Profile: Emma Alberici tells Julia Baird about her Italian heritage, growing up a tomboy, the role men play in the family, the versatility of eggplant, and just about anything but being cohost of ABC TV’s Lateline.
Emma Alberici is sharp. The suits she wears and the way she thinks are eerily similar – precise, striking, smart. The cohost of ABC’s Lateline, who has spent years reporting on business and finance, is the only journalist I know with a deep, sincere interest in the workings of the ABN as well as all things political.
She is half Italian – which may explain her fierce love of eggplant – and spent several years reporting from London as the ABC’s political correspondent. We decided to talk about Anything But the media and politics. We also wanted to avoid the subject of “how does a mother of three do it?” – a question make journalists with kids are very rarely asked – and we almost made it.
When is the last time you danced with abandon?
This is going to sound shocking, but probably 2008. Which is a long time ago. And the night before my family and I moved to the UK for the ABC, some friends had a little party for us at their house. And they have this fantastically enormous living area, and they pushed all the chairs aside and put ABBA on the stereo. And so we had three families and about ten kids under eight. And all of us danced to ABBA like crazy 70s people. It was really great fun. And there was a lot of crying, because we were going to leave, and we didn’t know how long we’d be away. And so there was a lot of abandon. And I’m glad there were no cameras…. that’s my guilty pleasure, actually. Disco. I’d like to say it’s Mahler, you know, or something.
Do you have a character from a book or a film that you would like to be?
I think that, unfortunately, too many of the women in literature and in film are victims, often. Or if not, they’re heroines because they’ve overcome some great adversity. I don’t want to have to overcome the adversity to then triumph. So, I would want to be James Bond. Obviously the female version. I’d love to be surrounded by hot men, be in constant adventures. The hero at the end, have really interesting gadgets in my life, fabulous homes. I do love a lovely home.
Do you have a motto that you tell yourself when the going gets tough?
I’ve seen a number of therapists at low times in my life. I remember, once, a counsellor saying to me “you know, no one makes you feel anything, it’s you that makes you feel it.” And it’s such a great reminder that when you feel down, and you think “that person’s done this to me, and that person made me feel like this,” especially in the digital age, and social media, and when you’re in the public eye, as we are. And people can be very hurtful. You know, I always have to remember that I can choose not to be hurt by it. And it’s a small thing, but sometimes, because the mind is such a powerful weapon that can be used against yourself, that I have to sometimes remind myself that I can not be affected by things.
I’m always saying to my kids “choose to be happy”. I need to take that message myself, sometimes. Because I can be mired in the negative, and need to pump myself out of it occasionally.
Do you have any moments when you think there might be a God?
Often. I was raised Catholic, and my faith has withered over the years, particularly in our business, and the kinds of stories and things you report about. You know, the obvious stuff has made me very disappointed in my church. But I think the church, my faith has often centred me. So I go through spates where I go to church.
My father died 24 years ago, when I was 21. And my dad was an incredible dancer. He was the kind of waltzer that people would stare at on the dance floor. He’d always danced, from a young age, and he was really beautiful to watch. And he had three daughters, and he used to tell us all we had flat feet. But it was the one thing we did as a family. We’d often go out and go dancing.
And when I was younger, I remember, we did a lot of ballroom dancing. It was really lovely. And I was very close to my dad. And about six months after he died, I had a dream that we were dancing. And that then he spun me around and then let go of my hand, and said “let go, let go”. And I just thought that was… I found that very spiritual.
If you were going to do a TED talk which had nothing to do with work, what would you talk about?
I’d talk about men. And the role they play in families. And how in the rush for women to reassert themselves and to become more rounded individuals, out of the home and into the workplace, and into every sort of crevice of life, that men have kind of been left behind, and have kind of floundered in their roles. And I think we need a bigger discussion about the role men need to play in families.
And I say need to on purpose, because the Scandinavian countries that are so much more progressive have recognised this in their policies. As politicians are looking to frame the next budget and talk about getting more women into the workforce, you need to think about the role men play.
Unless the men are demanding part-time work, unless the men are demanding paternity leave, then things won’t ever get better for women.
Because if you haven’t got the dad actually stepping up and doing as much as we do, then we can’t work at our full capacity. And unless the men are demanding part-time work, unless the men are demanding paternity leave, then things won’t ever get better for women.
The Scandinavian countries I’m talking about, Iceland is the one, to me, which should be a model for all rich countries. Where they have nine months’ parental leave. Three months must be taken by the woman, three months must be taken by the man, and then the other three months can be divided as you will.
What it means is that in that society, no one bats an eyelid about walking down the street and seeing just as many men pushing strollers as women. And because men are so engaged, they get it. And unless the man is forced to do it in the way women are forced to do it, they’re not going to understand what a job it is. And how important it is.
And I think you’d find in Australian society that a lot of men would welcome that. But if the policies are not such that they’re being required to step up, then they won’t see that as their responsibility. And until men see it as their responsibility as much as it is a woman’s responsibility, we’re not going to move ahead as a society. And I feel really strongly about the role men have to take in a family.
Do you get lost in any particular Internet tunnels?
Yeah. The Mail Online. I go in there with great intentions, to learn about economic growth in Europe. So you go ‘Eurozone economic growth’, and you go “oh, Mail Online, how fortuitous!”. And so you click on there and you read the headline, and suddenly you come out knowing everything you never needed to know about Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie. And then you go ‘gosh, this sidebar never ends”, you keep scrolling down. It’s like, ‘oh Jamie Oliver’.
Do you have a food you could never do without? I know you’re a good cook.
Eggplant. Has so many great applications. I like, in Italian it’s called Melanzana Parmigiana. Melanzana being the actual eggplant. So, yeah, with lots of cheese. I deep-fry them in egg and cheese mix. My kids love it too. It’s how to get them to eat vegetables when they don’t know they’re eating vegetables. Well they know, but they try to pretend they don’t.
My mother comes from a different generation, and was a migrant. I just feel she never really got me.
What’s your biggest regret?
Probably the fact that I didn’t – and haven’t – had a great relationship with my mother. She comes from a different generation, and was a migrant. I just feel she never really got me. She came to Australia in 1955, sent out here by her mother, who didn’t like her boyfriend. She came from a very well-to-do family of shopkeepers. So they had no reason to leave, and she comes from one of the most idyllic, beautiful places on earth, called Ischia, which is an island off Naples. It’s beautiful.
The first time I went there, I was overcome with grief for her, because I just thought, you would never choose to leave this place. And she didn’t. And so I think she’s carried that bitterness throughout her life. Even though she met my father on the boat, and he courted her for close to three years before she succumbed. And she would say she had a great life with my Dad. But she just always carried this bitterness. And I think that absolutely affected the way she parented, and that put a bit of a chasm between my sisters and I and her.
What has it meant to you to have that Italian heritage?
When I was living in Europe, working for the ABC over there, we holidayed in Italy twice a year. And the more I went back, the more my family over there would ask me do I feel more Italian or more Australian. And I found that really quite confronting after a while.
Because my first language was Italian, I didn’t speak English until I was 8 or 9 years old, I did my first school years in Italy. And so I started to feel quite Italian. And so I guess the kind of identity issue comes up.
Obviously I feel extremely Australian and proud of it. And I am forever in my father’s debt actually, because he made the decision that Italy was no place to raise three daughters. And I think that was quite shrewd. Back in the 70s, he realised even back then, in the early days of Berlusconi, that this wasn’t going to be a really good place for the advancement of his young women.
What would you say to your thirteen-year-old self?
I would say: “You’re going to be okay.” I remember at my confirmation, much to my parents’ consternation, I wore a pair of cargo pants and a polo t-shirt and sneakers. And they were horrified. All the other girls are wearing dresses. My father didn’t have any boys, and I quite liked the idea of giving him something like a boy. I struggled to work out who I was for a long time. Was I a tomboy, was I a girl, what was I?
I had this pretty remote relationship with my mum, so I didn’t have that kind of centre. And my older sister, who I’m now very good friends with, travelled a lot. So she wasn’t home a lot. And so, yeah, I kind of didn’t have, to me I didn’t have a strong woman influence.
But you’re so strong now. What do you think your thirteen-year-old self would think?
I think my thirteen-year-old self would think ‘Wow! Didn’t pick that!” A bit like what my schoolteachers might say.
And still wearing the sneakers.
Exactly. Some things never change.