Woman Southcott, Heather (1928 - 2014)

Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
Community leader, Parliamentarian and Politician
Alternative Names
  • Miller, Heather (Maiden)

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in Adelaide in 1928, Heather Southcott (nee Miller) was a foundation member of the Australian Democrats from 1977 and the South Australian State Secretary from 1977-1982. She won the by-election for the traditionally safe Liberal Party seat of Mitcham in 1982 and was subsequently elected State Leader and then National Leader of the Australian Democrats. She was the first woman to lead a parliamentary political party in Australia.

The daughter of a bank manager and a community minded homemaker, Southcott was one of two daughters who grew up in a devout home in Rose Park. A Presbyterian brought up in the liberal tradition of the Scots Free Church, 'a church full of dissenters', a sense of service and social justice were central to her faith (Interview). She was very active in the church as a young woman, teaching Bible Study joining youth groups and fellowships. The church gave her opportunities she might otherwise not have had. In her view, 'the Scots Free Church did not discriminate against women in the ways other the denominations have done' (Interview). In particular, her talent for organisation and public speaking (although she did not particularly enjoy the latter) were given every opportunity to develop through her church activities.

The church created opportunities but so did a good education. Her father encouraged her to believe that she could do anything. Initially, she thought that might have meant a career in music, although increasing levels of performance anxiety made that difficult. Instead, she chose pharmacy, which she studied at Adelaide University. The year she started, there were only four new women enrolled. They were the founders of the Women Pharmacist Group and would band together for support. 'We would take our knitting into the meetings of the male dominated pharmacy organisations to annoy the men,' says Southcott, ever the dissenter (Interview).

She met her husband, a doctor, when she worked at the Adelaide Repatriation Hospital. They married in 1952 which meant that Heather, as a Commonwealth Public Servant, had to leave her job, because of the marriage bar. She returned to private retail pharmacy work which was a very good option for someone who wanted to spend time with children and work part time. For her, combining work and family was relatively easy, especially because she had her mother's help. She was also involved in numerous organisations while bringing up her children (two daughters), including The National Council of Women, the Women Pharmacists group, and the group set up to establish the Adelaide Women's Memorial Playing Fields. The older her children got, the more community and activist organisations she became associated with. She joined the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) and became concerned about indigenous issues through her association with the Presbyterian Church and their connection to the Australian Inland Mission. She was involved in the Electoral Reform Society and worked closely with women who chose to stand in local government elections. She was a serial 'joiner' and says that this was the source of her effectiveness as a leader. Networks created opportunities and she 'enjoyed using these networks to put people in touch with each other.' Facilitating is what she did best and the extent of her networks, she says, 'enabled her to see the big picture' (Interview).

Her involvement in formal politics grew out of her experiences in community activism. In the 1960s she took part in the Australia-wide Church and Life movement, an interfaith programme of group meetings involving active contact with the community designed to equip people for Christian living in the world of work, home, recreation and public affairs. 'Among other issues,' says Southcott, we discussed Donald Horne's The Lucky Country. My group came to the conclusion that if we cared about the direction Australia was taking, we should become involved in a political party and make our voice heard.' (Southcott). Passing the Liberal and Country League (L.C.L.) Caravan at the Royal Adelaide Show that year, she walked in and joined up. She progressively worked her way through the evolution from the L.C.L to the Liberal Movement and then the New Liberal Movements which, in 1977, merged with the Australia party to become the nucleus of the Australian Democrats. On 8 May 1982 she won the by-election for the state seat of Mitcham when one of her Australian Democrat colleagues, Robin Millhouse, who had held the seat since its creation in 1955, resigned from parliament.

Southcott lost the seat in the November 1982 state election. Six months was enough to cure her of any further interest in continuing as a minority member of parliament working in a hostile environment. As the only Democrat in the lower house, she could never get anything through because no one would ever second her. And she needed to attend, all day, every day, because no one would ever tell her what had been talked about if she wasn't there. She enjoyed the electorate work, because it was community focused, but the experience of parliament was generally a miserable one, mainly because many people she had once called friends in the Liberal Party were determined to get rid of her. 'The ALP and independents in parliament were kinder to her' (Interview). She was disappointed to lose the election, but on the other hand, her experience had taught her enough to know that she could do a lot of good out of parliament. 'I knew enough about the political process to help community groups navigate it' (Interview). She joined groups like the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the United National Association of Australia, and helped them by 'taking the lessons of her horrible time in parliament and passing them on' (Interview).

Despite the disappointment of her parliamentary experience, Southcott remained active in the Australian Democrats and was an effective party leader, serving as National President for nine terms between 1984-94. Between 1981 and 1994, she served as either National or Deputy leader so her experience of political involvement has consistently been at a leadership level. Her mode of leadership did not change much over time, 'because,' she says, 'I always thought that consensus is the key to good leadership' (Interview). She is her father's daughter when it comes to this conviction. 'Even though I grew up in a time of authoritative leadership, I had a father who believed in consensus' (Interview).

Networking, facilitating and consensus are hallmarks of her leadership, along with a commitment to mentoring young people with potential. Former Australian Democrats Senator and parliamentary party leader Natasha Stott Despoja was a fortunate recipient of Southcott's wisdom, and Southcott was proud to be a mentor to young people who organised major conferences during the United National International Year of Youth. A highpoint was her involvement and recognition during the Centenary of Woman Suffrage in South Australia in 1994. 'Satisfaction and a sense of achievement are the greatest rewards of leadership' (Interview).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Heather Southcott interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project [sound recording], 30 April 2012, ORAL TRC 6290/31; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details
  • Natasha Stott Despoja interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project [sound recording], 9 November 2012, ORAL TRC 6290/33; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

State Library of South Australia

  • Women in Politics: A Forum in the Centenary Year of Women's Suffrage, 1994, 45013275; State Library of South Australia. Details

Published Resources

Online Resources

Digital Resources

Heather Southcott interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project [sound recording]
30 April 2012
National Library of Australia
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection