The tipping point for change in Australian politics

By Dr Lisa Carson
Academic Coordinator of the Pathway to Politics for Women program, University of Melbourne

This article is an edited version of a speech delivered for International Women's Day, 2022.

In my role as Lecturer in Public Leadership & Diversity at the Melbourne School of Government, I have the privilege of starting to work on the Pathways to Politics for Women Program.

Pathways was launched in 2016 at the University of Melbourne in partnership with the Trawalla Foundation and the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia. There’s now partner programs in New South Wales (at UNSW in 2021) and Queensland (at QUT in 2019), with the intention for all jurisdictions into the future.

The program is non-partisan, seeking to increase female participation in politics at all levels of government, whether that be local, State or Federal.

So far, nationally the program has had over 200 people go through it with at least 20 electoral successes across all levels of government and the political spectrum.

Of course, the year ahead is an exciting one to watch, as we anticipate at least 20 alumni will run in the federal and Victorian state elections, including a number of Independents and the first Indigenous alum to run at the federal level in Queensland.

Our politics and practice are in desperate need of genuine diversity across race, ability, sexuality, age, and class among other characteristics, not just gender, but that also intersect with it.

Why might it be more attractive for women to run as independents?

I think we’re seeing this for four main reasons.

The first is what might be an ‘all time high’ appetite to challenge the status quo. That is, an increased willingness to give the major parties ‘a run for their money’ so to speak, primarily because of a lack of attention on issues that matter to local communities.

Most notably this includes climate inaction, the role and treatment of women, rising inequality, corruption, and ‘playing politics’ rather than delivering for communities with integrity and accountability.

Secondly, I think much of what we’re seeing speaks to the culture of political parties and the treatment of women. For example, the treatment of Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame among other high-profile examples under the current government is undoubtedly making it a little harder for traditionally ‘Liberal’ voters, and women in particular to stand behind.

This is combined with other tensions regarding climate inaction, the bushfire response, aged and disability care, the religious discrimination bill, among others.

Thirdly, I think we’re witnessing momentum off the back of several grassroot success stories.

For example, by likes of Victoria’s Cathy McGowan in 2013 in my hometown area of Indi from a long-held Liberal seat (now held by independent Helen Haines), Rebekha Sharkie in 2018 in the seat of Mayo from Jamie Briggs (Liberal), and more recently with Zali Steggall in 2019 from our former prime minister Tony Abbott in the seat of Warringah.

I think we’re also starting to see the positive impact of more dedicated resources and supports for candidates to run (many of which will shortly be available the Pathways Knowledge Hub) such as Ruth McGowan’s fabulous book ‘Get Elected ’.

Fourthly, some independents appear to be better equipped and financed to ‘go it alone’.

For instance, with the help of various ‘Voices’ movements such as Independent Voices for the Senate; YES Voices, and Voices for Indi among many others, and now with reports that there’s more than 30 grassroots community groups across the country that have formed to support independents .

Regarding funding, there’s the likes of ‘Climate 200’ convened by climate campaigner Simon Holmes à Court, having raised over $7 million from 8,000 donors to help fund pro-climate, pro-integrity and pro-gender equality independents, and who has a target to reach $20 million in funding (see National Press Club, 2022;  Grattan, 2020; Brancatisano, 2021).

These factors and others have led to what some, such as Kylea Tink and Zali Steggall have described as a ‘a tipping point’ for independents to run.

And so now we have a situation where there are a lot of independents running. For example, there are around 14 independents running against Liberal MPs.

This includes the likes of Allegra Spender (formerly a Liberal Party member) against Dave Sharma in Wentworth; Zoe Daniel against Tim Wilson in Goldstein, Kylea Tink against Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney; Jo Dyer against Nicolle Flint formerly in Boothby;  Sarah Russell and Despi O’Connor against Greg Hunt in Flinders; Penny Ackery against Angus Taylor in Hume; Sophie Scamps against Jason Falinski in Mackellar; Vania Holt against Lucy Wicks in Robertson; Deb Leonard against Russell Broadbent in Monash; Nicolette Boele against Paul Fletcher in Bradfield; Kate Chaney against Celia Hammond in Curtain; Claire Ferris Miles against Aaron Violi in Casey; and Monique Ryan running against Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong.

And when it comes to independents taking on the Nationals, there’s around seven by my count, including the likes of  Sophie Baldwin against Anne Webster in Mallee; Hanabeth Luke against Kevin Hogan in Page; Pennie Scott against Michael McCormack in the Riverina; Carolyn (Caz) Heise against Pat Conaghan in Cowper; Kate Hook against Andrew Gee in Calare; and Kirstie Smolenski and Suzie Holt against Garth Hamilton in Groom.

But it’s not just an issue for the Liberals and Nationals, to a much lesser extent, we’re also seeing independents running against Labour and smaller parties. By my count, there’s around 3 including the likes of Zahra Mustaf running against Labour’s Kate Thwaites in Jagajaga.

There’s Georgia Steel and Linda Seymour running against United Australia Party’s Craig Kelly in Hughes. And for the Senate there’s the likes of Susan Benedyka running in Victoria and Kim Rubenstein running in the ACT.

The challenges that women face

Women stand with placards on a street during a protest
People attend the Women's March in San Francisco, USA, in 2020. Pic: Flickr/Sur

No doubt we’ve all heard a lot about the challenges, especially given the Jenkins Review and its finding that 77% of those currently employed experienced, witnessed or heard about bullying, sexual harassment and actual or attempted assault.

With this in mind, I’ll briefly touch on three major challenges before wrapping up with some optimism and excitement for change.

Firstly, there’s the gendered structures. We’ve come a long way since there were no toilets for women in parliament (that is, in 1974, 31 years after the first woman was elected) and just this week, there’s new research out about the barriers regarding care and recommendations for a more family friendly parliament.

But change has been way too slow and young people in particular, won’t stand for it.

We’ve all heard about the ‘glass ceiling’ where women are discriminated against when it comes to promotions and reaching leadership positions. And then there’s the ‘glass cliff’ where once women reach upper ranks of power, they’re often put into precarious positions where there’s a greater risk of failure.

Secondly there’s gendered practices that operate. For example, the malestream art of debate with the likes of cat calling, the disproportionate focus on women’s appearance and what they wear; and the abuse and harassment that women disproportionally face across party lines, and that women of colour face disproportionally higher.

There’s the unwritten ‘rules of the game’, that is, the ‘unspoken code of not acknowledging the sexist and unfair treatment that has long bubbled away in the background of parliament’ as Kate Ellis has described, but that is changing.

This, and a lot more has been documented in the likes of Annabel Crabbe’s ‘Ms Represented’ and ‘Strong Female Lead’ regarding Julia Gillard’s prime ministership for those of you who might want to follow up.

Thirdly, there’s the colonial nature of our dominant ways of working that need to be acknowledged.

There is so much to be celebrated when it comes to Indigenous diplomacy and recognising the role that First Nations people and women have played in decision-making processes that have been practiced for over 65,000+ years across these lands.

Recent research by Michelle Deshong and Michelle Evans has foregrounded the centrality and significance of cultural identity for Indigenous women in political leadership.

In Federal Parliament, we have the likes of MP Linda Burney (ALP, NSW), Senator Malarndirri McCarthy (ALP, NT) Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens, VIC), Senator Jacqui Lambie (JLN, Tas), along with former Senator Nova Peris (ALP, NT) elected at a State level, and with Donisha Duff (ALP, QLD) running as a candidate in Bowman.

Elected at the local government level, there’s the likes of Emelda Davis on the Sydney Clover Moore team, and in Victoria there’s Ashleigh Vandenberg who was the first Indigenous person elected at the local level in Melton.

As Lidia Thorpe and Dorinda Cox note, when it comes to increasing First Nations representation, part of the challenge means working to dismantle existing colonial systems of government and rebuilding them.

Huge leaps to be made across party lines

I’m an optimist at heart. I’m genuinely excited by the momentum for big changes at this historical point in time.

With the culmination of the #MeToo movement, the Uluru Statement of the Heart, the Jenkins review, the climate emergency, and the need to ‘build back better’ coming out of COVID-19, I believe huge leaps can be made across party lines.

Whilst we know the challenges are there, there is also a lot to celebrate and more research is needed about the resilience of women and marginalised leaders, who despite all the barriers - are succeeding, each making it more normalised and easier for the next, regardless of party lines.

I'd like to thank Dr Meredith Martin, Director of Pathways to Politics for her assistance with compiling aspects of this piece.

Banner image: Australian Parliament in Canberra is seen at night. Source: Unsplash/Social Estate


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