It’s turbulent times in Australian politics. Many of us are shaking our heads at the games recently played out in the tumultuous environment of our federal parliament.
But, spare a thought for the women involved. MPs Julie Bishop, Julia Banks, Emma Hauser and Sarah Hansen-Young are household names after recent events in federal parliament. But I bet these women would rather be known for their political leadership and public service contribution rather than examples of how gender can define political debate.
Increasingly, it seems these women may have sacrificed a lot in their efforts to represent their community.
A time of anguish
I remember the first time I saw the famous French sculpture of The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin. Even though it was decades ago, the art continues to inspire me. Beautifully rendered in bronze, the sculpture captures the agonising surrender of six community leaders (Councillors), who in 14th Century France volunteered their lives in exchange for a peace deal. The victorious English King who had long waged war on their town wanted their heads. In Calais, France, the Burghers are in a group, their faces etched in agony, defeat and grief. They seem to be walking towards their death, nooses around their necks and the keys to the city in their hands.
The faces of those brave Burghers came back to me this week. This time, reflected in the anguished expressions of four, 21st Century, female politicians.
Through various media reports, I witnessed the chilled resignation on the face of Deputy Leader Julie Bishop, realising she had missed out on the top job despite 20 years of competent service. Federal MP Emma Hauser in near tears, defending her decision to step down in the face of hurtful, personal attacks which she described as untrue and a form of torture. Federal MP Julia Banks calling out ‘bullying and intimidation’ in her party which prompted her to quit at the next election after only one term. These came only weeks after Senator Sarah Hanson-Young instigated a defamation case against a male politician for his remarks to her which she says were ‘slut-shaming’ and caused her ‘considerable harm’.
Female leaders who have sacrificed themselves by stepping forward to represent those of us who desire an inclusive, fairer democracy.
Women are turning-off
I’m into politics. I support women to run for public office. When people ask me ‘why on earth would a clever, competent woman possibly consider running for public office when this goes on?’ I know it’s a good question.
Currently, women make up one-third of our State and Federal parliaments yet female representation has been slipping back in recent years. In terms of political empowerment of women, Australia used to rank 38th in the world eight years ago, now we are 48th.
We can’t afford for this to decline and for women to turn-off politics. For the sake of our country, our councils, our legislatures, we need women to be at the table; sharing the power and contributing to good decision-making for all of us. We can’t give up.
“It’s not good enough to be heard. Women must be at the decision-making table” Jacinda Ardern
We need female politicians
With greater representation from female politicians, democracy becomes more effective because we get to hear from ‘the other 50 per cent’. As a result, parliaments tend to be more inclusive and responsive.
Madeleine Albright said that women in power “can be counted on to raise issues that others overlook, to support ideas that others oppose, and to seek an end to abuses that others accept.”
Not only do women contribute different views, studies also show that women politicians engage more with constituents and are better lawmakers than men. American research into the legislative impact of women in politics found that:
“As more women are elected to office, there is a corollary increase in policy making that emphasizes quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities”.
The National Democratic Institute reports that when comparing male politicians to female politicians, from all parties, women tend to be more likely to:
- work across party lines
- be highly responsive to constituent concerns
- help secure lasting peace
- encourage citizen confidence in democracy through their own participation, and
- prioritize health, education, and other key development indicators.
Another analysis suggests that parties that struggle to get women into parliament also find it harder to get women to vote for them. In short, a party with a ‘woman problem’ and a ‘boys-club’ culture may find that it has a problem with women voters. The results of the next Federal election may demonstrate this.
Five reasons for a woman to run
Next time someone asks ‘why would a woman run for politics?’ here are my top reasons why I would encourage a woman to definitely consider politics:
- Successful democracies reflect the views of their citizens. Australia is a fair country. When women step up, we get to hear from the ‘other 50%’ of us.
- As a politician a woman has power. She can get stuff done. Why let the fellas have it all? Get to the table and have a say.
- There’s no point in complaining about the current situation if you are not prepared to be part of the solution. As the slogan goes ‘Don’t get mad, get elected’.
- ‘Be the change you want to see’. Become a role model for other women (and to those young girls who dream of being Prime Minister one day)
- Hillary Clinton said, ‘Politics is the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible’. As an elected representative you have the enormous privilege of making a positive a difference for your community, state or country. Grab it.
It’s time to run
Fortunately, those brave Burghers of Calais met a happy ending. According to Wikipedia, they were saved from their execution by a woman. The English queen persuaded her husband the king, to show mercy as their deaths would be a bad omen for her unborn child.
In answer to that question: A diverse democracy thrives on the views of female politicians. Our parties need women candidates in order to win. We need female lawmakers for fairer decisions.
The data shows that our politics are improved with more women politicians. Let’s not see recent events as an omen for the future of inclusive politics. We can choose optimism over despair. It’s time to support women to stand for office or vote for them (if we like their policies). Let’s work together for more #WomenInPolitics.
Ruth McGowan OAM is a past Mayor, community activist, councillor-coach and consultant to local government. She is a champion for more women in local government and delivers training on political campaigning. Follow her on twitter @hula_grl (Photos Wikipedia commons)