In Australia and the rest of the world, the political landscape appears to be increasingly characterised by division over unity. But last Friday night, some of Australia’s leading female politicians and emerging candidates put their differences aside to talk about female representation in Parliament.
The event was the first for Future Women’s HerVote campaign, aiming to elevate women’s voices and inform their opinions ahead of the federal election. More than 150 women congregated in Darlinghurst, Sydney to hear from five women who may come from different politics and walks of life, but hold the same drive that brings a person into politics. Those women were Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Leader of the Opposition; Sussan Ley, Liberal Member for Farrer; Shireen Morris, Labor candidate for Deakin; Hollie Hughes, Liberal senator candidate; and Zali Steggall, Independent candidate for Warringah.
These five women shared what inspired their entry into politics and what keeps them going, but the common thread bringing the night together was addressing the glaring issues that discourage many women from putting their hands up in the first place. From gender quotas, to the nature of the political workplace, to the recent bullying allegations, these women shared their own thoughts on the current state of Australian politics and where we can do better. Here are the key takeaways from our first HerVote event.
Politics Needs A Culture Change
Politicians are required to spend weeks at a time away from home, which can pose a huge issue for both working mothers and fathers. But Labor candidate Shireen Morris said another issue needs to be addressed – the toxic and sometimes misogynistic workplace culture in politics. “Particularly over the past year, as an outside observer it does feel like the women who are up there in Question Time – and I think about the Sarah Hanson-Young example – are copping a different kind of abuse and attacks that do seem to be gendered,” she said.
However, Liberal MP Sussan Ley, who has been in the parliament for 17 years, said she had only been treated with respect by her male colleagues. She said she believes “the narrative of women in parliament has overtaken the reality of women in parliament” and it’s just a case of people “behaving badly”.
Labor Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek countered Ley’s statement, pointing to the recent string of bullying allegations from a number of female Liberal MPs last year. “What I fear is that it coarsens our culture and makes women think “This is not a place for me”, and that could not be further from the truth,” she said. “That’s why we need to fix it. I used to talk about this a lot with Julia [Gillard] when the attacks were made on her… And I do have regrets, that I didn’t actually call out the misogyny earlier because it allowed it to become part of our culture too much. But calling it out for each other is really important.”
The Rules Need To Be Changed
Plibersek reflected on Labor’s own history of legislated female representation to argue the case for gender quotas. She saw firsthand how having a “critical mass” of women in politics not only creates a wider pool of perspectives, leading to better decision-making, but also shapes the policies politicians choose to focus on. “Do I think that men of goodwill would have gotten around to it eventually?” she said, referring to the Labor party’s policies on sexual and reproductive health, domestic violence and equal pay. “Maybe. It’s possible. But I can tell you the fact that our Caucus in the federal parliament is at 46 percent women, makes it a hell of a lot easier to make that case. Because it’s our bread and butter, it’s our lived experience.”
It’s a stance Ley shares. She revealed she had brought the issue up with her party, despite many Liberal MPs dismissing the notion of implementing quotas in favour of appointing candidates based on merit. “I think when the Australian public looks at us, they need to see that we are representative of them,” she said.
Representation Isn’t Just About Gender
Gender isn’t the only area that needs to be addressed when looking at improving representation in Australian politics. It’s also about age, race, sexuality and ability.
Morris, who is Indian-Australian, quoted former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, saying, “It’s not just the glass ceiling we have to break through in this country. We also need to break through the bamboo ceiling”. Although Morris acknowledged the structural and unconscious bias that create barriers for people of colour to rise up in leadership positions, she is optimistic that diversity in politics is on an upward trend. “I do think it is changing,” she said. “We have four amazing Indigenous Australians in federal parliament, three of those in the Labor party, and it seems to be changing more quickly at the state levels.”
Senate Liberal candidate Hollie Hughes also moved the room when she explained how her son’s disability shaped her political career. Although a member of the Liberal party since 2002, Hughes revealed seven years ago, when she was living in rural Moree and serving as NSW state executive, her son was diagnosed with level 3 autism. The lack of services in rural and regional areas for those with disabilities motivated Hughes to establish a charity to improve access to these services. But Hughes wanted to change the system from the inside, and in 2016, decided to run for the Senate.
“Having a child with special needs actually encouraged me and my family more to stay involved [in politics],” she said. “It is incredibly important that people who represent all parts of the community, and have those personal experiences, are in the parliament, because if you don’t have those voices…you can never fully appreciate and understand what the unintended consequences are when legislation is going before the parliament.”
It’s Important To Have A Mentor And Be A Mentor
Many of the panellists spoke of the significant impact mentors – both men and women – had throughout their careers, but they emphasised the importance of women doing their part for those coming through the ranks. “Women also need to leave the ladder down,” Hughes said.
“So many women in the past had the mindset that there could only ever be one woman, so when they got somewhere the ladder came straight up behind them. And I think it’s important now, when you get somewhere, leave the ladder down and you help other women onto the ladder. But it’s also about the men bringing the women up behind them and I had amazing male mentors who were so supportive.”
But mentoring is a two-way path. “It really is a responsibility to identify young women,” Ley said. Steggall agreed, saying, “It is about all of us creating the change, creating the momentum, being mentors and being mentees, reaching out for help and really taking on advice.”
Women Need To Step Up To Enact Change
While addressing the barriers discouraging many women from entering politics, the panelists agreed the best way to bring about much-needed cultural change would be to encourage more women to step up.
Steggall shared how the recent bullying allegations further encouraged her to stand for parliament rather than just complaining from the sidelines. “When the allegations came out about the behaviour, it actually made me more determined to add my voice and come and represent women, because there’s no point in us sitting and bemoaning and being really enraged by the status quo and the circumstances if we’re not prepared to stand up and do something about it,” she said.
Steggall, who is standing against former prime minister Tony Abbott in Warringah, also said the growing number of women standing as independents shows women are no longer complacent in waiting for change for happen. “I think I represent a lot of women in the sense that we’re not going to wait around to be asked to get through that preselection system anymore, and it is actually about standing up, demanding it, and going for it yourself.”
Morris noted having more women in politics will not only help bring about cultural change, but will affect the kinds of policies that are pursued in parliament. “I really think we need powerful, inspiring women in parliament to put forward and push the policies that will close the gender pay gap,” she said. “So whether it’s policies that the Labor party’s prosecuting like closing the gap in superannuation, or making sure that we pay parental super for people who go on parental leave, making sure that there’s packages to support women who are fleeing family violence, those are the things I want to fight for.”
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