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Member for Geraldton Lara Dalton reveals how Seroja, COVID shaped first year in Parliament

Phoebe PinGeraldton Guardian
Member for Geraldton Lara Dalton.
Camera IconMember for Geraldton Lara Dalton. Credit: Phoebe Pin

It has been a baptism by fire in many ways for Geraldton’s first female MP, but Lara Dalton says being elected to Parliament has been the greatest honour of her life.

Her devastating loss in the 2017 State election only served to sweeten the taste of victory on March 13 when she received 61.71 per cent of the two-party preferred vote against Nationals incumbent Ian Blayney.

Remembering the moment the seat was called, Ms Dalton said the win was a career highlight.

“The election was the absolute highlight of my life,” she said.

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“Because I had run in the 2017 election, it felt like I deserved it. That day was great and it felt positive, the night particularly was so exciting.”

Just four weeks after her election, Ms Dalton would face her first challenge as an MP when cyclone Seroja wreaked havoc across the Mid West.

The former TAFE lecturer said the once-in-a-generation storm was a huge learning curve on how to be an effective advocate for her community.

“I had to jump straight in very quickly and learn about what my role is as the Member, which is not much in those circumstances except trying to be supportive,” she said.

“I did spend many days down at the evacuation centre just trying to help and going to emergency meetings not knowing really what I was supposed to do, but that felt like the natural thing to do.”

In the midst of the chaos, Ms Dalton was asked to deliver the prestigious address in reply to WA Governor Kim Beazley’s opening speech to Parliament.

Daunted — but not deterred — by Premier Mark McGowan’s warning that her speech “better be good”, Ms Dalton said presenting the address was another moment she will never forget.

“I just felt so happy and filled with joy for Geraldton to have their Member speak first,” she said.

One of the most prominent issues raised during her campaign was the desperate need for housing and infrastructure in Spalding, a problem which Ms Dalton brought to Housing Minister John Carey.

The State Government in September pledged $10 million to revitalise the Geraldton suburb and refurbish previously uninhabitable or boarded-up homes.

Ms Dalton said advocating for the funding promise had been another educational experience.

“It was a good win first off the bat for me. . . and it showed me what I needed to do,” she said.

“Being the local member is completely about advocacy and being able to have the confidence and capacity to speak to the right minister and just be persistent.”

The year has not been without its difficulties, with Ms Dalton saying criticism around COVID-19 vaccine mandates was a challenge to navigate.

“I have people in my office, I have had people protesting outside, I’ve had lots of emails and I do have empathy for a lot of people who genuinely have some hesitancy (around COVID vaccines),” she said.

“As a government we wish we didn’t have to mandate and I personally certainly wish we didn’t have to, because I hate seeing people so upset and disappointed and let down.

“I feel a lot of that is directed at me personally because they have elected me, but there is really nothing I can do except taking everything back to the Health Minister.”

The State Government’s historic electoral reform bill also raised eyebrows after Mr McGowan repeatedly said change was not on the agenda during the election campaign.

But Ms Dalton said she did not believe this to be an example of a government failing to be transparent with West Australians.

“Electoral reform has always been what we have always talked about in the Labor party, but I don’t actually think it was on the agenda,” she said.

Culture in politics has been under the spotlight this year, with an independent review by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins into workplace culture at Parliament House finding one-third of people working in Commonwealth parliamentary officers had experienced sexual harassment.

But Ms Dalton said the sheer number of females elected to the 41st State Parliament meant things were very different in WA.

“People talk a lot about the misogynistic culture in Parliament, particularly in Federal Parliament, and as we have seen recently that is quite devastating,” she said.

“But I have come into Parliament and there are so many women in there that the culture has already changed,” she said.

“I think (Australia’s first female MP, Geraldton-born) Edith Cowan would have her mind blown if she was here, considering the heckling and the behaviours she put up with. . . It’s only taken 100 years.”

Ms Dalton said her focus in 2022 will be on ensuring the State Government continues to deliver on its election promises, with the Geraldton Health Campus redevelopment a project she is eager to see progress.

While the relentless nature of politics is often draining, Ms Dalton said she is relishing every moment of being Gerladton’s voice in Parliament.

“I am a public servant and it is the greatest honour and privilege to be able to serve the community of Geraldton,” she said.

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