Fiona Patten entered politics to lobby on behalf of sex workers to decriminalise their profession. After eight years as a Victorian Upper House MP, her reach extended beyond her original mission to deliver the nation’s first voluntary assisted dying scheme, safe access zones around abortion clinics, a safe injecting room in North Richmond, ridesharing legislation, a spent convictions scheme as well as the decriminalisation of sex work.
Progressive, a social reformer and a libertarian to her admirers and parliamentary colleagues, she was also described as a pocket rocket and the hardest working person in the Victorian Parliament. To her, mostly conservative, critics she’s Satan’s Little Helper. Patten has collected as many labels as she has had parliamentary successes.
It was while working as a fashion designer in Canberra with her own brand, Body Politics, that Patten became intimately acquainted with sex workers, their industry, and issues. She would visit Canberra brothels, providing sex workers with condoms, sex education materials and clean syringes before the first needle exchange programs were set-up during the HIV and AIDs epidemic in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, she and her partner Robbie Swan, founded the Eros Foundation, Australia’s national adult goods and services lobby group, to officially advocate for the rights of organisations involved in the sexual rights movement – including small businesses, sex workers, HIV/AIDS organisations, adult media and online anti-censorship groups. She also worked as an AIDS educator and held positions on the Board of AIDS Action Council, the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisation Committee, and the ACT Attorney General’s Sex Industry Committee.
Patten sought election unsuccessfully in the ACT and other jurisdictions after founding the Australian Sex Party, in 2009, in response to her frustration with drug law reform, euthanasia, censorship and same sex marriage policies. She was finally successful, in 2014, elected as a Member for the Northern Metropolitan Region in the Victorian Parliament’s Legislative Council. In her inaugural speech to the Victorian Parliament, Patten revealed she was in fact a former sex worker. “Indeed, I may be the first former sex worker to be elected to a parliament anywhere in this country, although no doubt the clients of sex workers have been elected in much greater numbers before me,” she famously said.
From a minority party base, Patten worked creatively, collaboratively, and strategically, using limited financial resources and opportunities for influence by referring her causes and issues to inquiries and introducing Private Member Bills. She learned to maximise her crossbench status to negotiate sensitive public policy issues and advance her progressive legislative reform agenda. She was prepared to be pragmatic to advance her policy agenda: “If you compromise, you get things up. If you don’t, you’re left there standing with your ideals,” she once said. In 2015, Patten withdrew her Bill to establish safe access zones for clinics providing reproductive health services, when the Victorian Government agreed to adopt a variation on her proposals. The Government’s legislation was passed with bipartisan support following Patten’s advocacy among parliamentary colleagues, and for the first time in 25 years several clinics operated free from harassment. She took a similar approach to advance the introduction of voluntary assisted dying legislation. Patten served as a member of an eight-person committee charged with investigating a broad suite of end-of-life issues which eventually led to a report detailing 49 recommendations. The Government accepted the recommendations, and, in November 2017, Victoria became the first state in Australia to pass laws for physician-assisted dying for terminally-ill patients. Patten’s perseverance was also evident in her determination to see medically supervised injecting centres legalised, leading to a trial in North Richmond. Patten initiated a cross-party Parliamentary inquiry into drug law reform, which led to a landmark report in March 2018 – described as the most comprehensive examination of harm minimisation in Australian history. Its 50 recommendations included establishing a form of pill testing at major events following the deaths of young people at summer music festivals.
Patten was narrowly returned to the Upper House at the 2018 Victorian election. When her re-election was in some doubt, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said in a radio interview: “I think that is a loss to the Parliament … she’s a very good person, who lives her values and has worked very hard these last four years.” Andrews went so far as to offer Patten a position if she was unsuccessful, however she was returned on preferences. Prior to the election, Patten renamed her party, the Reason Party, in an attempt to appeal to a wider liberal base. That year, she also published a biography, Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll, described by publisher Allen & Unwin as an “entertaining and inspiring story of how one woman used her own radical common sense to speak truth to power and fight for change’’.
The Reason Party and Victorian Greens made history in late-2019, by tabling a co-sponsored Bill introducing a two-year pill testing pilot in Victoria. The unprecedented show of cooperation was the first time two parties had co-sponsored a Bill in a single house in the 163-year history of the Victorian Parliament. The Bill would establish a mobile pill testing service for major music festivals, as well as a fixed-site service, for ongoing detailed analysis. “This isn’t about politics; young people have been dying. We know this measure will not only save lives but actually reduce drug use by promoting some of the most valuable drug education a young person can get. It’s backed up by evidence so why on earth wouldn’t we do this?” Patten said.
In 2020, Patten was a key figure, somewhat to her personal detriment, in Victoria’s response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. She was seen as a sensible and non-partisan choice to chair a Legislative Council committee inquiry into the state’s contact tracing system, which came under fire for failing to contain the state’s second wave of the virus. Her capacity for collaboration across political divides was further evident, when she also struck a deal with the Premier on extending the controversial state of emergency laws, after initially leading a crossbench charge against the divisive powers. The deal included several key concessions including that Government Ministers must justify the continuation of a state of emergency in monthly briefings to minor parties and independents. Patten received violent threats and sexist abuse – which she called out publicly – from anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown protestors for working with the Government on the legislation, her electorate office was vandalised and she was evacuated from it after receiving a threatening letter and suspicious package.
In 2021-22, Patten finally fulfilled her original political mission. She designed and led Victoria’s review into decriminalising its sex industry, engaging representatives of the community, police, and local government, as well as those with lived experience of sex work. The Sex Work Decriminalisation Act 2021 revokes offences and criminal penalties for consensual sex work between adults. Her last Bill introduced to the Victorian Upper House was to decriminalise drug use and possession; also on her radar was raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility, and forcing public hospitals to provide euthanasia for terminally -ill patients, contraceptive treatments and abortions.
In late-2022, Patten not only lost her seat in the Legislative Council, after failing to secure enough votes at the State Election, she revealed she would undergo treatment for kidney cancer. During her eight years in Parliament, she was seen as a trusted, well-respected and influential figure in Victorian politics. While her independence was sometimes questioned by critics (with her assistance, the Labor Government secured several key pieces of legislation) her contribution remains undiminished. In her second term alone, she chaired 10 parliamentary committees and was responsible for more than 20 per cent of all private members’ bills.
As one observer noted: “Fiona fights each and every day for the causes that matter to her and those she represents, the more marginalised or neglected in the community. But more than that, she knows how to achieve results others only dream about.”