Behind every great leader is our series exploring the realities of campaigning and political life on female politicians, their families and loved ones.
In the first interview of our series, we spoke to former Federal MP Dr Katie Allen and her husband Malcolm Allen.
Katie was the Federal Member for Higgins in the Coalition Government from 2019-2022. She is also an alum of the Pathways to Politics Program for Women, and a member of the Victorian program’s Advisory Committee. Malcolm Allen is a management consultant and advisor across a range of industries.
Katie and Malcolm have been married for 30 years. They live in Higgins and have four young adult children. Here’s an abridged version of our interview with them.
Broaching the idea of running
Katie: It was actually Malcolm who first broached the idea of me running in the State election rather than the other way around. He’s always been a great advocate for women and made me think about things I would never think of trying for.
Malcolm: My overall philosophy in life is to help unleash the potential in others. I like pushing people’s boundaries and helping them be the best they can be. Various people had spoken to me about Katie running for political office, so I encouraged them to raise it with Katie. I thought, it’s much better that she comes to that view herself! It had logic to it, both in terms of Katie’s own personal growth and in terms of the contribution she could make to the world. Katie has supported me through my career for a long time, and I felt it was great to now have a chance to support her and her career, to give her the chance to shine. Another philosophy of our family is adventure. I didn’t know what it was going to be like, what it was going to mean, but hey, what the hell? How bad can it get?
Katie: That’s right – just jump off the cliff!
But you have to do what’s right for the kids, and when I first put my hand up to run, I didn’t know if I’d get elected. I said, “I’m thinking about it. I may or may not succeed. We’ll let you know as we go.”
We’re quite protective of our children. We had dealt with this issue as parents before I became a politician. As a medical researcher who was in the media a lot, I would come home, take off the armour of being out in the workforce or in the public eye, and just be mum. They’re my number one priority and they always know that when I’m with them.
I’ll never forget, one day I was in the study and the television was on, and an interview with me appeared. The kids all turned around and said, “Whenever there’s allergy stuff, up pops Professor Katie Allen!” And they’re laughing like crazy, asking why I didn’t tell them I was on the telly. My response was, well, it doesn’t really matter. I’m not doing it be famous, I do it because it’s my job.
Open communication, trust and respect
Weekly & monthly planning of family activities
Amplify family rituals like dinners and activities
Consent to be in the public eye is paramount
Set rules and boundaries
Managing the juggle
Katie: For us, managing the practicalities was a progression. We’d already been doing it for 20 years. We have four children, demanding careers, and Malcolm travels every week with his work.
Before the state election, there was a six-month period when I don’t think I’ve ever been busier. I had three kids at home all doing eight activities a week, Malcolm was busy travelling, I was working, I was chair of a school board, I was trying to do fundraising… I just can’t believe how I managed to survive those six months. When I quit work for the four months of the campaign, it seemed so much lighter. I could just focus on one thing.
My piece of advice to women: don’t be proud, get help. We didn’t have family, both our mothers had died, but fortunately both of us are relatively well paid. Not everyone has that privilege, but at the end of the day, you do need to make that financial decision.
I’m also a list person. Every Sunday evening, Malcolm and I would sit down and schedule. There was a lot of communication, a lot of forward planning, a lot of trust and respect for the community of people supporting us.
Even on the morning of the last Federal election, I put a load of washing on and made everyone breakfast because it kept me calm. For me, serving community, serving family –they’re an extension of the same thing.
“There was a lot of communication, a lot of forward planning, a lot of trust and respect for the community of people supporting us.“– Dr Katie Allen
Malcolm: Going through our joint diaries was an important ritual. We did it even before Katie first ran, but it really came to the fore at that time. “Who’s going to cook the meal? Who’s going to do the shopping? What does kid number x do on this day…?” It would take an hour or two to work it all out.
You also have to think about each family member’s emotional state at the time. “They’re having this problem, or they’re excited by this thing, how do we support or address that?”
Katie: You have to be pragmatic. I’m quite proud that for my executive career and political career, there are only a small handful of events that I really wished I could have been at for my children.
In the campaign period, my staff asked if I wanted to keep anything in my diary that was just mine, and I said, “Malcolm wants Sunday morning”. But in heat of the battle particularly, even that was really hard to keep.
Malcolm: I think as a partner you have to be the school monitor of those rules and say, “Come on, we need some time together”. And sometimes just getting the time together in the car on the way to the charity event is worth it.
“As a partner you have to be the school monitor of those rules and say, ‘Come on, we need some time together.'”– Malcolm Allen
Being in the public eye
Katie: The children agreed upfront for one family photo a year for my social media, that’s it. Beyond that, we negotiated every step. The kids are always asked, and consent has to be given.
I don’t think anyone can really understand what it’s like to be judged in the public eye. When I first ran for Prahran I took the kids aside and look, if there’s something that you hear at school, come and speak to me and I’ll make sure I’m honest with you and we’ll deal with it together.
The kids had to put up with being driven to school with my car wrapped with my face all over it, there were posters of me everywhere, you just couldn’t escape it. One day we were driving to school and all my campaign signs that we drove past had ‘homophobe’ written across them. My youngest asked me what it meant, so I explained. He said, “But mum, you’ve got gay friends, people on the campaign, you’re not a homophobe.” I had to explain that people will lie and have vested interests, you just have to ignore it.
The transition to Canberra
Katie: When I was elected as the Member for Higgins, our youngest, was still living at home. In some ways the timing was great because the others were at Uni, but I worried deeply about short-changing the last one. Then our eldest son offered to come back home to be there for him. It was a great gift. So I felt very comfortable about going to Canberra knowing that the youngest would be well looked after by his big brother.
Malcolm: When Katie got into politics we also amped the sense of ritual in the family. We had family dinners where we would go around the table and give thanks, talk about our week, how we’re feeling, we’d go for walks together… it helped us to not feel overwhelmed by what was going on outside the family unit.
Katie: Then COVID happened, and as it turned out, everyone came home – including partners, boyfriends and girlfriends! So when I was in Canberra, I’d ring them twice a day and they’d all be home together. But I didn’t feel like I was missing out. I knew I was doing something very important, helping to lead the country through the biggest crisis in a hundred years.
“There will be struggles and stresses along the way, but it’s privilege to have the opportunity. You’ve got to enjoy it. You’ve got to embrace the moment.“– Malcolm Allen
Katie: I’m running again for pre-selection, but it’s very different this time. Last time the kids were our main focus, but they’re older and out of the house now. This time I need to spend more time with Malcolm for myself, I might not get pre-selected, I might not get elected, and it could hurt. Malcolm’s been an absolute rock.
Malcolm: What would I do differently? Exercise! You’ve got to have adequate sleep, eat well, care for yourself physically as well as mentally.
There will be struggles and stresses along the way, but it’s privilege to have the opportunity. You’ve got to enjoy it. You’ve got to embrace the moment.
More about Katie and Malcolm Allen
Dr Katie Allen
Dr Katie Allen was the Federal Member for Higgins in the Coalition Government from 2019-2022.
Prior to that she was Division Head of Population Head at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Professor at both the University of Melbourne and the University of Manchester, UK and a consultant paediatrician. She has authored more than 400 scientific publications.
Katie has been on the Board of Cabrini Health, was Chair of Melbourne Girls Grammar School Council and on the advisory board of several MedTech start-ups.
As Member for Higgins she initiated inquiries into Recycling and Waste, the post-COVID recovery for the Arts and facilitating improved Clinical Trials investment in Australia. She was a founding member of the National COVID Health and Research Advisory Committee that met weekly throughout the pandemic and succeeded in securing significant Federal funding for the National Allergy Council.
Malcolm Allen has more than 25 years of experience as a consultant and advisor across a range of industries, including the public sector, telecommunications, finance, oil and gas, mining and private equity.
He is a Director at Partners in Performance and leads the Back Office Transformation Practice. Beyond founding his own businesses, Malcolm has worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, CEO of Westel/Concentrix and Head of Special Projects at Vodafone.