Victorian Minister reveals family past dominated by generations of abuse.


Fiona Richardson is known for playing hardball — both as a Labor MP in the Victorian Parliament and as a senior member of the right of the party.

There is no doubt the minister is quirky. She’s vegan and almost always barefoot in her office. When she’s in deep concentration she throws mini basketballs into hoops strategically positioned by her staff. But she’s not one to show vulnerabilities.

Crying can be political suicide and, in Ms Richardson’s words, no-one has ever seen that side of her. That is, until now.

When Labor won the Victorian election in November 2014 it promised to crack down on family violence.

“This really is the biggest law and order challenge that we face today,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says.

“Two women a week are killed by their current or former partner; the leading cause of death and disability among women under the age of 45.”

Mr Andrews rang Ms Richardson to offer her the position of Australia’s first Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence. He then set up a royal commission into the issue.

The commission is due to hand down its findings on Tuesday, with Ms Richardson responsible for implementing change.

But when first offered the job, Ms Richardson was taken by surprise.

“I wondered whether he knew, whether he had some inkling or someone had said something to him,” she tells Australian Story.


“I said to him, ‘Do you know anything about my family history?'”

Mr Andrews was in the dark.

“I had no knowledge, no sense that she had been a survivor of the very thing that I was asking her to be the minister for,” he says.

Accepting the Premier’s offer was a challenge for the Richardson family, prompting discussions about the past — discussions that had long been avoided.

When politics became personal

Soon after being sworn in as Minister, Ms Richardson shared a stage with Rosie Batty. Listening to Ms Batty talk about what it is like to be a victim of family violence had a profound effect on her.

“She said it can happen to everybody,” Ms Richardson recalls.

“It doesn’t matter how nice your home is or how intelligent you are, abuse in the home can happen, it can happen to you and you are changed as a consequence of it.”

These words stuck. Ms Richardson and her family members had never spoken about what they had experienced. She thought perhaps if she could prise open that Pandora’s box, their story might help others.

But first she needed to have her mother and two brothers on board.

That wasn’t easy.

“My first reaction was ‘oh hang on a second, do I really need the whole world to know about what is essentially a private issue?'” her brother Hamish Richardson says.

“I think Alastair [Ms Richardson’s other brother] and I were probably a little taken aback in all fairness because we had internalised everything that happened.”


Returning to Tanzania

Ms Richardson’s portfolio meant she and her brothers started talking with each other about their childhood.

Eventually Hamish and Alastair Richardson decided that she should use their experience to help others understand the reality of family violence.

But when she raised the possibility that Hamish might like to return with her to Tanzania, he baulked.

Tanzania was where the trauma the family had endured began.

As Australian Story prepared to follow the minister back to the port city of Dar es Salaam, Hamish Richardson was resolute about one thing: he was not going on a tour of their old haunts.

”I haven’t been back to Tanzania for 46 years,” he said.

‘Richie’: Husband and father

According to Ms Richardson, her now deceased father Ernest ‘Richie’ Richardson was charming and charismatic.

“The problem was, of course, he wasn’t like that all the time and when he was drunk he was a very different man,” she says.

Veronica Power, Ms Richardson’s mother, says he treated his daughter very differently from the rest of the family.

“Fiona, being the little one and being a girl, Richie adored her,” Ms Power explains.

“He gave in to her every will, he absolutely adored her and she adored him too.”


It was her older brothers, as well as her mother, who bore the full force of the man’s abuse.

Life at home in Dar es Salaam

One day Ms Power had to leave Dar es Salaam to have surgery in London, leaving her three children in the care of their father.

The boys, Hamish (then eight years old) and Alastair (six) rang their mother to tell her how they all were.

“I said to Alastair ‘what’s Fiona doing?’,” Ms Power recalls.

“And Alastair said ‘she’s sitting on Sybil’s lap’. Sybil was my husband Richie’s secretary.”

Hamish remembers: “As soon as that name came out — bang! And Alastair, he hit the floor like a bag of spuds. He was then removed … to upstairs kicking and screaming.”

“And there’s nothing I can do,” Hamish recalls.

“What can I do?”

When asked what he thought of his father at that moment, Hamish says he hated his father and that he still does.

“It’s never left.”

Veronica’s own journey

Unlike her sons, Ms Power didn’t hesitate in consenting to her daughter telling the family story.

“The domestic violence was so bad that anything that comes on top of that will be a nothing,” she says.

“And people need to know, because we survived it, we did.”

She is keen to understand why she ended up marrying two alcoholics and believes the answer lies in the abuse she endured at the hands of her mother as a young girl in Eastern Africa.


Ms Richardson agrees.

Now Ms Power has decided to hunt through archives and graveyards in South Africa, where she was born, in the hope of learning more about her mother’s past.

“Why am I driven? I think that if you don’t know where you’ve come from you don’t know where you’re going,” Ms Power says.

“And I know where I’ve, sort of, come from. But I don’t know my mother.”

Hamish Richardson agreed to accompany his mother to South Africa but planned to leave before his sister took her on the next leg of the trip to Tanzania.

However, not long before he and his mother were due to leave Melbourne, Hamish had a change of heart.

His grandmother was dead. His father was dead. His mother was 76 and he did not want to miss out on the chance to learn more about his childhood with her as his guide.

An uneasy resolution

Ms Richardson is quick to acknowledge that prising open the family’s secret has been traumatic for everyone involved.

But the Richardsons say it has been worthwhile.

“What I don’t want to have lost in all of this discussion is the impact that it has on kids,” Hamish Richardson says.

“Little kids that don’t have a voice, aren’t physically strong enough to stand up for themselves and see their parents arguing — that’s horrendous.”


His wife Sharon Richardson says it has been “an emotional rollercoaster ride” for him.

“He doesn’t show his emotions very well but he’s been very open for the first time in years — speaking off the cuff, telling our daughters about incidents that happened to him as a child, talking to good friends who’ve known him for more than 20-odd years who had no idea about what his childhood had been like,” she says.

Alastair Richardson reflects: “You never forget the fear, the sense of panic and the incredible sense of longing that he will one day stop and show you the love that other kids seem to enjoy.

“You learn that it’s not normal and it’s not right. No child, no mother, no person should ever feel the fear or suffer pain inflicted by someone they love and trust. No-one.

“It needs to stop. It’s something that happened to me but it won’t define me.”

Hamish Richardson says of the family’s journey: “Now we’re talking about stuff that actually had an impact on us, so that’s a positive. The downside of it all is that we’re sitting airing our linen in public for the whole world to see and for the whole world to look at and yeah that’s not a comfortable place to be at any stage.”

Watch the full report on Australian Story tonight at 8:00pm on ABC1.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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