Portrait

At a table in the furthest corner of the cafe with Freya Newman. By Georgia Blain.

The whistleblower

At one stage I suggest doing the Lynn Barber questions.

“She’s British,” I say. “Known for her acerbic profiles. Apparently she has three never-fail questions.”

Freya writes the name down in a spiral notebook. She’s studying writing at university and tells me she’d like to read some of Barber’s work.

 “One: Who were you closest to in childhood?”

It was her brother. At 23, he’s only 17 months older, and they went to the same schools together.

“Two: What do you spend your money on?”

She apologises for another dull answer. She’s just left home for a share house and she spends most of her money on food. And cabs. But she’s trying to spend less on cabs. And books, she adds, moments later. She’s an online shopper. Trigger-happy. Not a saver.

“Three: What would you rather be – host or guest?”

We’ve been talking for close to an hour and most of the time she has sat, gaze slightly averted, her large grey-green eyes only ever meeting mine for an instant. I’ve been trying to draw her out, and never quite managing it. But No. 3 does the trick. Staring straight at me, her answer is vehement: “Guest. I hate all that attention when you’re a host. And I want to be able to leave.”

I smile and tell her that Lynn Barber also makes sure she takes a trip to the loo whenever she interviews someone at home. Apparently it’s a goldmine of information. Freya just shakes her head in horror.

When we’d arranged to meet, she’d told me she was “super busy” with uni and moving, but could do a late afternoon. If plans had to change, I was to text her – she is a “brilliant texter”.

I googled her for a picture. Most of the images that cropped up were of someone far more famous: Frances, tanned, smiling and beaming good health. In contrast, Freya is pale, mouth set, dark glasses hiding her expression, a radio mic usually cutting across her face.

She arrives at the cafe moments before I do, and I follow her to where she takes a seat in the furthest corner. It’s noisy, and her voice is soft, so I sit right next to her, leaning in.

It’s a yoga cafe, and because she’s dressed in a loose black top and pants, I assume she does classes.

She shakes her head. “Mum would be glad if I did,” she says.

Her mother is into mindfulness, and thinks it would help Freya slow down, focus.

Are you speedy? I ask her. She doesn’t strike me as such.

No, she says. But she does have a busy mind, she’s the kind of person who reads three books at once. And she gets migraines. And she hunches.

She is leaning forward with her arms wrapped around herself, awkward, as she tells me this.

Freya’s mum also thinks she’s disorganised. When she was looking for a house, her mum told her to make sure her bedroom got morning light – so that she’d wake up.

“I’m not really disorganised,” she says. It’s organised chaos. No deadlines ever missed – but she did hand in her year 12 artwork with the paint still wet.

She talks a bit about school. It was academically selective, competitive but not conservative. She and her friends were politicised young. She tells me about the feminist workshops she runs for year 12 girls and her recent internship with the Greens.

I’m admiring.

But she does confess that being political is exhausting. She acts because she feels compelled. Being “good” can be a curse, I think. It probably made her agree to being interviewed. 

When I ask her about her fears for the future, they are not political, they are the anxieties of someone in their early 20s. She doesn’t know if she will find what she wants to do. She’s torn between writing, fine arts, journalism, perhaps being an academic, a speechwriter.

We talk about last year’s court case. Her good behaviour bond finishes next year. Not that she ever does anything wrong anyway. She smiles, just slightly, as she tells me this.

What made her decide to blow the whistle, to reveal the details of the prime minister’s daughter’s “scholarship”?

She struggles to remember a lot of the detail. Life’s gone on. It’s in the past. But she does know there was no decision. It was about acting ethically. She felt compelled.

She only regrets how it was personalised. Her and Frances, pitted against each other. The good one and the bad one. Both interchangeable depending on your political standpoint.

“I wrote to her,” she tells me. “To say that it was never about her, and I was sorry about how personal it became.”

 I comment on the strength with which she removed herself, the silence she maintained during it all.

She remembers the press of journalists, and the photos being taken as she went into the courtroom. She tells me she looks surly in the pictures. But it wasn’t just because of what was happening. She glances at me again. She’d just broken up with her boyfriend, and, like any 21-year-old, she was thinking about that most of the time.

We say goodbye on the pavement. She’s going second-hand furniture shopping along Sydney’s Parramatta Road. They have nothing in the house, she says. Just boxes of books and nowhere to put them.

Waiting in the traffic, I see her pass me. I watch her, still hoping she’ll turn, but she doesn’t.

She just walks on, no doubt relieved that she is no longer the subject of my or anyone’s attention, and I’m glad for her. She’s been able to slip back into her life, unnoticed again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2015 as "The whistleblower". Subscribe here.

Georgia Blain
passed away in 2016. Her last novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog, posthumously won the 2017 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for fiction.