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“The boys are my life”: How Natalie Barr’s sons are pressing for conversations about consent to become a family discussion

Raising boys has always been an important part of the Sunrise co-host's life.
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There are few more heart-warming experiences as a mother than that moment when your child returns the lessons they’ve learned at your side.

Natalie Barr, the newly appointed co-host of market-leading TV morning show Sunrise encountered one of those moments on February 22 this year when she received a telephone call from her 19-year-old son, Lachlan.

Agitated and deeply affected, Lachlan told Natalie about a stunning online campaign created by Chanel Contos, a former Australian schoolgirl who had posted a poll on Instagram asking if any Sydney girls had experienced or knew someone who had experienced sexual assault or had their consent abused.

“Lachlan said, ‘You have got to have a look at this, and we’ll get Hunter to have a look at this, too,” recalls Natalie, 53.

“There’s this girl, and I know her. And I know people who she knows. This has blown up on the internet and there are so many posts. She posted this amazing thing online. It’s amazing and its horrifying at the same time. You have to read it.”

What Natalie encountered when she read Chantel’s post was indeed amazing. And horrifying. More than 17000 young women had responded and more than 70 per cent of them alleged they had been assaulted or sexually exploited in one way or another by boys from private schools in Sydney.

“After I looked at the post, I got together with Lachlan and Hunter and we talked about it,” says Natalie, whose sons also attended a private school.

“They talked about it a lot, all afternoon and later again that night. They talked about how brave Chanel was and also about how it had affected them. They started to wonder quite genuinely if they knew enough about consent and what it really means. It became a very personal issue for them.”

Natalie is endlessly proud of her two sons, Lachlan and Hunter.

(Jason Ierace)

In a wide-ranging and deeply personal interview, Natalie, who has been a part of the Sunrise family for almost 17 years, talks about her own family and introduces Australia to her sons Lachlan and Hunter.

Natalie and her husband of 26 years Drew, an Oscar-nominated film editor, have always tried to shield their sons from the spotlight, but both have such strong and articulate views that when asked if they wished to participate, they readily accepted.

Natalie talks openly about her relationship with her sons, her husband Drew, the responsibilities of motherhood and the effect that the rising concern about equality and consent in Australia has had on how they interact with the world.

Natalie also reveals what it means to her to finally accept the coveted role as co-host at Sunrise alongside David ‘Kochie’ Koch, her relationship with former hosts Mel Doyle and Sam Armytage and how proud she is of the compassionate, aware young men her sons have become.

Her boys will always come first.

(Jason Ierace)

Lachlan has left school and is now studying film at one of the country’s leading film schools with an intention to become a director or a producer.

Hunter is just 16 and completing Year 10 and still unsure what it he wants to do with his life.

But both boys were struck by the outpouring of anguish that followed the post by Chanel Contos earlier this year. It was then, as their mother says, a deeply personal issue for them, and it remains so.

“Some of the stories that we saw online were nothing short of awful,” says Lachlan.

“They really motivated me to understand what I knew about consent and to make sure that Hunter also became involved in that conversation. I think that being open, talking about issues such as consent, is the way to make sure that we change what is happening. It has to change, and I think it will change but it has to start with being open about what consent actually means and why it is so important.”

Of course, being open and having the ability to face issues is something that he and Hunter have learned around the kitchen table. It was always there that they were encouraged to bring up an issue and discuss it, be it something that had happened during the day or something they might have seen on the news or read in a newspaper. That free-flowing exchange of ideas has long been a part of the family dynamic.

“We have always discussed issues – very forthrightly, very abruptly and very honestly,” says Natalie.

“That probably comes from both Drew and from my upbringing. Drew has always encouraged discussions like that, and I was brought up by a father who watched five news bulletins a day and who was vitally interested in the world around him.

“There was none of this, ‘oh, the news is too violent, or the news is too confronting.’ We’d discuss everything. And Drew is very much the same. There are so many issues. We always try to sit down to dinner together if we can, but we have an unusual situation in that I am not at home in the morning and Drew is often working in the evening, but we have made it work.”

Hunter says he has always felt encouraged to put his point of view, whatever it may be.

“If I ever want to talk about something, I can always bring it up with either Mum or Dad,” he says.

“And that goes both ways. If they want to know something about my life, then they only have to ask. They know they can come to me and ask. It’s an open relationship between us all.”

That openness, he says, has helped both he and Lachlan develop independent attitudes and self-reliance.

“We have learned to think for ourselves,” he says.

“We’ve grown up not being so reliant on Mum or Dad. I feel we haven’t needed them sitting alongside us every minute. And not only can we act independently, but we also think independently too. We can disagree and we do disagree. I am very honest with my opinions.

“So, if I disagree, I will tell them. We don’t let things build up over time to become a problem. We tell each other straight up and that’s how the relationship goes.”

“We have always discussed issues – very forthrightly, very abruptly and very honestly,” says Natalie.

(Jason Ierace)

Natalie says that a few weeks after the Chanel Contos posts, the issues around consent and abuse leapt to the front of the national agenda once again when former political staffer Brittany Higgins spoke at a rally outside Parliament House in Canberra.

She alleges that she was raped in the office of former Defence Minister Linda Reynolds two years ago by a colleague, and that the issue was swept under the carpet.

“Hunter and Drew and I were sitting at dinner and Hunter saw it pop up on the news,” recalls Natalie. “He called us over. Hunter’s reaction to what that young woman had been through and what she was saying, [it] was a total shock to him.

“It also made me realise that, as teenage boys, they do care deeply about these issues. They were horrified at what was revealed in some of the posts that followed Chanel’s post, the terrible things that had been happening to their peers. In a strange way, I was heartened that they were horrified. I was so glad they took it seriously, and perhaps as importantly, that they were listening to the women who were making their voices heard.”

Many of Lachlan’s attitudes and values also come from his parents, he says. “The qualities that I have from Mum and Dad are honesty, fairness and resilience. They are perhaps the most important ones. They have stuck with me and helped make me who I am.”

He says resilience in something that was always emphasised by Natalie and Drew.

“Growing up with parents who are very career driven and motivated to make the most of their situation and opportunities is very telling. It’s not always blue skies and butterflies. Sometimes there are disappointments. I can remember being told from a young age that there will always be times that are tough, when they don’t work out the way you think they might.”

Respect in relationships is the other important value he attributes to Natalie and Drew – something he has seen reflected over the years in their relationship.

“A big thing that Mum and Dad have always emphasised to both me and Hunter is never to make an enemy if you can avoid it. That is a seriously big factor in my life, in my relationships when they have come to an end. I try to always make sure it ends on a good note and not to close doors if you don’t need to.

“You never know when someone might come back into your life. I’d say that is a huge lesson to learn from them. And I try to stick to that as much as I can.

“It’s not always easy. When someone has hurt you, it takes a lot to take the high road and hold out your hand but it’s also something quite mature. Mum and Dad are always there making sure I remember that.”

One of Nat’s biggest life lessons for her sons: Never make an enemy if you can avoid it.

(Jason Ierace)

Today is, says Natalie, a vastly different world to the one in which she grew up.

She was born and raised in Bunbury, a regional city south of Perth in Western Australia. She attended Bunbury Catholic College, a co-ed school where she was both bright and popular, becoming the head girl in her final year before heading off to Curtin University in Perth.

Her experiences with teenage boys were mostly respectful, if occasionally awkward, and it wasn’t until she moved into a shared house at university that he found a both a meaningful and lasting relationship.

She met her future husband drew at university. As it turned out, he was also from Bunbury. He moved into the house where she lived as a flat mate.

“We were really good friends for a couple of years and then we became more than friends and essentially we have been together ever since,” says Natalie.

Drew completed his degree in film, but Natalie yearned for something else and, after seeking her parents’ permission, dropped out to take a cadetship with a small newspaper called The Wanneroo Times. “Mum and dad said I could leave if I got a job,” says Natalie.

“I wrote to every newspaper, TV station and radio station in the state, and the proprietor of the Wanneroo Times was the only one to write back.

“He said, ‘come and chat to me’ and after reading my uni essays – that was all I had – he offered me a job. I never looked back. I took voice lessons and after a couple of years drove my little Holden Gemini all the way out to Kalgoorlie to start work at a TV station.”

From there she followed Drew to Los Angeles, where she worked as a freelance producer for a variety of TV stations, before they finally came back to Australia and a job at the Seven Network in Sydney in 1995.

Despite the obviously public nature of her work, Natalie Barr has always been more private than public in nature. Her family is tightly knit and, she says, they sit at the epicentre of her existence.

“My boys and my husband are my life,” says Natalie.

“I may have this amazing career, but they are my number one priority and they always have been. Andrew and the boys come first. Of course, I have always been able to run out the door to cover a story when I need to, but I only ever did that when the boys were old enough to deal with it and to be left at home.”

Of course, for the first decade at Sunrise, that was difficult.

“They were too little for me to do that,” she says. “I always made sure I was home by mid-morning. I would race home to take over from our sitter and then I was able to be almost a full-time mum for the rest of the day. That was the beauty of this job.

“I was so lucky in that respect because this job enabled me to be there most of the day, even if it meant getting up at 2.30 or 3am. I could be with them and watch them grow up every day. In that way, it was magical.”

Suffice to say that Natalie is both excited and perhaps a little nervous at becoming co-host at Sunrise. She has watched others do the job for years, often happy in the security of her less high profile but no less important role as part of the Sunrise team.

It’s been a big year for Nat, who stepped up as Sunrise co-host.

(Jason Ierace)

But when the departure of Samantha Armytage put her in the picture for the top job, she knew it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“It’s such an amazing job and while I have only been in the seat for a couple of weeks, I have to admit that I love it,” she says.

“A lot of people said that ‘oh, it should be a breeze, you’ve done it before.’ But that was only as a fill in. So yes, I know what the job is but that’s not always the same as actually having the job. It comes with a lot of responsibility. It really helps that I get on with so many of the people around me, too.”

Natalie knows that the new job comes with a higher profile, but she feels that she is all the more prepared for it, coming at a later stage of her life and in the knowledge that her family are fully supportive of the move.

“Of course, that is all-important,” she says. “They are great, and they are behind me, no matter what.”

Natalie says she and Sam Armytage had a great working relationship, but away from the office they rarely saw each other.

“We got along very well in the office, for sure,” says Natalie.

“But the truth is we didn’t really see each other outside the office. We had vastly different lives, I guess. We were in different places. She was hanging with her friends, and I was spending time with my family. So, yes, we were in different places.”

When Sam left the show earlier this year, she went out with all guns blazing, saying that TV was full of narcissists and sociopaths, comments that rankled some she worked alongside, but Natalie wasn’t worried.

“I don’t think that the rest of us took much notice of that really,” she says.

“You know, everyone is entitled to their opinion and entitled to have their say. But in the past, I have talked about the people in our office being like my family and I am genuinely close to a lot of people there. For me, it’s a wonderful place to be.”

Natalie also has a close relationship with former host Mel Doyle who was host when Natalie joined Sunrise at its inception 18 years ago.

“I’ve seen Mel a few times during the past few weeks. I sat next to her at Carla Zampatti’s funeral for instance. We talked together for more than an hour. We have always been close. She one of television’s great people. We text each other and we keep each other up to date with each other’s lives. She’s a good, generous person.

“She was very generous with her congratulations when I was offered the job and she’s incredibly supportive. We are both in a good space now, a good space for both of us.”

But it is her family and sons who remain centre place for Natalie, both now, as they navigate an increasing complex world, and into the future.

“What I want most for my boys is for them to find something they love doing,” says Natalie.

“I don’t care at all what it is. I think Drew and I have been lucky enough to find careers that we love doing every day. I think that perhaps its unusual. Not everyone gets to do what they love. But it would be incredible if they could find that.

“Otherwise, all you ever want for your kids as a parent is for them to be happy and healthy. You know, to go out into the world and do what they want to do, to find something worth while and find someone who they love to be part of the life. It’s really basic, but it’s probably also the secret to a good life.”

Read more in the July issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.

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