Liberals’ new political star a former Miss Australia
Exclusive: Canberra is paying close attention to what would ordinarily be a low-profile election campaign in Tasmania, where star candidate and former Miss Australia Jo Palmer looks set for victory.
Ms Palmer, 49, is the hot favourite to win the Upper House seat of Rosevears in northern Tasmania, after she quit her job as a newsreader and approached the Liberal Party seeking endorsement in the August 1 poll.
A surprised and delighted Liberal Party quickly agreed, and political watchers in Canberra are now tracking Ms Palmer's campaign with interest, with some considering how they could lure
their likely new star MP to Canberra.
The hugely-popular mother of four, who was known as Joanne Dick during her time as Miss Australia in 1993 and has spent the past 18 years anchoring Seven's Tasmanian nightly news, laughed off suggestions she go to Canberra, saying she was focused on next Saturday's poll and knocking on as many doors as possible.
"No. No, no. This is my home here,'' she told News Corp Australia.
"These are the people I grew up with, this is the place I love, I feel so connected to these people and to this place and no, Canberra has never been, ever, in my sights.''
Rosevears is one of two Tasmanian Upper House seats going to the poll on August 1, and while the tiny 15-seat Legislative Council traditionally skews towards independents, Ms Palmer is likely to land another number for the Liberals, who currently hold just two seats.
She is one of six candidates, including Labor's Jess Greene, a union organiser, and independent Janie Finlay, a former mayor of Launceston.
Ms Palmer has been approached over the years by both the Labor and Liberal parties for state and federal seats, but stayed away from politics to focus on her media career and her family.
She has two children from her first marriage, Henry and Lily Cornish, aged 23 and 21, and two younger sons to her second marriage, Charlie, 11, and Alfie, 10.
Her second husband Andrew Palmer is a professional dancer in their home town of Launceston and taught Lily to dance from a young age. Lily also became a professional dancer and spent two years on Dancing with the Stars before returning from Tasmania to see out the coronavirus crisis, which devastated the entertainment industry.
Ms Palmer, who was adopted at the age of just four weeks by her missionary parents, Don and Diane Dick, was Miss Tasmania and then Miss Australia at the height of its reign as the nation's premiere fundraising quest.
She agreed to take part after growing up caring for her father, who was profoundly ill.
"That was very much as a direct result of the way I had grown up with my dad who had such severe physical disabilities, he barely had any movement from the neck down with multiple sclerosis,'' she said.
"By the time I was two my brother (Callum) and I were toileting him, feeding him, that was just normal life for us.''
Mr Dick died when Ms Palmer was 19 years old, and she became Miss Australia two years later.
After a year travelling the country raising awareness and money for charities assisting people with physical disabilities, she returned to Tasmania and embarked on a career in journalism, reading her first bulletin for Seven when she was 25 years old and 8.5 months pregnant.
"Big swollen face, big swollen belly, absolutely terrified,'' she recalled of her first nightly bulletin.
"I think the training lasted about three minutes and then you were on air and you either sank or swam.''
She swam, and went on to anchor Seven's nightly bulletin in Tasmania for 18 years, before resigning suddenly this year and embarking on her political career.
"I was feeling unsettled and starting to think, I'm 48, if I don't make a change now I am going to die in this newsroom with (sports reader) Peter Murphy and this is it.
"I had this feeling inside of me that I wanted to do more, and literally within a few weeks of me feeling this way Kerry Finch, the sitting member, announced he was not going to recontest the seat.''
After talking to her husband, mother and older children, Ms Palmer resigned, and started campaigning.
"It all happened literally the day after I read my final news bulletin, phone calls were made and off we went.
"I wasn't approached, which was interesting because I've been approached by the Liberal Party and Labor Party both state and federally for over the past 20 years, every time there was an election.
"This was me putting my hand up. I went to them (the Tasmanian Liberals). They were a little bit gobsmacked to start with but I put my hand up, that's what you've got to do.
"But no, no-one had approached me, I just knew Kerry was not recontesting, I knew I needed to have a change of direction with my career.
"I knew I didn't want to be in the corporate world, I didn't want to be back inside an office, I wanted to be out, I wanted to be with people, wanted to be in the community and it just fell into place.''
Ms Palmer's decades in the public eye have equipped her better than many star candidates parachuted in by the parties to contest elections.
She said she learned years ago to block out white noise, with online abuse and social media "without a doubt'' the worst part of having a public profile.
"The way people will speak to you face-to-face is with a sense of common decency. Even if they have completely differing political opinions to you there's just a sense of decency and of good manners.
"But as soon as these people get on Facebook or Twitter, it's like we just lose all sense of good manners. All sense of decency goes out the window and they just say, they type, whatever they think with absolutely no thought for who might read that, how that might be interpreted or how that can actually hurt someone.
"I have dealt with that basically my entire career and I learnt very quickly early on that you can't please everyone.''
Ms Palmer has run an old-fashioned doorknocking campaign, and said she loved every minute of it.
"I hear a lot of people in campaigns saying 'I hate the doorknocking' but I am telling you, it's the thing I have loved the most. That personal interaction with people,'' she said.
While half of Ms Palmer's life has been spent working as a journalist and newsreader, she said her early experiences as Miss Australia shaped her interest in politics.
"It was probably my first taste of the power of community and the power of small groups in communities that are determined to make a change,'' she said.
"I would say that is where I really got my grounding in understanding what can happen when people come together.''
Ms Palmer's parents were missionaries in Africa before her father became ill, and her mother went to Iraq several months after her husband had died.
"She was there for six or seven years, working as a nurse and missionary with the Kurdish people who had been terribly victimised by Saddam Hussein,'' Ms Palmer said of her mum.
"It took us three months to get a message to her that I'd even become Miss Australia.''
Mrs Dick returned to Launceston and is an important part of Ms Palmer's large and thoroughly modern blended family unit.
Adopted from New Zealand as a tiny baby, she later made contact with her birth father, and says the two older sisters she never knew she had are now "like family.''
"We are magnificently blended,'' she said.
"We've been incredibly fortunate that my ex-husband and his new wife (Mark and Tanya Cornish) are actually now some of our best friends. His children (with Tanya) are my godchildren because we decided very early on if anything happened to either parent we wanted all the brothers and sisters to always be together.
"My little boys get confused sometimes, they think that Henry and Lily's dad Mark is their stepfather and we have to explain 'no, you actually don't get a stepfather in all this'.
"That's pretty special, it's worked out amazingly.''
Ms Palmer said her daughter Lily was a testament to the power of hard work - she had no natural talent as a dancer as a little girl, but learned through hours of practice and never giving in.
"I am incredibly proud of her. She has been just astonishing,'' she said.
"You see all the glamour of TV but behind the scenes there's a hard slog and that was the first time she really had to deal with the horrendous nature of social media and how you are judged and criticised and just vile things said by people who don't even know you and sometimes don't even live in the same country as you.
"That was a huge learning curve for her and she's come out of that with just such a great sense of who she is, where her place in the world is, and I am very proud of how she handled herself through both of those seasons.''
She said Lily learned to dance from her stepdad Andrew from the age of eight or nine.
"She is the most magnificent example of what hard work can do because she did not have one natural bone in her body. Watching her learn to dance was like watching a baby elephant learning to walk.
"Every night we'd hear her, we'd be in the loungeroom and we could hear her upstairs pounding on the floorboards of her bedroom and we'd yell at her 'go to bed, go to bed' and she'd been practising whatever she'd been taught during the day.
"Now she's magnificent. Her body is so strong and she is teaching as well.''
She said her older children in particular had urged her to chase her dream of a career in politics.
"They told me that I was always saying to them to be brave and take a chance, and maybe I should too,'' she said.
Originally published as Liberals' new political star a former Miss Australia