a desk and asked her to come every day, even though she didn’t know what she was supposed to do.
“It was like here is a desk, and there’s a phone, and pretty much just come in Monday to Friday, and we’ll see how it goes. No one required anything from me. They gave me somewhere to go, day by day. It was incredible to me that that kindness and sort of care, and helping me recover,” she says, her voice quavering, “whilst not looking like they were helping me recover.”
By the end of her pregnancy, Gallagher was running the CPSU’s Canberra office. After her maternity leave, she would return as a union organiser. Four years later, Gallagher was asked by the ACT’s Labor Party to run for a seat. She won and from there climbed through the ranks holding various portfolios, education, industrial relations, health and treasury, and became the territory’s deputy chief minister in 2006.
Within a decade of her entering politics, she was chief minister, balancing the job with a young family. Margaret Gillespie would come and work as her chief of staff.
Gallagher credits Jon Stanhope, whom she took over from as chief minister, as making her path much easier. “He welcomed my babies into cabinet rooms, and if they started crying, he would tell everyone to have a coffee, or he would just go and pick the baby up. I never felt that I was imposing on others. He just had this way of doing it, and it sent a message to everyone in the room that I was entitled to be here with my baby because that’s the way it was. He was ahead of his time in that regard.”
However, Gallagher doesn’t want to downplay that it was a juggle. “I remember going to a state funeral for somebody and Evie was really sick and my mother-in-law was jiggling her in the back of the car while I’m giving the eulogy on behalf of the territory.”
During her time as the ACT’s chief minister, she would resolve long-standing asbestos claims involving a company called Mr Fluffy, and also legalise same-sex marriage only to have it overturned by the High Court. It was that High Court judgment, she says, that forced the federal government to act.
“The High Court said this is a matter that basically can only be resolved by the Federal Parliament. Before that decision, same-sex marriage had been kicked around states and territories, and the Commonwealth had argued about what its responsibilities were, but that judgment made it so clear that that was the only place that it could be resolved.”
Gallagher resigned as chief minister in 2014, having hosted a number of famous dignitaries from US President Barack Obama, to the Queen and the Dalai Lama, to enter federal politics and run for the Senate. She won that seat in 2015 but would only hold it for three years before she had another run-in with the High Court, which disqualified her from sitting in Parliament because she was a dual national, with British citizenship. Under the Australian Constitution, dual citizens are not permitted to stand for election, and the rule would snare a number of politicians.
It was a bruising experience for Gallagher because it was so public, and also because she said it felt like she’d been found guilty of being disloyal to her country. “I was essentially found in contravention of not putting Australia first, and not being a good Australian citizen. I’d spent my whole life trying to do that. I had to really take some time to sort of work through it because I just felt wronged by that.”
After a year working for a health care provider in aged care, which she says was a good reminder there was life outside of politics, Gallagher would run again for the Senate after her citizenship issue was resolved. She won.
Gallagher goes momentarily quiet during our chat, having just eaten a chilli. “Oh my goodness!”
She remains hopeful of Labor winning the next election. “Australians at the end of the day don’t want the bickering and the fighting that goes with politics. They want a government that’s dealing with the challenges in front of it and there are so many,” she says, ticking off climate change, aged care and security issues in the region.
We’re nearly finished with our meals, and Gallagher has turned her screen towards her garden to show me how it’s flourishing. It’s one of the places she spends time unwinding. “I do love my garden. It’s very therapeutic, I get my old lady shoes on and go out there with headphones on.”
Gallagher used to play the cello in Canberra’s Youth Orchestra. When COVID arrived, and she felt like she would be locked at home forever, she thought of playing for the first time in 15 years. “I didn’t. It sits in my room in its beautiful case. It is a lovely instrument and I unlock it and look at it, and I dream about the days when I will have time.”
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