Unapologetically disruptive: Tackling climate change head on

The Hon. Lily D’Ambrosio has a game plan to ensure the community has a range of sustainable solutions in response to one of our biggest global challenges, climate change, and speaks to Segmento about her "mission".

The Hon. Lily D’Ambrosio MP has a game plan. And that game plan is to ensure the community has a range of sustainable solutions and interventions set up in response to one of our biggest global challenges, climate change. Lily speaks candidly with Segmento about her mission to hit zero, and her unapologetic stance as a culturally diverse woman in politics.

The latest intense storm in the hills just outside of Melbourne took everyone by surprise. It devasted substantial areas of the usually enchanting Dandenong Ranges and brought down century old eucalyptus on houses and roads. The ferocious night storm tossed around gum trees, ferns, debris from damaged houses, wiring and electric cables in a horrible and dangerous mess that took weeks to clear. Another extreme climate event in an increasing list of floods, fires, droughts, and storms that are occurring in a concerning pattern of regularity across the globe.

At the forefront of dealing with a strategic governmental response is the Hon. Lily D’Ambrosio MP.  As Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change and Minister for Solar Homes in the State of Victoria, Australia, this first-generation Italo-Australian (of Calabrian heritage) is garnering a global reputation for her fierce approach to ensuring a long-term solution-oriented approach to the vexed climate change challenge. She recognises that rapidly increasing environmental changes means that there is an urgent need to seek sustainable and community-oriented and responsible initiatives. And for the State of Victoria, that responsibility is hers.

Minister D’ Ambrosio will cut you off in conversation to tell you to call her Lily.  This is the only time she will interrupt you. Lily moves about the community with an air of quiet and unassuming confidence.  She strikes everyone she meets as being genuine and seriously interested in each person she meets. As she walks about the community, watch her closely. You will observe that she is, in fact, an excellent and respectful listener. She perceives subtle cues in a conversation and if she notices that a person may be troubled, she does not hesitate to reach out.

It is easy to see that her own lived experience of being born to migrant parents, who fled a devasted post war southern Italy in search of a better life, has provided her with both the grit to take up her ministerial duties but also a grounded sense of reality which endears her to the community, allowing her to move effortlessly around the city and regional Victoria. In fact, she is often greeted as a niece or a cousin in Italo-Australian community settings. Ask her about the environment and you soon come to appreciate that she is a formidable leader.

Lily candidly shares details of the work she is leading to reduce fossil fuel dependency and to source clean energy alternatives. She is keen for local community to be engaged in any innovations, ensuring that the solutions are context specific. Through her government leadership, Indigenous representatives, community members, industry leaders, researchers, tradespeople, farmers, and environmentalists all come together to explore the complex challenges around sustainability and renewable energy solutions. Her concern is always around community – it underlies what she calls, her game plan. She details the impact on community of both climate change and of alternative ways of sourcing and using fuels and energy will and are being felt. She explains how her work involves leading investigations into innovative battery storage technologies, solutions to address issues of power reliability in fire and flood prone areas, residential and corporate solar power programs, developing culturally respectful solutions with Aboriginal traditional owners, job stability, wildlife, and environmental conservation – these are all part of her mission to lead “community oriented, sustainable solutions”.

Lily is a changemaker. She has led innovations and strategies that have put Victoria ahead of other Australian States in meeting ambitious targets to reduce fossil fuel dependency and move to clean energy alternatives. Globally, she is also making her mark.  Lily has ensured that Victoria (representing Australia) is part of Global Alliance - the Race to Zero. Interestingly, this is an Alliance in which Italy, through the involvement of Emilia Romagna, a is also taking part. Race to Zero is focussed on achieving a commitment in halving emissions by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050. She is confident the achievements being made are on track to reach these ambitious targets. Like many government counterparts across the globe, Lily is keenly overseeing various trials. Wind, solar, hydrogen, hybrid, supply chains -her focus is to “explore options that are right for local conditions, whilst maintaining safety, ensuring livelihoods, and creating a future”. She is proud that under her watch, the requirement of any initiative wishing to attract Governmental support must be undertaken drawing on local workforce and resources. This has meant redundant automotive industry buildings and workers have found new life in a recently established turbine assembly plant in the old Victorian port town of Geelong. She explains, “regional areas gain the opportunity to manufacture and supply materials and are integral to consultation, planning and implementation.”

Lily is firm in her resolve. If you were tempted to think of the stereotypical Calabrese female as determined, non-nonsense and hard working – Lily would certainly live up to this characterisation. She credits her Calabrese migrant background in providing a strong foundation for the pathway she took in life. Her parents both migrated to Australia to carve out a future based on sheer hard work and motivation to provide their children with opportunities. Influenced by a strong sense of social justice instilled by her parents, Lily actively engaged in the community from an early age and continued this through her university studies and now, to her ministerial role. Her motivation?  “There has got to be fairness and equity. We need to ensure that everyone is included in Government thinking - that includes vulnerable members. Everyone needs to get a fair deal, not just corporations. I’ve seen what happens when people get left behind.” Lily leaves off at this point. The silence speaks volumes. She has both her own lived and professional experience with consequences of discriminatory or even non-existent protective legislation and regulations to draw on. She explains that her individuals are core to her work – just as much as industry. “The solar program, zero emission vehicles, smarter and affordable energy it’s all part of the work that needs to be done and it includes everyone. Everyone needs to be able to afford it, benefit from it and have a life that is improved due to technological advances”. She is firm in her resolve that solutions must be inclusive of all. She explains “ I am quite aware that not everyone gets to be a minister in life. It is a privilege, and it is incumbent on ministers to take up that privilege and work alongside and for the community”. For Lily, it is that simple.  

Does Lily see herself as a changemaker? “Absolutely! I was told in fact that I was disrupting things too much. I don’t see any harm in being a disruptor of the status quo. If you are working to ensure better social solutions in the long-run, then why be apologetic?”  For Lily – better social solutions are also better economic solutions. “Clean ups are often highly expensive, messy and not always totally effective”. She speaks candidly, “it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure engagement but also to understand how to manage the transition. Innovative, creative solutions are needed. We need to work alongside the community and across the community to ensure that solutions are effective at many levels. Solutions include innovation in many areas. Equipping people with different skillsets to work with new technologies, revolutionising energy sources and even ways of thinking about supply”.

There is no stereotypical interview with Lily, no questions about cooking or about the interior design of her family home. If you want those details you need to do abit of research on Lily. The interview is all about the community, her role, opportunities in the sector and responsibility to seek sustainable solutions.

However, if you are going to do a bit of research, you might find her on a Calabrese Facebook group, proudly sharing family recipes of traditional Calabrian dishes passed down through her own nonni. You learn that she is keen to preserve as much of her family heritage as possible. She has embarked on a story-telling project to record her family history, working methodically with the oldest remaining representative of the family, her elderly uncle who lives in Fawkner, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. A labour of family love.

Professionally, Lily knows the importance of being focussed and informed. There is no waiting for opportunities – her mantra is to create them, “if you see that something needs doing, do it! Don’t wait to be invited to do something, know your stuff well and step into the space”. And she has. In 2017 former US Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore came to Melbourne and this provided an opportunity to discuss renewable energy supply and various solar transport options.

Her mantra is also her advice for anyone, especially culturally diverse women who are moving into leadership. And regarding leadership in politics? She reiterates -“back yourself. Just know your stuff – and back yourself”. And she has.

Time is of the essence, “in government you always have a sense that your time may be limited -so you have to make the most of it”. And Lily is on a mission.  Change is needed. Disruption is required. And Lily says, she has only just begun.