Power in numbers to change Canberra’s culture

Gender equality in the federal parliament has been boosted by an election in which a record number of female candidates campaigned and voters rejected usual politics. Sonia Palmieric explores what it means for culture in Canberra.

The 2022 federal election was a victory for women candidates and a historic moment in Australia’s journey to a parliament that truly endorses and promotes gender equality in all its work.

At this stage of the census, it looks like the House of Representatives will have at least 57 women, representing 38% of the chamberlains. This is our highest percentage of women ever in the House of Representatives.

The Senate reached and exceeded 50% in the previous parliament, and will maintain this in the new parliament. These new levels will see Australia reverse a 20-year decline in the international ranking of women in national parliaments, from 57th to about 37th, ahead of Portugal, Tanzania and Italy.

How did this happen? And what does this mean for the culture in Parliament House?

Look at the numbers first

The simplest explanation is numerical: More women won because more women than ever competed for seats in 2022, making the “you have to be there to win it” maxim true. Women represented just under 40% of all candidates in Saturday’s poll — an increase, analyst Ben Raue says, from about 32% in 2016 and 2019 and less than 28% in 2013.

Independent candidate Allegra Spender arrives to vote on Election Day.
Independent Allegra Spender is the new member of Wentworth, having defeated Liberal incumbent Dave Sharma.
Bianca De Marchi/AAP

The figures for 2022 also indicate that female candidates actually outperformed male candidates.

And think of the swing

The depletion of the Liberal Party’s votes was accompanied by a wave of unexpected victories for women.

Women won as challengers in safe or reasonably safe seats previously occupied by sitting MPs and ministers. This includes the well-publicized victories of independent and underage party women in Curtin, Fowler, Goldstein, Kooyong, Mackellar, North Sydney, Ryan and Wentworth.

But it also includes the victories of Labor Party women who took the seats of Boothby, Chisholm, Hasluck, Higgins, Pearce, Reid, Robertson and Swan.

New Labor MP Zeneta Mascarenhas on election night.
Zeneta Mascarenhas was elected Swan’s Perth seat, swinging more than 12%.
Richard Wainwright/AAP

In this, there is a historical comparison to the 1996 election, in which the landslide election of John Howard saw an unprecedented 23 women invade the House of Representatives. The Liberal Party had also put these women in unwinnable seats, but the magnitude of the swing away from Labor changed the meaning of a safe, as opposed to a fringe, seat.

In fact, those women consolidated their positions in the 1998 elections, and the number of women continued to increase. The turnaround to coalition in 1996 was so great that it was difficult for the PvdA to come back. However, women in the “class of 1996” also maintained their marginal seats through coordinated work in their constituents. The class of 2022 would do well to take this lesson to heart.

Community campaigns were vital

In 2022, Australian voters took advantage of the alternatives presented by independent and green female candidates. Raue was again the first to notice the seismic change in the proportion of self-employed women in 2022: a staggering 65%, compared to about 22% in 2019.

Women have deliberately chosen not to run for the major political parties. And for good reason: Australian majors have proven time and again that their pre-selection processes are top-down, imperceptible and impervious to the growing call for equality and diversity.

These campaigns were also driven by a record number of volunteers knocking on record doors and holding a record number of conversations with local communities. Following the model established by Cathy McGowan in India in 2013, these community-based campaigns serve as an important lesson not only in Australia, but around the world.

It is also true that the swing and community based campaigns have resulted in the loss of female talent. The moderate Liberal Katie Allen was unable to allay her voters’ discontent with the government in Melbourne’s Higgins. Likewise, Labor’s Terri Butler was unable to prevent the “Greenslide” at Brisbane’s Griffith. Parachuted Labor candidate Kristina Keneally failed to convince Fowler’s people that she would be their best representative.

New member for Kooyong Monique Ryan with supporters on election night.
New independents like Monique Ryan were elected thanks to strong community campaigns.
Luis Ascui/AAP

Voters wanted something different

In what was arguably one of the country’s most banal election campaigns, it seems that Australian voters wanted something different.

Gender equality was not at the top of the list of topics deemed important in this election, in fact it was well below climate change and the cost of living.

But voters across the country chose candidates who explicitly expressed a desire to change our political culture. For example, Climate 200 candidates had women’s safety and equality as one of their key policies.

The last parliament brought the toxic work culture of Parliament House into the headlines.

The Set the Standard report, published late last year by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, found that the ‘win everything’ mentality of big party politics was one of the main drivers of unsafe parliamentary workplaces. Deep-seated party differences have also prevented cooperation between parties in the name of gender equality.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins listens to a speech.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins made 28 recommendations in November 2021 to improve Parliament’s working culture.
Lukas Coch/AAP

The election of so many women and so many women from outside the major parties is a huge opportunity to change this.

The incoming Labor government will have to work with a new breed of women in parliaments: women, more importantly, who are new to the parliamentary field but who have worked in professional workplaces. They will carry those standards and expectations into the room.

The new cross bench will not be hindered by the need to protect a party. In fact, their voters have given them a mandate to hold parliament accountable not only for the full set of recommendations of the Set the Standard report, but also for the 55 recommendations of Jenkins’ Respect@Work report on sexual harassment.

The women on the cross bench will not always agree, let alone with the new cabinet, but there is a sense that they will approach the work differently. As newly independent Goldstein MP Zoe Daniel told ABC’s Insiders after the election, “Independents are already communicating and collaborating.” [with each other]†

If this approach continues, it will make a big difference to the way Parliament works.

Sonia Palmieri, Gender Policy Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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