The 2022 election saw a large number of women independents become members of the House of Representatives. It’s now 100 years since Edith Cowan was elected as a woman in any Parliament in Australia. What difference does today hold for women wishing to serve in Parliament or public life?
DOWNLOAD Edith Cowan – Inspiration for Women Independent MPs This printable pdf document combines Parts I and II and includes links to information sources.
Women belong in all places where decisions are being made . . . It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.
— Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Edith Cowan was a positive contributor as a member of the Western Australia Parliament, and the first woman to be elected to any Parliament in Australia during her three-year term. Her victory in the 1921 election was unexpected and close—only by 46 votes at a time of non-compulsory voting. Her win was largely due to women voting for an intelligent and competent woman who had a history of helping women and children in difficult circumstances.
Some of the principles Edith stood for were not popular with her fellow MPs. She wanted to see more women in Parliament; she believed MPs should not be careerists and even not be paid; and she intended voting for what her constituents needed, not necessarily what her Nationalist Party wanted.
She would, no doubt, have welcomed the 2022 election of the female independents as this would go somewhere towards her desire of creating equality of representation.
The rise of the women independents and the failure of the Liberal Party
Few were surprised when the two incumbent community-based independents, Zali Staggall and Helen Haines were re-elected in the 2022 election.
But no one was expecting to have seven new women independents to be elected to the lower house. One independent was not supported by Climate 200, so this left six so-called ‘teal’ independents as new MPs. What hasn’t been appreciated is that other teal independents, while not being elected, have changed once safe Liberal seats into marginal seats.
Take, for example, the seat of Wentworth in metropolitan Sydney. This was a Liberal Party stronghold with Malcolm Turnbull as the sitting member from 2004-2018 and historically a very safe seat. Dr Kerryn Phelps, an independent, was elected after Turnbull resigned in 2018. And even though she failed to be reelected in 2019, Wentworth, with a margin of just 1.3 per cent was no longer a safe seat. Come the 2022 election, teal independent Allegra Spender easily ousted the sitting Liberal member, Dave Sharma.
Other teal candidates who weren’t elected nevertheless made a big impact by converting safe Liberal and National Party seats into marginal ones:
- Nicolette Boele (Bradfield, NSW) from 16.6% to 5.5% margin
- Claire Ferres Miles (Casey, VIC) from 4.6% to 1.5% margin
- Carolyn Heise (Cowper, NSW) from 6.8% to 2.7% margin
- Deb Leonard (Monash, VIC) from 7.4% to 3.2% margin
- Rob Priestly (Nicholls, VIC) from 20.0% to 4.6% margin
Why is this important? It means that these seats in the next election are set up for a close contest by an independent, especially if there is dissatisfaction with the sitting MP or with the Liberal or Labor Party.
The support for the major parties has been decreasing for decades and has now reached new lows. The Labor Party won the election with a primary vote of just 33 per cent. The Liberal Party did even worse, at 24 per cent. This means that a third of Australia’s voters were not prepared to trust either party to govern in their interests.
The realignment of the Liberal Party has been going on since Howard adopted the hardline approach of the right-wing populist movement of Pauleen Hanson’s One Nation Party in the lead up to the 2001 election.
The Tampa ‘children overboard’ crisis was the start of the culture wars on refugees and won Howard the 2001 election. Subsequent Prime Ministers carried this on during his term and ultimately Scott Morrison, assisted by his Deputy Barnaby Joyce, took political divisiveness to new levels. In doing so, the Liberals have lost the vote of the young, wealthy professional in the inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne—once the Liberal heartland. The Liberal base now becomes what used to be the Labor stronghold, the working class. The Coalition now represents 16 of the 20 poorest electorates, and only four of the 20 highest-income electorates.
The same thing has happened with the Republican Party in the USA where they are losing wealthy, educated urban voters and picking up poorer rural ones.
So where does this leave the remaining older, rusted-on, Liberal voters in the suburbs who have supported the Liberal Party from when they reached voting age? It’s probably going to get worse as the Liberal Party is unlikely to regain the electorates now held by the independents. Also, the Liberal seats that shifted to Labor could well become independent if the ‘Voices of’ movement continues to produce candidates of the caliber of the existing teal independents.
Teal independents improving gender equality
The new 47th Parliament of Australia has seen the number of women elected to the Lower House increase to 58 of the 151 members. At 38 per cent this is a long way short of the 50 per cent ideal but is a big improvement compared to 20 years ago when only 25 per cent were women. There has also been an increase in diversity with a record number of newly elected Asian and South Asian Australian politicians.
But Australia is currently a laggard when compared to other countries. According to figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), Australia is currently ranked 56th in the world when it comes to female representation in parliament. New Zealand is ranked 6th with just under 50% women in the Lower House.
Australia’s position is confirmed in another, broader study of by the World Economic Forum. The Global Gender Gap Index for 2021 ranks Australia’s overall Gender Gap position as number 50 out of 156 countries. For the Political Empowerment subcategory looking at the gender gap in Parliament, Australia is ranked at 54. By comparison, New Zealand is ranked in position 4.
Why is gender equality important in Parliament?
Edith Cowan sought to be in Parliament because she and her followers believed women’s issues were not given the attention they needed. But as she was only one member of the House of Assembly she wanted to see more women elected to Parliament. Her proposition that the views of both sides—men and women—should be taken into account is just as valid today. She would have been surprised to see how long it’s taken to move towards equality for women.
According to UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality, while women and girls represent 50 per cent of the population, they are often unrepresented at the leadership and decision-making level. This is an argument based on fairness or justice—a democratic right.
The other argument is based on the ‘added value’ women bring to political participation with their better understanding of women’s issues as a starting point. Studies have shown that increasing women’s political participation “has proven to be good for economic and social development around the world.”
The potential benefit once gender equality is achieved is that ‘women will change how politics is done, bring new policy priorities, adopt a different style of interacting with constituents, and affect the political culture of parliament itself.’
It’s also been shown that having more women in key roles is good for business. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency has evidence which shows that gender equality in the workplace increases the productivity of the organisation and boosts the profits. The research has identified the following:
- An increase of 10 percentage points or more in the share of female Key Management Personnel leads to a 6.6% increase in the market value of Australian ASX-listed companies, worth the equivalent of AUD $104.7 million (or USD $70.2 million) for the average company.
- Companies that reduce the share of female key mangers by 10ppts+ leads to a reduction in market value of AUD $46 million on average.
So why is gender equality in Parliament House so different to the business community?
You don’t belong here
For her move to be a candidate and an eventual Member of the Western Australian Parliament Edith Cowan had to endure criticism from newspapers and especially The Bulletin magazine.
Once she became a Member of Parliament her main complaint was the lack of courtesy from some of the other MPs:
One Labor member, William Angwin, in particular, constantly interjected when she spoke. As no special favours were given to her, she was sometimes prepared to retaliate with interjections. Significantly, though, the experienced and influential Philip Collier made the judgement that the eleventh parliament had a very good tone and was one of the most constructive.
Edith Cowan experienced hostility from the male members of Parliament in her day, but nothing like the aggression and harassment experienced by female politicians today both inside and outside Parliament House.
An IPU study has found that sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians, particularly for psychological violence is prevalent in countries world-wide. The most common form of psychological violence experienced by women MPs was the humiliating sexist remarks made in parliament by male MPs from opposing parties or from their own.
There have been many examples of bad behavior exposed over the last few years in Australia. It’s now 10 years since Julia Gillard was in the middle of her three year period as the first woman Prime Minister. Few would forget the psychological violence she endured from inside and outside Parliament.
The Kate Ellis Story
Former Labor MP Kate Ellis has experienced first-hand the sexist and misogynist culture of Parliament House. She was first elected in 2004 as a 27 year-old and within her first two weeks a Liberal staffer came up to her and said, “The only thing anyone really wants to know about you, Kate, is how many blokes you had to f–k to get into parliament.”
She had been active in Labor Party politics from the time she was at university and she thought that the sexist comments she experienced were normal in the workplace. But she was still shocked that such disrespect would be shown to an elected member of Parliament.
In 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed her as Minister for Youth and Sport at the young age of 33. She knew that some others in her own party would be unhappy:
There are a lot of people that would have thought, “Who the hell is this girl?” and so it’s probably no surprise that there were people who wanted to undermine me, probably right from that appointment.
What she wasn’t prepared for was the lengths that others would go to in order to undermine her. When she heard about a story by News Corp journalist Glenn Milne about to be published in the Sunday papers on 23 August 2009 she knew she was in trouble. The crux of the sensational ‘exclusive’ was that Ellis was in a love triangle in her office and it was causing division within her office and for the government:
It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. Once it’s printed, there’s no going back from that and I instantly knew if that story ran it would be career ending for me and I would be labelled as a slut and I would be labelled as someone who isn’t really up to the job at all.
She had to plead with the editor of the paper that the story was pure fantasy and there was no conflict or love triangle before the editor decided not to proceed. By that stage, Malcolm Turnbull was on News Corp’s hit list, so instead they published another ‘scoop’ by Glenn Milne about Turnbull’s approaches to join the ALP ten years earlier at the time of the republic referendum.
Later, Ellis reflected on the ‘bullet’ she’d missed:
The level of knowledge about the way that my office worked, who was in my office meant that that story could only ever have originated within my own party from my own colleagues. The only reason to make that up was to undermine me.
Kate Ellis went on to serve in multiple portfolios in a 15-year career in Parliament before retiring at the 2019 election to spend more time with her young family.
However this was not the end of her political life. Upon looking back on her own exposure to the toxic Canberra culture she began to wonder if her experience was unique. It was a topic she didn’t talk about with other women politicians while she was in Parliament:
You get so acclimatised to the relentless toxicity in parliament, and you are so busy or so caught up in the day-to-day madness that you tend to just accept it all and move on.
So she set about interviewing women across all major parties including, including Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop, Linda Burney, Sussan Ley, Penny Wong, Sarah Hanson-Young and Pauline Hanson:
I wanted to see whether other elected women across the Parliament had been treated differently as a result of their gender as I had on many, many occasions. What I found is that every woman that I spoke to across the political spectrum had a story to tell.
Whether it within Parliament House or in the media, the experience is always the same for women, Ellis maintains:
Focus on physical appearance is much greater for women, focus on their private lives, issues around motherhood, slut-shaming, personal attacks, rumours and gossip used to undermine women in a way men don’t have to face to the same extent in parliament . . . It makes it harder for you to actually focus on doing your job.
The result is her book, Sex, Lies and Question Time, published in March 2021. In the book she reveals her own and others experiences of issues such as sexism, motherhood, appearances, social media, the sisterhood and sex.
Gender inequality starts early in politics
Many individuals become involved in politics as volunteers or staffers for local MPs. In a survey of volunteers and election candidates carried out by Medha Majumdar, a PhD candate at ANU in 2021, she found the “experiences of abuse and harassment force some women to abandon their aspirations for political leadership and at times, a political career entirely.”
Their negative experiences ranged from harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse and bullying to inappropriate sexual advances and physical assault. One volunteer reported:
Verbal and physical harassment while working as a campaign volunteer gets very tiresome. After working on ten years of campaigns the negatives start to outweigh the positives. I have withdrawn from political participation as a result of constant online and real-life abuse.
So just how bad is it to work at Parliament House? It was only in 2021 that the public became aware of the extent of the toxic working conditions for many of the people working in Canberra and electoral offices throughout Australia. There are up to 5,000 individuals working in Parliament House during sitting periods, including parliamentarians and their staff, lobbyists, media, police, cleaners, and more.
In her Set The Standard report released on 30 November 2021, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, found that one in three people working in the building had been exposed to sexual harassment. Another finding was that women experienced sexual harassment and bullying at a higher rate than men. Of the 28 recommendations, a key one was to bring in targets to achieve gender balance and diversity targets for parliamentarians and staff.
The high-stakes, competitive nature of party politics—coupled with position power, sexual harassment and misogyny coming from the ‘boy’s club’—makes a potent mix for the dirty tricks foisted on aspiring MPs, regardless of gender.
Consider the alledged actions of Scott Morrison and his supporters against Michael Towke in the pre-selection process for the NSW electorate of Cook in 2007. This became news again in April 2022 when Towke broke his silence about what transpired after he initially won the pre-selsection count by 80 votes to 8. In a statement for the Nine newspapers, he said, “Amongst many unedifying tactics used to unseat me from my preselection victory for Morrison, racial vilification was front and centre and he was directly involved.”
His claims are backed up by others who were present, one saying, “I’ve been in the Liberal Party for over 40 years, and I’ve never witnessed such a vicious preselection with such distortions of the truth.”
Towke’s claims were vehmently denied by Scott Morrison who described them as ‘bitter slurs’. When so many politicians happily sue for deformation, why Morrison didn’t do so is a question intriguing many observers.
The Michael Townke case, as with Kate Ellis, involves malicious backgrounding. This is off-the-record briefings of journalists to disclose personal information, whether it’s true or false, in order to smear the reputation of candidates.
In her 60-page report, The Missing Women Of Australian Politics, Medha Majumdar says women candidates are often encouraged to withdraw from the pre-selection process because there are ‘more-deserving’ male candidates:
Candidates . . . reported that they were backgrounded against by people within their own party in an effort to unfairly tarnish their reputation. Their personal information was leaked by party insiders and rumours were spread against them.
The News Corp media, especially the tabloids and Sky News, have a well-earned reputation as collaborators in such backgrounder exposes.
News Corp and the teal independents
The most powerful political actor in Australia is not the Liberal party or the National party or the Labor party, it is News Corporation. And it is utterly unaccountable.
Late in 2021 it became apparent to the Liberal Party that the so-called ‘teal’ independents were becoming a serious threat in some key seats. That’s when News Corp swung into action to try to do as much damage as possible to their cause.
For teal independent Dr Monique Ryan in the Kooyong electorate, the issues she wanted to address were those most important to the local community, namely: action on climate change; a strong economy; integrity in politics; equality for women; an inclusive society; health care.
For her trouble she, and the other teal independents, were subjected to negativity from Sky News and the News Corp press right up to the election, far worse than Edith Cowan ever experienced.
According to ABC’sV Media Watch, of 21 Daily Telegraph articles about the teal independents between 10 April 2022, when the election was called, and 2 May, two-thirds were negative, with only one mildly positive.
The attacks kept coming. “The most destructive, harmful and dangerous vote anyone can make in the forthcoming election is for a teal independent or the Greens,” wrote Greg Sheridan in The Australian on 3 May. “They are both a direct threat to our national security.”
Of 38 stories and columns, 20 were negative for teal candidates and only two were positive. At the same time, 39 articles about the Coalition and Scott Morrison’s election campaign, 26 were positive for Scott Morrison or the Coalition.
Professor Rod Tiffen, media researcher at Melbourne University believes News Corp has turned ‘rogue’ by “abandoning any attempt at fulfilling one of the media’s primary obligations to a democratic society—the provision of truthful news coverage—and instead becoming a truth-distorting propagandist for one side.”
It turned out, though, that News Corp failed to convince voters to keep the Libs in power. This is not surprising. The Digital News Report published by the University of Canberra finds that Sky News is the least-trusted news source, while News Corp’s Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph tabloids are the least-trusted newspapers. It demonstrates the impotence of the Murdoch media to influence voters—even allowing for its market dominance.
While the conservative views of Rupert Murdoch may have limited public influence, there is no doubt he is able to influence governments on media policy, according to Derek Wilding, Co-Director, Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney. One example was the successful lobbying of the government for the Digital Media Bargaining Code to make Google and Facebook pay for the use of news content—but only for selected news sources.
The remarkable victory of the teal independents in the 2022 election was in spite of a determined effort by the Liberal Party, in league with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation media, to derail their campaign.
It’s not going to be easy for these independents during their term in Parliament but, like the somewhat rebellious Edith Cowan, they will not be bogged down with the factions and intrigues that are inherent in the rigid party structures. Instead of division in politics, one can expect integrity and respect from these independents—something lacking in politics at present.
Now is the time for change once and for all so that no woman—politician or admin staff—will be subjected to the shameful treatment experienced in past years.
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