What I said to the ALP Women's Conference

ALP women's conference 2014 1

It’s wonderful to be with you this morning and also be asked to kick off the weekend by saying a few words.

To those who were not here last night, let me extend a very warm welcome to Canberra – warm being the key word in that sentence!

It really is an honour to give the opening address to a conference of such  great thinkers and leaders; of servants to the feminist movement and to future leaders of the Australian Labor Party.

The next two days the themes of reflect, regroup and renew will be used over and over again  - 2 days give us all the time to talk, discuss, argue about the opportunities and challenges we face together, to debate ideas and to examine – without fear or favour – where our own political party needs to be heading as the party of social progress and gender equality.

In 2014 we find ourselves more clearly than ever as the leading political party that truly believes in women as leaders, as political representatives … as equals.

Unfortunately some of this is due to the fact that since the 2012 election the national political landscape has been reoriented in a backward direction.  It’s almost like the years from 2007-2013 were simply an interruption to normal programming to which we have now safely returned.

From positions of leadership and great influence in the Rudd and Gillard governments (and in the opposition now led by Bill Shorten), women have been largely engineered out of senior leadership in our national government.

And while we’re not here to focus on the Liberal Party, its willingness to go backwards on gender equity does have ramifications for Labor.

It puts pressure on us to provide leadership for Australia on the undeniable need for greater representation of women – in politics, business and other positions of influence in our community.

It puts pressure on us to be the voice of fairness and equality in a public debate where women’s issues find themselves on the periphery instead of in the centre where they need to be.

My own path to where I am today has shaped my own views on the need for women in positions of leadership and influence and it’s been an unlikely journey at times.

When I joined the party more than 20 years ago I never imagined that I would rise through the ranks to the leader of the party, CM of the ACT and at this moment in time the most senior elected Labor woman in the country. And my message to all you amazing women here today – and I don’t want to sounds patronising – but to those who are wondering what might be, where will your activism and your membership of the ALP take you – believe me, anything is possible and that’s what’s truly great about the Australian Labor Party.

Without really knowing it my university studies and my early career choices positioned me well for a career as a Labor politician. University had strengthened my beliefs  in social justice, in fairness, and in equality for all citizens.

I spent 10 years in the non-for-profit sector in various roles – working with children, adults with a disability, in advocacy and, finally and very importantly in terms of the skills I acquired as an organiser with the CPSU.

I learnt vital lessons about conflict, negotiation, suffering, inequality, injustice. I learnt never to shirk from speaking up and doing the right thing, however hard that may be. During this time I worked out where my own politics lay - that I was definitely not a Green  (there was never a question about being a Liberal) and I signed up to the ALP.

At that stage all I knew about the ALP was that they represented my political values and I wanted to be part of them. I knew nothing about what lay ahead – factions, sub factions, eligibility, credentials, meeting rules, motions etc etc you get the point!.....but boy did I learn. When I stood for preselection – and I’ve reflected on this many times – the fact that no-one really  knew me  – really worked in my favour as there certainly wasn’t anyone organising against me.

The decision to seek preselection really came as a consequence of affirmative action in the ALP. Labor was on track to win government locally in 2001 under Jon Stanhope leadership but with the serious possibility of no women MLAs, as all sitting ALP members was men.

This was an an embarrassing prospect for the party of affirmative action – perhaps even the leading branch of affirmative action. It was clear to women across all of the various groups within the party that in order to address this we needed to put women forward as candidates and more than that once women were preselected support them in their campaign to win a seat. I was certainly keen to support a women’s campaign but was genuinely surprised when I was asked to stand by the “faceless women”, which I agreed to on the clear understanding that my role was to fill the ticket and that I wouldn’t win. I was guaranteed that that would be the result.

That result didn’t eventuate I won my seat by about 70 votes – fast forward 10 years and I became the eighth Chief Minister of the ACT.

Whilst I worked hard to achieve this result I also acknowledge the campaigns and victories of those women who fought for equality within our party – for women not just to be elected, but to have influence, to be the decision-makers, the leaders, and the first among equals.

The sustained effort of this very group over decades is what has given Labor such outstanding female members and leaders in jurisdictions around Australia. In 2011 the Commonwealth, Queensland, NSW, Tasmania and the ACT were all led by Labor women.

Let us never forget that it was Labor that gave us a first woman Prime Minister (for whom I have the most enormous respect) and who negotiated perhaps the most difficult Parliament since federation to deliver nation-building Labor reforms that are continuing today.

Too often our opponents show their ignorance by trivialising these achievements or decrying the principle of affirmative action – swearing blind allegiance to the myth of merit. It’s never lost on me that we’re fortunate here in the ACT to live in Australia’s most progressive city – the People’s Republic of Canberra as we call it from time to time. This city is more willing than most to take on big ideas, embrace social reforms, and support local political representatives doing the same. Under self government (for 25 years) we have had 3 female Chief Ministers and 2 female speakers.

Women have held the the most senior roles in the bureaucracy as Head of Service and DG level. In Canberra it's pretty normal for the women to be in control. Prior to the 2001 election there was 2 women in the ACT Assembly  - the election campaign of 2001 saw a clear women’s campaign which resulted in a strong womens vote which changed that number to 6 where it remains today.

In 2001 we went from 0 women to 2 female members of caucus and today I am proudly the leader of a caucus where 50% are women. There are a number of examples of where the change in the number of female representatives has improved our laws and processes in the ACT but there is one I will share with you as it continues to be an issue which gets raised particularly in state Parliaments – In 2001 with 2 women in the Parliament the conservatives in the Assembly had been able to pass draconian laws relating to women’s reproductive health. It involved counselling, referral, mandatory viewing of pictures of foetal development – all in all quite a distressing situation for women to find themselves in – together with Wayne Berry the women of the ACT Legislative Assembly worked together to support the decriminalisation of abortion from the Crimes Act.

Gone were the pictures, the mandatory counselling and cooling off period and in return a supportive crime free environment which allowed women to  choose the best option for them. Now this was not delivered just by Labor votes but it was moved by, argued for and led by Labor politicians and it stands as a clear example of Labor leading and implementing important social change supported by the majority in the community.

Secondly as a single mother  I could not believe how our parliamentary structures were designed around older men. The amount of filibustering, the speeches that went on forever – which resulted in the Assembly sitting until 1am, sometimes 4am seemed ridiculous to me and almost impossible to manage if you were the primary carer in a household.

I remember thinking – no wonder there is no women in this Parliament – one it’s so boring listening to these speeches which just repeat the same arguments over and over again but also as it was impossible to predict or organise family commitments during sitting periods. And it wasn’t only elected representatives, it extended across the floor to Hansard, attendants and other staff (who unsurprisingly were also mainly male).

In 2004 with the majority numbers on the floor I was so pleased when “extensions of time to speak” were ruled out and when Labor enforced a 630pm adjournment time. Of course we were criticised for wanting to “work less” by media and opposition – but I can assure you we get the same amount of work done but there is alot less repitition of speeches!!

At least when I talk with potential woman candidates and they ask me about juggling home and work I am able know to assure them of how the Assembly works. (And of course the Liberals have stopped complaining about it because they have families too!)

With these two examples  my message is women can and do make a difference.

Canberra has also been a branch of the Labor Party willing to lead on the empowerment of women.

When we look back to the annual conferences of the 1970s we see calls for measures such as subsidised childcare and extensive anti-discrimination legislation.

The conference of 1981 took a highly courageous (and controversial) feminist stand in arguing that all Labor Parliamentarians should be bound to support the right of women to access abortion. This came on the back of the local reaction – led by Senator Susan Ryan – to oppose the Fraser government’s effective ban on abortion clinics in the ACT.

Internally, the party adopted affirmative action quotas in 1982 on the principle that women’s representation in elected positions should be equal.

If you look today at the breakdown across both territory and Commonwealth representatives, this has been achieved – six women and five men.

If I could, whilst I have the stage just make a few comments on my own views of how hard we make it for women to participate in our party

This year the ACT Branch has completed a participation review which unsurprisingly  found that women are dramatically under-represented in the party locally – particularly working age women between 36 and 55 but also for younger women.

We know there is strong support for the party from women, but they are not joining and when they do they are not participating – with direct consequences for our ability to reflect and represent our community, and to campaign successfully.

For these reasons I have joined with the voices of others seeking to attract new members and let existing members participate more easily with a range of reforms and rule changes with the goal of turning these numbers around and growing grassroots participation.

For as long as I can remember most of the branch meetings (of which you MUST attend 3 every 12 months to be eligible to vote) have often been held in clubs, bars at 7or 8pm mid week – I mean are we really surprised that women find it hard to get there?

Whilst there certainly are challenges with relaxing membership, preselection and eligibility rules and opening up the use of technology to broaden our reach to members and potential members we cannot let these challenges turn us off – we just have to work out ways to deal with them.

At our last conference ACT Labor did support a number of changes which will be an important first step – but it’s a first step not the last step – including:

-        creating an associate membership category

-        moving to an instant online membership application process

-        broadening the range of party events which offer eligibility to nominate for conference and preselection.

These are small steps in a modernisation which needs to occur over many years.

But in looking at how we change, it must be utmost in our minds not to exclude the next generation, women with young children, community members who would like to be active on particular issues.

We must work together to make sure our system, processes and rules support women now and women in the future to be a part of our party – failure to do this will be catastrophic for the party.

We must move to work with them, to use digital media, virtual meeting spaces and all the new exciting social media that allows the rest of the world to connect like it’s never connected before. We know that the majority of women use Facebook as a primary means of connecting with news, current affairs and socially. We also know first thing in the morning and last thing at night is when they have the time to do so – if Labor is not adapting to that it will be to our ultimate loss.

Women of our generation – who have benefitted greatly from the feminist campaigns of previous generations – must inspire and support the next generation of women leaders.

Despite the odour hanging around the political profession the fact remains that parliaments are where important change happens, about:

-        participation

-        equality

-        safety

-        tax expenditure

-        human rights

-        industrial relations

-        childcare and parental leave.

It is also the responsibility of good politicians to demonstrate through our actions that politics can be an honourable profession – this will only happen with more women elected to our parliaments.

Women of my generation are fortunate to have had the trail blazed for us. But the reality is we too, will be looking for the next generation to hand the battle weary baton too – and my genuine hope – and as a optimist my belief is – to see a long line of talented, enthusiastic Labor women ready to grab that baton.

We cannot allow women’s participation in political life to slip backwards with any complacency – we must remain vigilant and we must continue to support each other in the jobs we do and the jobs that need to be done.

After all, the main game is not the ratio of women in politics, but the benefits which flow from their presence – the possibilities for improving the lives of women across the divide. As a woman in politics - you expect to deal with a lot of stuff - I've been mistaken for the tea lady at a meeting, I've had media reports about my hair style, my outfits, my mothering and only last month I was invited to a meeting where the dress code was "sports coat, no tie" you'll be pleased to know that I RSVP to say that I would be attending as a woman - sans sports coat and sans tie. Sums it all up really.

Whilst we can joke and laugh at the ridiculousness of this - we must continue to campaign and support women to do well in they ALP. There is no other political party that will do this. It is only Labor. When women campaign together - support each other - women will win. Let's together commit to making sure that is the case.