The other side of Phil Donato
A few weeks ago, our Publisher Bob Holland caught up with Federal Member for Calare Andrew Gee showing a different side of our local member than that you see in front of the cameras at a doorstop interview.
We’ll, we thought it was only fair that we also sit down with Orange’s state representative and find out a little more about the former police prosecutor who defied the odds to win a ‘safe’ Nationals seat for the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party in 2016.
Born and raised in southwestern Sydney, Phil Donato’s family background is the classic Italian Australian immigrants’ story. His mother and her parents were part of the wave of Europeans who came out to Australia following the Second World War. They settled in Wollongong, where Phil’s grandfather worked in the Port Kembla steel works. On his father’s side, Phil’s grandfather immigrated from Italy shortly after the First World War, setting up a market garden in southern Sydney.
From the mid-60s until the year 2000, Phil’s parents ran a fruit shop in the suburb of Chester Hill, which is where he and his elder sister grew up.
“It was almost like you see on TV, you know, the Italian fruit shop, we lived upstairs above the shop. It was working a lot, not a lot of play I suppose. Having a fruit shop involves long hours six days a week. So that was where I grew up, working school holidays in the fruit shop and doing all that, but I soon realised the fruit game wasn't for me.”
Straight out of school, Phil tackled a Business Science degree, but dropped out after a year realising it wasn’t really where he wanted to be.
Now, this might surprise people to learn, but Phil’s first career was one quite different from where he ended up.
“I was a pastry chef. A cousin of mine had an Italian cake shop and he was looking for a pastry chef apprentice. So, there wasn't much else going and I gave that a go for a few years — I didn’t mind it.”
So, does he still know his way around the kitchen?
“It's something I haven't really continued, probably much to my wife's disappointment. Actually, my wife and I did make a croquembouche birthday cake for one of the kids just recently. I mean it’s a bit like riding a bike; speak to any tradie who may have been off the tools for a bit, it doesn't take long to get back into it, but I don't do it very often now.”
In 1995, Phil joined the NSW Police Force. And in his early years on the job, he was thrown into the war against the rampant heroin trade that was ravaging Cabramatta and other parts of southwestern Sydney.
“I did a lot of plainclothes drug work around Cabramatta in ’97. It was when heroin was sort of running red hot and Cabramatta was the heroin capital of Australia. It was hands on there, pretty rough and tumble, but I enjoyed it.”
But after marrying his wife Nadia (who is also a police officer) and starting a family, Phil said his priorities changed.
“The work I was doing was good for a single guy, but it’s hard when you have family and kids. I didn't want to be working night shifts and weekends and I wanted to have some time with them. So the police prosecutors branch were recruiting and I put in for that and got in.”
Family is definitely a big part of Phil’s life. He and his wife have five sons (two of them twins!) now aged 15 to 21, which made for a busy household when they were young.
“So, five boys under six, yeah that was pretty busy! And it was pretty hard on my wife. She resigned from the police force after our youngest was born, because it was just too hard to work even work part-time and manage before and after school care… it wasn't easy, a one-income family and five kids but we always made sure they got a good education and they had opportunities and you know, if that means you’ve got to go without we did, you know. But they were good times, good times.”
In fact, it was largely for their children that the Donatos made the move out to Orange in 2005. Here, there is everything, said Phil, affordable housing, good schools, excellent health facilities and more.
“It's been probably the best move our family made. We wanted to get out of Sydney and here we could afford to send our kids to better schools than what we would have done if we were in Sydney. So, it was lucky the position here came up.”
Given the party he is a member of, it may come as no surprise that shooting and hunting have always a part of Phil’s family. He grew up hunting rabbits with his father, grandfathers and uncles and now it’s something he shares with his own children.
“It’s good father/son time and you learn a lot of things. Not only how to handle a firearm and shoot the firearm safely and accurately, but you also learn things like bushcraft, a whole range of things about plants and animals.”
Sport is also a big part of the Donato household. Phil has played a bit of cricket, rugby and Aussie rules in his time and his boys all share his passion.
“They’re all pretty physically active. I was always involved in either coaching or managing… so rugby union, soccer when they were younger and cricket. I really enjoyed spending that time with them. We had some great times and also great trips, they played representative games and we’d go around the state… good memories.”
It is something Phil said he misses the most; not having as much time to get to his sons’ sporting games due to the demands of the job. Finding that work/life balance in politics is difficult, he said, but it is important to get right.
“Yeah you try and juggle it the best you can, but you’ve always got to try and make time for your family. Even now, three weeks out from the election, I'll still try and make time to have a meal together… and I went and watched our youngest boy play cricket on Saturday morning. You’ve just got to make time, you know, because they're only young for a while. It's important that you make time for your kids and show interest in what they're doing.”
Given all the travel, all the long hours and demands on family life, just why would you want a job in politics?
“You know, you can either sit on the sidelines, whinge and throw rocks and complain about it, or you can put your hand up and try and do something about it,” said Phil. “So that's what I did.”