Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Statements by Senators

Women in Parliament

12:55 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to make a contribution today about a more equal and more representative parliament. For some weeks now, we have seen those opposite consumed by a long-overdue debate on how it is that deep into the 21st century just one in five of the Liberal members and senators are women, and what they can do to turn this around. I say it is long overdue not to score a political point but because of a more fundamental principle. Whether it's on the basis of race, sexuality, religion, ethnicity or gender, we should be striving for a society where all people are judged on their abilities alone. This is the principle that certainly guides my approach to public life. It is a principle of Australia's democracy and it is a principle the Labor Party holds dear.

This principle includes making sure that the parliament is more equal, both in its numbers and in its practices, because without one you're not going to get the other. A parliament that is more representative of the Australian people will be one that acts and behaves in a way that is more closely aligned with the community, the expectations of the Australian people and the make-up of the Australian people. That change is also necessary to make politics a better and more attractive career option for women.

For over a quarter of a century now, our party has been committed to the goals of making our party better represent the Australian people and of reflecting the principle of equality by ensuring more women were elected to federal, state and territory parliaments. Labor support affirmative action not just because we think women have just as much right as men to serve in this place and others but also because we think this parliament is a better place when it more closely reflects the people we represent. We support affirmative action because it is the best way to tackle and defeat the systemic failures in our political system. It also changes culture and policy. I recall it was a Labor government that put in place measures such as the increase to the tax-free threshold, the low-income super contribution and paid parental leave. Now the Labor Party has announced an addition to paid parental leave for women's superannuation. All of these are economic policies which reflect the experience of Australian women.

We often hear from some of those opposite sarcastic remarks about 'quota girls', as if none of us on this side has any right to be here. Well, I'd like to ask them this question: why is it that you think women make up so few members and senators in your party? Since women make up more than 50 per cent of the population, there can really only be two answers: either women are not seen by the males in your party as talented and, therefore, not as deserving of a place in this parliament as men; or there is something more systemic preventing women from being elected to parliament as members of the Liberal or National parties. Unless those opposite are actually prepared to stand up in this place and argue that, if merit alone determines preselection, women in the Liberal and National Parties are consequently only one-fifth as meritorious as men, then they accept there are barriers to equal representation. Once you accept there are barriers then, clearly, action is required to break those down, and that action is affirmative action.

A book I will be launching in the near future by Clare Wright, You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World, documents how in the early years of the 20th century other nations looked to Australia with admiration as the land which led the world in universal suffrage—something of which we can be extraordinarily proud. We were a place where women had not only won the vote but also won the right to stand for parliament, an almost unheard of concept in the first decades of the 20th century. Yet today, Australia ranks 50th in the world when it comes to gender diversity in parliament. Where we once led the world, today the latest figures from the IPU show we trail the UK, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, Rwanda, Cuba, Slovenia and 42 other nations. Why? Because of the Liberal and National parties. If Labor were the only party in this place, Australia would rank fourth in the world.

So the debate we have seen over the last few weeks and the growing recognition that something needs to be done to change this are very welcome, not just for those opposite but for the parliament as a whole and for the nation. However, I do sound this word of warning: if the experience in the Labor Party is any guide, you do face decades of struggle, prosecuting this change at multiple party conferences.

In 1996, in the last election where Labor branches could avoid taking action about the fact we had so few women MPs and senators, we were left with just four female MPs and fewer than one in 10 of our lower House members. But, with party rules demanding at least 35 per cent of winnable seats go to women, by the next election that number had quadrupled and women made up over a quarter of our members of parliament. People such as Julia Gillard, Nicola Roxon and many others entered our parliaments. Since then, we have twice lifted our quota target to 40 per cent and then 50 per cent. Today, 46 per cent of our caucus are women and we are on track to achieve equality at the next election. This will be a historic and proud moment: a party of government for the first time in this country accurately reflecting the diversity of the Australian people. It is proof that affirmative action, quotas, or whatever term you want to use, works.

In contrast, on the government benches—where those opposite routinely deride Labor women as 'quota girls'—we see the exact opposite trend occurring. In 1996, 18 women sat as MPs in John Howard's new government; 22 years and seven Prime Ministers later there are just 13. We see reports that is likely to drop to single figures after the next election. There's no sign this is going to improve. If anything it will get worse. If you look at the 13 most marginal Labor seats the government might be expected to target at the next election, in just one a woman has been preselected by the Liberal Party.

This confirms, I think, that too many people in the Liberal Party have a problem with women. When so few of your numbers are women, this leads to the sorts of behaviour we've seen widely reported in recent weeks: the claims of bullying, with no fewer than five Liberal women calling out their appalling treatment during the bitter infighting that led to the dumping of the former Prime Minister. When those few women left are so dismayed by bullying and intimidation that some of them are quitting the parliament, worsening the gender inequality in the coalition parties, you see the creation of a vicious cycle that sees women marginalised and driven out of parliament—and, of course, this parliament made less attractive to women.

For many years the Liberal Party sought to disguise its poor record on gender by pointing to Julie Bishop, Australia's first female Minister for Foreign Affairs—yet we also saw how the party treated her during the leadership ballot. It's no wonder the member for Curtin memorably declared she wouldn't be another bloke's deputy and left the frontbench. However, one point on which I would disagree with the former foreign minister is her reluctance to describe herself as a feminist—on which she was joined by many women on the other side. Oxford Dictionaries comprises 20 volumes. It's definition of feminism, however, is commendably concise:

The advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.

Chris Wallace, I thought, put this very well in her recent column, when she declared:

… the reluctance of Liberal women to name and organise around the liberal feminism they actually practice, psychologically undercuts their power and keeps them in a prone position.

They need to name and unashamedly organise around the set of ideas that can end the present male Liberal monoculture in a way consistent with their political philosophy: that is, liberal feminism. Every time Bishop and those like her shy from declaring themselves liberal feminists, they pull the rug from under not only under their own feet, but also from under the feet of every other Liberal woman around them.

Though I recognise that some women in the Liberal Party are recognising they need to change their approach—and I think that that is a good thing—to my way of thinking it is somewhat counterproductive to the cause of equality to be proud of not being a feminist.

As a general rule, not talking about discrimination or inequality has historically not been a successful approach to remedying it. Those in power and those with a control of pre-elections rarely cede that power willingly. As the 1970s equal pay song put it, 'Don't be too polite, girls.' Ultimately, you have to decide whether you want to make that change and how to best prosecute that case. Male leaders have to decide whose side they're on. Are they going to stand against the tide or work with you, as people on our side from Keating to Simon Crean to Bill Shorten have all chosen to do.

Sadly, at this moment, surveying the coalition benches, I have to say there are too few male allies. When only 17 per cent of your members in the House are women and you're going backwards, you obviously have a problem. When your MPs and senators are routinely referring to women in this place as 'quota girls' and the 'handbag hit squad' and calling on them to 'roll with the punches' and to 'get out of the kitchen', you have a problem. And this gets back to the point I started with about the culture of a party or a parliament and how that is affected by the lack of equal representation. It is time for those opposite to understand that a lack of female representation in this parliament is not only bad for women and bad for the Liberal Party; it is bad for democracy. It is time for those opposite to join the 21st century, to stand up to the bullies, to support affirmative action so that this parliament on all sides, whether government or opposition, better represents the Australian people.