Women and politics was high on the agenda at UN CSW 57, with attention being paid to politics in its broad and narrower sense. ‘Gender Sensitive Parliaments’ , discussing and debating the way to chage the culture of parliaments to ensure their responsiveness ‘to the needs and interests of both men and women in their structures, operations, methods and work’ was one topic holding enthralled all attending that side event. Another CSW 57 side event, also run by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), covered the way in which parliaments around the world have taken steps to ensure representation, or greater representation, of women as members, as cabinet members, as speaker, as whips, and in other posts of parliamentary authority.
Aotearoa/New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the vote, acceding in 1893 to women’s demands for the introduction of real democracy, where ‘democracy’ had, in the past, referred to government by men alone. South Australia was the first state-entity in the world to grant women not only the vote, but the right to stand for Parliament. In 1894 the South Australian Parliament had before it a Bill to extend the vote to women and one member, seeking to disrupt the process and impede passage of the Bill, introduced an amendment whereby the vote would be complemented by the right to stand. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the democratic cause, the Bill passed – with both rights included.
In 1902 Australia became the first country in the world to extend the vote to women, along with the right to stand for Parliament. In 1903, three women stood in the Australian election. Although none succeeded, Vida Goldstein – the first woman to register to stand for the Senate, gained a goodly swathe of votes. She stood three more times over the years, up to 1920, despite not gaining a seat.
Just as men do not accept that the right to vote is sufficient – Parliamentary representation must be possible for all men, or at least all men are entitled to seek parliamentary places – neither do women accept that the vote is enough. Democracy means that women and men must have the right to vote for women or men as members of Parliament. Democracy means that women and men must have the right to stand for Parliament.
In the 1970s, the Australian Women’s Movement raised the slogan: ‘A Woman’s Place is in the House – and in the Senate’. This encapsulated the demand for democratic representation: women should be able to take their place in the lower house, the House of Representatives, and in the upper house, the Senate. The demand extended, too, to the state and territory legislatures when they came into being in the Northern Territory and the ACT (Australian Capital Territory – Canberra).
Although women were elected to state Parliaments, beginning with Edith Cowan in Western Australia in 1921, the numbers were few. Women were elected to the federal Parliament for the first time in 1942 – Dorothy Tangney going into the Senate, and Enid Lyons into the House of Representatives. In the 1970s for the first time three women sat in the House of Representatives – Joan Child from Victoria, Ros Kelly from the ACT, and Jeanette McHugh from New South Wales, being elected in 1983. Although Joan Child had been elected earlier and other women had sat in the federal Parliament from other states at other times, Jeanette McHugh was the first NSW woman ever to be elected to that Parliament.
Why so few, and why has it taken so long for women to be elected? Australia has for the first time a woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, yet this came about not by chance but through the Australian Labor Party’s adoption on affirmative action in the parliamentary sphere. In the late 1980s, the ACT led the way, adopting a 50% standard in local legisature elections. There, the voting system enabled this to be introduced relatively simply: with two seats, Canberra and Fraser, and a ‘list’ system, the proposal was that lists should be constructed on a ‘woman, man, woman, man’ basis down the list. Women gained first place on the ballot because that is the way the party voted, so that there was no need to promote women artificially over men on the lists. Yet the principle was established.
It was more difficult in the states and NT, and federally, for Tasmania (with the Hare Clark system) alone operates under a system similar to that in the ACT. All other jurisdictions operate on the basis of ‘one seat, one member’. In the 1980s, however, ALP women organised to ensure passage through the ALP National Conference of a resolution committing to a quota of 30% women preselected for all state and federal elections. Joan Kirner, first woman Premier of Victoria, was a leading figure in this struggle. She and others established Emily’s List (Early Money is Like Yeast – it helps women rise) to provide funds for women candidates who adhere to feminist principles, in particular the right to abortion.
The UN CSW 57 side event looking at getting women into parliament covered a number of ways in which parliaments and legislatures have sought to effect this change. The British Labour Party runs ‘women’s lists’ – where women only are entitled to stand for selection – and not only in unwinnable seats. Women’s lists must be run in winnable and safe seats, too. Burkina Faso adopted a policy of granting public fund bonuses to political parties succeeding in having women elected under their banner. Other countries have set aside a certain number of parliamentary seats for women, some have introduced quotas – which must be met by having women stand and win seats representing general constituencies, some have simply called ‘quotas’ ‘targets’ – on the basis that ‘targets’ are more palatable than ‘quotas’ which is taken to imply the use of coercion or at least a firm hand. ‘Targets’ as seen as ‘softer’, something to be aimed for rather than (necessarily) achieved.
It may be significant that it is generally ‘newer’ democracies that have taken the most significant steps to ensure women’s parliamentary membership. Whether they have set down rules in constitutions or statutes, or simply articulated policies, many African countries, in particular, are leading the way to ensure that parliaments are not populated by men alone. In this, they are following rapidly in the steps of Scandinavian countries, with Rwanda having topped the list in having more women than men in the parliament and cabinet. Beginning with a quota requiring no fewer than 30% of women in parliamentary seats, at the first election under that regime, women held 44 of the 80 seats.
In the 1980s, Senator Susan Ryan of the Australian Parliament commissioned research into voters’ views of women and men parliamentarians. The outcome was salutary. A majority said they preferred female to male politicians, as they believed the former to be ‘more trustworthy’ and ‘honest’. Voters were more prepared to put their and their country’s future into the hands of women. Clearly, political parties which do not recognise the importance of promoting women into parliament and thence into positions of authority and power at all parliamentary levels, are missing a sigificant feature of politics today.
Promoting women into safe and winnable seats will bring to the parties so doing, the opportunity of taking power and governing the country. On the basis of Senator Ryan’s research, they will also be ensuring that the country’s governance will be all the more positive, productive and progressive.
Jocelynne A. Scutt (c) March 2013
Jocelynne Scutt’s book, Taking a Stand – Women in Politics and Society, was published in 1996 as one of the ten volumes, so far, in the ‘Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives’ series. In the volume, women speak of their involvement in politics, whether standing for parliament, campaigning for women’s rights, engaged in the struggle to end violence against women, or as members and officials active in the trade union movement.
‘This country is no matriarchy, nor are we in any danger of being governed by women,’ wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1940 article published in the US magazine Good Housekeeping. ‘Can a woman be President of the United States?’ she asked, reiterating what she had ‘so often said’:
‘At present the answer is emphatically “No”. It will be a long time before a woman will have any chance of nomination or election.’
She concluded that even if ‘an emotional wave swept a woman into [the presidency], her election would be valueless, as she could never hold her following long enough to put over her program’:
‘It is hard enough for a man to do that, with all the traditional schooling men have had; for a woman, it would be impossible because of the age-old prejudice. In government, in business, and in the professions there may be a day when women will be looked upon as persons. We are, however, far from that day as yet.’
In 1940s Australia, the possibility of a woman as a political leader – whether Premier or Prime Minister – was equally remote. Not until 1943 was any woman elected to federal Parliament. Dorothy Tangney sat in the Senate, Enid Lyon in the House of Representatives, each the first woman ever to do so. Electors had put Edith Cowan into the WA Parliament some twenty years before and, following that lead, elections in other states saw occasional elevation of a woman as MP. Yet it took one of the territories – the ACT – to elect the first woman leader of any Australian government: on 11 May 1989 Rosemary Follett became Chief Minister. Carmen Lawrence (February 1990) and Joan Kirner (August 1990) followed as WA and Victorian Premier respectively; neither won an election as leader. Then the territories again showed the strength of voter sentiment by electing Kate Carnell minority government leader following the ALP’s 1995 election loss, whilst the NT elected Clare Martin in 2001 and again in 2005. In 2007 Anna Bligh became Queensland’s first woman Premier upon Peter Beattie’s retirement, then in 2009 was the first woman to win the Premiership of any state, serving until the 2012 Liberal National Party election win – with a man at the helm.
As for Prime Minister, names were bandied about over more than a decade before in June 2010 Julia Gillard took the post first by ALP parliamentary caucus vote, then through negotiations with independent members after the August 2010 election.This meant the ALP retained government, and she retained the top post.
Julia Gillard thus broke through the barrier recognised by Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet Eleanor Roosevelt saw more than simply gaining office as the goal. For her, it was necessary to make something of it, through implementing a policy programme of the leader’s own making. This, forRoosevelt, was a major barrier. ‘Age-old prejudice’ was the key.
How, then, does Australia’s first woman Prime Minister measure-up? Policy gains of the Australian government since 2010 election contradict Eleanor Roosevelt’s contention that a woman leader ‘could never hold her following long enough to put over her program’. Since coming to power the Gillard government has:
- Passed the climate change policy on carbon pricing and emissions, incorporating supports for householders and ways business can implement it whilst retaining productivity, and awarding $1.9 mill. toward geothermal exploration advancing renewable energy potential;
- Launched the National Broadband Network (NBN) aiming to ensure rural and remote access to contemporary communications along with urban dwellers and business;
- Negotiated a Mental Health National Partnership Agreement (NP), providing states and territories mental health project funding, commencing with $57.6 mill. over 5 years to NSW for services for those often ‘presenting at hospital emergency departments’ or at risk of ‘recycling’ ‘in and out of institutional settings’;
- Supported the Australian Service Worker (ASU)’s equal pay claim, endorsed by Fair Work Australia on 1 February 2012;
- Introduced the R&D Tax Credit policy aimed at generating high-wage, high-skill jobs through a 45% refundable Tax Credit for firms under a $20mill turnover, and a 40%r refundable Tax Credit for all others, retrospective to 1 July 2011;
- Passed ‘plain packaging’ laws effective December 2012, to ‘reduce the number of deaths from smoking-related diseases’, ‘giving [Australia] the best chance of having the lowest smoking rates’;
- Announced a new cash-payment plan replacing the Education Tax Refund, so ‘a typical family will get more than $720 extra each year’ from 1 January 2013, ensuring payment is automatic, ‘upfront’ and prior to the end of the tax year;
- Implemented and expanded a National Bowel Cancer Screening Program to reduce bowel cancer, and announced a ‘blitz’ on dental treatment waiting lists to cover 400,000 patients, ‘benefiting low income Australians’;
- Introduced the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), from July 2013 operating from ‘up to four locations across the country’ ensuring ‘about 10,000 people … will receive support … rising to 20,000’ by July 2014 and meaning, in the government’s words: ‘For the first time in Australia’s history people with significant and permanent disability will receive lifetime care and support, regardless of how they acquired their disability’.
Far from exhaustive, the list omits policies coming under significant humanitarian fire: the NT intervention or ‘second invasion’ and asylum seekers and refugees policy – although recently modified. However, here the Gillard government has pursued policies supported by the Prime Minister.
For Australia, then, Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertion that a woman will fail as political head through ‘not lasting’ sufficiently long to carry through a platform falls.
Yet despite substantial policy achievements, many of which have major community support, and despite their being gained whilst leading a minority government, a Sydney Morning Herald poll: ‘How do you rate Julia Gillard as prime minister?’ shows confounding results. Of 16,832 votes, 15% rate performance as ‘excellent’, 17% ‘good’, 7% ‘average’, with the remainder devoted to ‘poor’ – at 10%, and 51% ‘woeful’.
Limited to Fairfax newspaper readership, such polls can include multiple voting. Yet the figures prompt the question why, defying substantial policy outcomes and an undeniable capacity on the Prime Minister’s part to effect this, a not insubstantial number fail to acknowledge it?
Part II to come.
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister & Human Rights Lawyer, and Visiting Professor at the University of Buckingham. Her books include The Sexual Gerrymander – Women and the Economics of Power and Taking a Stand – Women in Politics and Society.