Yes She Kanis

This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 6, 2012).

Newly elected Melbourne member Jennifer Kanis.

When Jennifer Kanis walked into Melbourne University as a 17-year old student she found the place daunting. Now, 25 years and three degrees later, Kanis looks at the tertiary institution and sees a plethora of challenges and opportunities. But as Melbourne’s new state member, she can ill-afford to still be intimidated.

After forging successful careers as a teacher, lawyer and council member, 42-year-old Kanis added politician to her resume at the Melbourne by-election in late July. Representing Labor, she narrowly defeated the Greens’ Cathy Oke on preferences. It was a great relief for Kanis and her colleagues, given the Greens’ dominant primary vote.

“I always thought it would be close and indeed it was,” the Flemington-based mother told Farrago. “My team knew we couldn’t take anything for granted in this election and we were exhausted by the end of the campaign.”

With the hubbub of the by-election out of the way, Kanis now has her sights set on representing the Melbourne electorate, which covers 31 square kilometres between the Yarra River and Park St and includes Melbourne Parkville’s campus.

It’s a responsibility befitting of somebody of her qualifications and experience. In addition to having lived and studied in the inner-city area, Kanis worked as a Councillor for Melbourne City for almost four years. The role provided her a better understanding of the issues facing the city and its predominantly young constituents.

“There are a number of challenges at Melbourne University,” Kanis said. “There are issues relating to housing, accommodation and affordability and the ability for students to live near where they study.”

“From my work capacity at Melbourne City Council I also know there are issues relating to the health and wellbeing of both international and local students,” she added.

A Bachelors degree in Arts and two diplomas in education – not to mention a laws degree from La Trobe – means Kanis is more than familiar with Melbourne University and the demands of students. Having since opened up a number of new chapters in her life, however, Kanis recognises the necessity of keeping up to date with the University’s current stakeholders.

“My starting point is to speak to students, student representatives and academics. I want to make sure I know what issues are facing the students, staff and administration at Melbourne’s universities. Then I can see how the state government is able to address these issues.”

The Coalition, despite holding just a two-seat lead in the Victorian lower house, did not enter a candidate into the Melbourne by-election. The non-participation of Liberal or National candidates infuriated some residents – many of whom didn’t care to show up to the polls – but it was a decision emblematic of Melbourne’s traditionally small-l liberal demographic.

Over the last decade Melbourne’s once-safe Labor state seat has been challenged by the rise of left-wing party the Australian Greens. In both 2002 and 2006, Greens representative Dr Richard DiNatale came close to toppling Labor’s Bronwyn Pike, while Deputy Leader Adam Bandt successfully won Melbourne’s federal seat – albeit via preferences – in the 2010 election.

Kanis said Melbourne University was a contributing factor to the area’s progressive attitudes at the polling booth. “In an electorate where you have a lot of students and a university, you see ideas being discussed not just in people’s homes and workplaces but in an academic way as well,” Kanis explained.

“Lots of people here like to discuss how things could be improved and I think you see that represented in the type of people elected in the area.”

Reflecting on her time as a Melbourne University student, Kanis expressed her appreciation for the institution and the academic skills she picked up along the way. She noted how traits such as critical thinking and research became important to her once she began pursuing a future in education, law and ultimately politics.

“I learnt how to evaluate and consider different points of view. These were really valuable skills that I only became aware of later on.”

Kanis’ political initiation, however, came not during student union election weeks, but during her tenure as a secondary-school teacher. Outraged at Jeff Kennett’s education reforms in the 1990s, Kanis became involved with the Australian Education Union, actively negotiating and interpreting enterprise bargaining agreements. This went from a part-time interest to a full-time job; Kanis transitioned from the classroom to Holding Redlich, where she practiced employment and industrial relations law.

“The education cuts were something I was concerned and upset about and something I needed to get involved in from a broader perspective,” Kanis explained. “That’s when I gained an interest in law and joined the Labor party.”

A decade on, Kanis is more than just a member of the Labor party; she’s a member of Victorian Parliament. The focus going forward is on serving her diverse and dynamic electorate, with one eye looking ahead to the 2014 state election.

Jennifer Kanis’ introductory message from her website.