By Sam Mills
Thirty one votes. That’s how close Labor candidate Neil Pharoah was from clinching the seat of Prahran and becoming a member of parliament at the 2014 Victorian State Election. So what did he do instead? He spent a year in east Africa. It was an effort to make a difference – the same motivation that sees him back in Prahran, taking another shot at winning the seat from the Greens’ Sam Hibbins.
“I worked for a New York-based affiliate of the United Nations in countries like Tanzania, specialising in overseas aid and development,” says Pharoah. “After that I returned to Australia and have been running my own consulting firm for three years. We work on business development and marketing strategies for organisations and campaigns.”
Now, though, the boy who grew up in Canberra and fell in love with Melbourne during weekend trips in his university days, is back to re-contest the seat and his desire to improve the electorate of Prahran has not waned. “When I was studying at ANU I used to visit Sydney and Melbourne. I loved Sydney for the weekend but loved nothing more than jumping on the bus back to Canberra on the Sunday night, whereas every time I visited Melbourne I’d always find an excuse to stay a few extra days,” he recalls.
“All my working career has been in Melbourne, it’s almost 13 years I’ve called here home now. We haven’t had much delivery on action from the local MP for the past three or four years and the local community deserves someone who will stand up for them, with them, and will advocate and activate for the needs of Prahran as part of Government.”
Pharoah describes his upbringing as a “normal family environment” but with a Canberran twist which contributed to his desire to become a politician. “I’m proudly a public school boy all the way through. My mum’s family is Italian and my Dad’s from New Zealand so I’m Australian by fate of birth. They’re both swinging voters. Growing up we discussed public policy and spoke about the taboo topics of sex, drugs, and religion, and not in a particular viewpoint.”
Openly gay, Pharoah says that even though Victoria has a reputation as a progressive state, it is behind the eight ball when it comes to LGBTI representation in State Parliament. All other states and territories have more openly gay members by percentage than Victoria. “It’s definitely still hard being an openly gay politician in a number of ways. You still get targeted from Christian fundamentalist groups, there’s still concern from certain ethnic and religious groups as well. I hope if nothing else it just encourages people from more diverse backgrounds to step up and get involved in politics.”
Co-chair of Rainbow Labor during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era, Pharoah prides himself on community involvement and championing LGBTIQ+ rights. Among the many boards he sits on is ‘The Channel,’ an organisation that funds queer community projects.
“I’ve never met anyone like him,” says executive director Georgia Matthews. “There is no work-life personal-life divide, everything he does is about improving the community and outcomes for those less fortunate. No matter how busy he is, he will always pick up the phone and is always ready to roll his sleeves up.
“Neil has been pivotal to us – he got us the seed funding we needed to get a foothold and become what we are now. With that small amount of funding he brought in from overseas when we couldn’t find an Australian supporter, we’ve tripled in size and turned into a really important resource for the community that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.”
Bree Hendy is an associate at Pharoah ’s consulting firm. She says that although he will have to leave the business should he be successful, he is 100 per cent ready to enter politics. “Neil has endless energy and enthusiasm for his job and family and is extremely determined to make a difference in society. He’s passionate about politics and his local community.”
Georgia Matthews agrees: “Neil has been ready to take up a political position for a long time. He’s motivated, energetic and has a real strong sense of social justice.”
Pharoah says entering politics is an opportunity for change, and he has no desire to use it to simply attain a position of power. “As idealistic as it sounds, I still see politics as an avenue where you can change the world for good and make a difference. I’m not entering politics to become a politician and I think there’s too many people who enter politics to become a politician, as opposed to remembering the reason why they’re there. I’ve spent my working life trying to make a difference in education, in child welfare, in refugees and in healthcare, so politics is an opportunity to try and make a difference more generally in Victoria and Australia.”
When not working, he enjoys travelling, playing and watching sport and preferring the Canberra favourite, rugby union, to AFL. He also enjoys spending time with dog Milo, a frequent star on his Instagram pages. “I get in trouble because I’m new to Instagram – I’m not as avid a poster as a lot of politicians because I don’t think people want to see photos of politicians all the time. Milo’s a new addition to the family and he’s had a new Labor onesie made for him because he grew out of his old one.
“I’ve visited over 70 countries and I try to kayak or sail at every opportunity, or go to the gym and exercise. The ACT Brumbies (Super Rugby Union side) are my all-time sports team but in Melbourne I go for Richmond. They were the closest team to me when I moved here 13 years ago.”
Neil Pharoah is proud of Labor’s involvement in Prahran and is optimistic about his chances of joining the Government come November. “Prahran next year will have its first public high school in over 30 years. The election is a genuine three-way contest. We’re working hard and doing what we can but I’m really hopeful the people of Prahran will make a good decision.”