Footage of a conservative “action-hero” gyrating all over an image of Independent candidate Zali Steggall prompted giggles from some and cries of ‘gross’ from others. For me, it was a reminder of the broader picture of sexism in Australian politics.
Zali is running against Tony Abbott who once famously mused that it “would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.” It must be a shock for Abbott and his backers to suddenly have a confident independent woman nipping at their heels in what has always been a safe Liberal held seat.
But hey, wake up and smell the coffee. It’s 2019 and more fearless girls than ever before are putting their hand up to run for office, both here in Australia and across the world. They’re running despite the ridiculous treatment they still have to cop in public life. Or maybe they’re running because of it; demanding politics change for the better.
Either way, we’re tracking in the right direction.
A new report from the McKell Institute released this week found that 110 women – more than ever before – will run for office from the major parties, a record 37 per cent of candidates for the Lower House.
A lot of this success is due to Labor’s quota system, which established in 1994 with a target of preselecting 30 per cent of women in winnable seats. Twenty-five years later, 44 per cent of Labor’s candidates are female and they’ll likely hit gender parity in the next parliament. If Bill Shorten becomes Prime Minister, Australia could even have its first 50/50 federal cabinet.
“At current rates, it will still take eight more election cycles to reach gender parity across Parliament.”
I think all Australian women should take stock of how far we’ve come over the past decade, and the women who have led us forward. Tanya Plibersek gave birth whilst in office. Her office was often referred to as Parliament House Kindy as it was filled with the colour of children’s toys and books and babies were always welcome. Now she could well be our next Deputy Prime Minister.
More recently, Minister for Women, Kelly O’Dwyer, became the first cabinet Minister to give birth whilst in office and Senator Larissa Waters was the first woman to breastfeed on the floor of the Senate two years ago.
And every future female Prime Minister should be grateful to our first female in the role, Julia Gillard. I was lucky enough to work in parliament at the time and can say the way she was portrayed in the media was completely at odds with the warm, witty, intelligent person I knew. The media struggles with how to approach strong, powerful women.
I saw Julia Gillard chat to President Obama the same way she’d chat with the cleaners, Luzia Borges and Anna Jancevski who have cleaned every Prime Ministerial office since Bob Hawke. Anna would chastise me at 5am when she would often find an upturned glass of red from the night before and papers strewn around my office. “Marianna, how do you ever expect to find a good, solid Croatian husband, if you can’t even look after yourself?”
Trailblazers like Gillard, O’Dwyer and Plibersek have changed the rules, and done the groundwork for a record number of women to run for office this year.
But we can’t rest on our laurels.
At current rates, it will still take eight more election cycles to reach gender parity across Parliament. And even when we get there, we know that gender parity alone is not enough. We need to encourage broader diversity amongst the women and men who enter the halls of power.
Electing Ali France, a gold-medal Paralympian standing in the federal seat of Dickson, would be a good start. Whilst one in three Australian households have a person living with a disability, only one in 100 candidates at this election do. If Ali is elected then she will be a shining light for every young woman who has overcome barriers.
Linda Burney, the first and so far, only indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives shows how powerful example can be. In her maiden speech to parliament she described what “it was like to be a young Aboriginal girl in the 1960s, sitting in a classroom and being told that my capacity was limited by my race and that my potential was capped by expectation”.
Despite Linda’s recent success and the election of Ken Wyatt to the House of Representatives (he is also the first Aboriginal person to serve as a federal minister), less than 2% of candidates running at this election are indigenous. It is a national shame that the traditional owners of our country have barely a whisper in our National Parliament.
For a richly multicultural society, our political seats are almost exclusively reserved for white faces. Malaysian born Penny Wong is one of only a handful of representatives from culturally diverse backgrounds. This means Australia lags the UK, the US and Canada when it comes to cultural diversity. Disappointingly, only one in ten candidates contesting this election is from a culturally diverse background.
When it comes to diversity in parliament, Australia is making progress on gender equality but we have far more to do in other areas of representation.
Marianna O’Gorman is Executive Director of the McKell Institute in Queensland.
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