Women in Australian Politics: Maintaining the Rage against the Political Machine





Women, politics, rage, gender equality

How to Cite

Heurich, A. (2019). Women in Australian Politics: Maintaining the Rage against the Political Machine. M/C Journal, 22(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1498
Vol. 22 No. 1 (2019): rage
Published 2019-03-13

Women in federal politics are under-represented today and always have been. At no time in the history of the federal parliament have women achieved equal representation with men. There have never been an equal number of women in any federal cabinet. Women have never held an equitable number of executive positions of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) or the Liberal Party. Australia has had only one female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and she was the recipient of sexist treatment in the parliament and the media. 

A 2019 report by Plan International found that girls and women, were “reluctant to pursue a career in politics, saying they worry about being treated unfairly.” The Report author said the results were unsurprising

when you consider how female politicians are still treated in Parliament and the media in this country, is it any wonder the next generation has no desire to expose themselves to this world? Unfortunately, in Australia, girls grow up seeing strong, smart, capable female politicians constantly reduced to what they’re wearing, comments about their sexuality and snipes about their gender.

What voters may not always see is how women in politics respond to sexist treatment, or to bullying, or having to vote against their principles because of party rules, or to having no support to lead the party. Rather than being political victims and quitting, there is a ground-swell of women who are fighting back. The rage they feel at being excluded, bullied, harassed, name-called, and denied leadership opportunities is being channelled into rage against the structures that deny them equality. The rage they feel is building resilience and it is building networks of women across the political divide. 

This article highlights some female MPs who are “maintaining the rage”. It suggests that the rage that is evident in their public responses is empowering them to stand strong in the face of adversity, in solidarity with other female MPs, building their resilience, and strengthening calls for social change and political equality.

Her-story of Women’s Movements

Throughout the twentieth century, women stood for equal rights and personal empowerment driven by rage against their disenfranchisement. Significant periods include the early 1900s, with suffragettes gaining the vote for women. The interwar period of 1919 to 1938 saw women campaign for financial independence from their husbands (Andrew). Australian women were active citizens in a range of campaigns for improved social, economic and political outcomes for women and their children.

Early contributions made by women to Australian society were challenges to the regulations and of female sexuality and reproduction. Early twentieth century feminist organisations such The Women’s Peace Army, United Association of Women, the Australian Federation of Women’s Societies for Equal Citizenship, the Union of Australian Women, the National Council of Women, and the Australian Federation of Women Voters, proved the early forerunners to the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM). It was in many of these early campaigns that the rage expressed in the concept of the “personal is political” (Hanisch) became entrenched in Australian feminist approaches to progressive social change. 

The idea of the “personal is political” encapsulated that it was necessary to challenge and change power relations, achievable when women fully participated in politics (van Acker 25). Attempts by women during the 1970s to voice concerns about issues of inequality, including sexuality, the right to abortion, availability of childcare, and sharing of household duties, were “deemed a personal problem” and not for public discussion (Hanisch). One core function of the WLM was to “advance women’s positions” via government legislation or, as van Acker (120) puts it, the need for “feminist intervention in the state.” However, in advocating for policy reform, the WLM had no coherent or organised strategy to ensure legislative change. The establishment of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), together with the Femocrat strategy, sought to rectify this. Formed in 1972, WEL was tasked with translating WLM concerns into government policy.

The initial WEL campaign took issues of concern to WLM to the incoming Whitlam government (1972-1975). Lyndall Ryan (73) notes: women’s liberationists were the “stormtroopers” and WEL the “pragmatic face of feminism.” In 1973 Whitlam appointed Elizabeth Reid, a member of WLM, as Australia’s first Women’s Advisor. Of her appointment, Reid (3) said, “For the first time in our history we were being offered the opportunity to attempt to implement what for years we had been writing, yelling, marching and working towards. Not to respond would have felt as if our bluff had been called.” They had the opportunity in the Whitlam government to legislatively and fiscally address the rage that drove generations of women to yell and march.

Following Reid were the appointments of Sara Dowse and Lyndall Ryan, continuing the Femocrat strategy of ensuring women were appointed to executive bureaucratic roles within the Whitlam government. The positions were not well received by the mainly male-dominated press gallery and parliament. As “inside agitators” (Eisenstein) for social change the central aim of Femocrats was social and economic equity for women, reflecting social justice and progressive social and public policy. 

Femocrats adopted a view about the value of women’s own lived experiences in policy development, application and outcome. The role of Senator Susan Ryan is of note. In 1981, Ryan wrote and introduced the Sex Discrimination Bill, the first piece of federal legislation of its type in Australia. Ryan was a founding member of WEL and was elected to the Senate in 1975 on the slogan “A woman’s place is in the Senate”. As Ryan herself puts it: “I came to believe that not only was a woman’s place in the House and in the Senate, as my first campaign slogan proclaimed, but a feminist’s place was in politics.” Ryan, the first Labor woman to represent the ACT in the Senate, was also the first Labor woman appointed as a federal Minister.

With the election of the economic rationalist Hawke and Keating Governments (1983-1996) and the neoliberal Howard Government (1996-2007), what was a “visible, united, highly mobilised and state-focused women’s movement” declined (Lake 260). This is not to say that women today reject the value of women’s voices and experiences, particularly in politics. Many of the issues of the 1970s remain today: domestic violence, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and a lack of gender parity in political representation. Hence, it remains important that women continue to seek election to the national parliament.

Gender Gap: Women in Power 

When examining federal elections held between 1972 and 2016, women have been under-represented in the lower house. In none of these elections have women achieved more than 30 per cent representation. Following the 1974 election less that one per cent of the lower house were women. No women were elected to the lower house at the 1975 or 1977 election. Between 1980 and 1996, female representation was less than 10 per cent. In 1996 this rose to 15 per cent and reached 29 per cent at the 2016 federal election.

Following the 2016 federal election, only 32 per cent of both chambers were women. After the July 2016 election, only eight women were appointed to the Turnbull Ministry: six women in Cabinet and two women in the Outer Cabinet (Parliament of Australia). Despite the higher representation of women in the ALP, this is not reflected in the number of women in the Shadow Cabinet. Just as female parliamentarians have never achieved parity, neither have women in the Executive Branch.

In 2017, Australia was ranked 50th in the world in terms of gender representation in parliament, between The Philippines and South Sudan. Globally, there are 38 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians. As at January 2017, the three highest ranking countries in female representation were Rwanda, Bolivia and Cuba. The United Kingdom was ranked 47th, and the United States 104th (IPU and UNW). Globally only 18 per cent of government ministers are women (UNW). Between 1960 and 2013, 52 women became prime ministers worldwide, of those 43 have taken office since 1990 (Curtin 191).

The 1995 United Nations (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women set a 30 per cent target for women in decision-making. This reflects the concept of “critical mass”. Critical mass proposes that for there to be a tipping balance where parity is likely to emerge, this requires a cohort of a minimum of 30 per cent of the minority group.

Gender scholars use critical mass theory to explain that parity won’t occur while there are only a few token women in politics. Rather, only as numbers increase will women be able to build a strong enough presence to make female representation normative. Once a 30 per cent critical mass is evident, the argument is that this will encourage other women to join the cohort, making parity possible (Childs & Krook 725). This threshold also impacts on legislative outcomes, because the larger cohort of women are able to “influence their male colleagues to accept and approve legislation promoting women’s concerns” (Childs & Krook 725).

Quotas: A Response to Gender Inequality

With women representing less than one in five parliamentarians worldwide, gender quotas have been introduced in 90 countries to redress this imbalance (Krook). Quotas are an equal opportunity measure specifically designed to re-dress inequality in political representation by allocating seats to under-represented groups (McCann 4). However, the effectiveness of the quota system is contested, with continued resistance, particularly in conservative parties. Fine (3) argues that one key objection to mandatory quotas is that they “violate the principle of merit”, suggesting insufficient numbers of women capable or qualified to hold parliamentary positions.

In contrast, Gauja (2) suggests that “state-mandated electoral quotas work” because in countries with legislated quotas the number of women being nominated is significantly higher. While gender quotas have been brought to bear to address the gender gap, the ability to challenge the majority status of men has been limited (Hughes).

In 1994 the ALP introduced rule-based party quotas to achieve equal representation by 2025 and a gender weighting system for female preselection votes. Conversely, the Liberal Party have a voluntary target of reaching 50 per cent female representation by 2025. But what of the treatment of women who do enter politics?

Fig. 1: Portrait of Julia Gillard AC, 27th Prime Minister of Australia, at Parliament House, Canberra

Inside Politics: Misogyny and Mobs in the ALP

In 2010, Julia Gillard was elected as the leader of the governing ALP, making her Australia’s first female Prime Minister. Following the 2010 federal election, called 22 days after becoming Prime Minister, Gillard was faced with the first hung parliament since 1940. She formed a successful minority government before losing the leadership of the ALP in June 2013. Research demonstrates that “being a female prime minister is often fraught because it challenges many of the gender stereotypes associated with political leadership” (Curtin 192). In Curtin’s assessment Gillard was naïve in her view that interest in her as the country’s first female Prime Minister would quickly dissipate.

Gillard, argues Curtin (192-193), “believed that her commitment to policy reform and government enterprise, to hard work and maintaining consensus in caucus, would readily outstrip the gender obsession.” As Curtin continues, “this did not happen.” Voters were continually reminded that Gillard “did not conform to the traditional.” And “worse, some high-profile men, from industry, the Liberal Party and the media, indulged in verbal attacks of a sexist nature throughout her term in office (Curtin 192-193).

The treatment of Gillard is noted in terms of how misogyny reinforced negative perceptions about the patriarchal nature of parliamentary politics. The rage this created in public and media spheres was double-edged. On the one hand, some were outraged at the sexist treatment of Gillard. On the other hand, those opposing Gillard created a frenzy of personal and sexist attacks on her. Further attacking Gillard, on 25 February 2011, radio broadcaster Alan Jones called Gillard, not only by her first-name, but called her a “liar” (Kwek). These attacks and the informal way the Prime Minister was addressed, was unprecedented and caused outrage.

An anti-carbon tax rally held in front of Parliament House in Canberra in March 2011, featured placards with the slogans “Ditch the Witch” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch”, referring to Gillard and her alliance with the Australian Greens, led by Senator Bob Brown. The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and other members of the Liberal Party were photographed standing in front of the placards (Sydney Morning Herald, Vertigo). Criticism of women in positions of power is not limited to coming from men alone. Women from the Liberal Party were also seen in the photo of derogatory placards decrying Gillard’s alliances with the Greens.

Gillard (Sydney Morning Herald, “Gillard”) said she was “offended when the Leader of the Opposition went outside in the front of Parliament and stood next to a sign that said, ‘Ditch the witch’. I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition stood next to a sign that ascribed me as a man’s bitch.”

Vilification of Gillard culminated in October 2012, when Abbott moved a no-confidence motion against the Speaker of the House, Peter Slipper. Abbott declared the Gillard government’s support for Slipper was evidence of the government’s acceptance of Slipper’s sexist attitudes (evident in allegations that Slipper sent a text to a political staffer describing female genitals). Gillard responded with what is known as the “Misogyny speech”, pointing at Abbott, shaking with rage, and proclaiming, “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man” (ABC). Apart from vilification, how principles can be forsaken for parliamentary, party or electoral needs, may leave some women circumspect about entering parliament. Similar attacks on political women may affirm this view.

In 2010, Labor Senator Penny Wong, a gay Member of Parliament and advocate of same-sex marriage, voted against a bill supporting same-sex marriage, because it was not ALP policy (Q and A, “Passion”). Australian Marriage Equality spokesperson, Alex Greenwich, strongly condemned Wong’s vote as “deeply hypocritical” (Akersten). The Sydney Morning Herald (Dick), under the headline “Married to the Mob” asked:

a question: what does it now take for a cabinet minister to speak out on a point of principle, to venture even a mild criticism of the party position? ... Would you object if your party, after fixing some areas of discrimination against a minority group of which you are a part, refused to move on the last major reform for that group because of ‘tradition’ without any cogent explanation of why that tradition should remain? Not if you’re Penny Wong.

In 2017, during the postal vote campaign for marriage equality, Wong clarified her reasons for her 2010 vote against same-sex marriage saying in an interview: “In 2010 I had to argue a position I didn’t agree with. You get a choice as a party member don’t you? You either resign or do something like that and make a point, or you stay and fight and you change it.”  Biding her time, Wong used her rage to change policy within the ALP.

In continuing personal attacks on Gillard, on 19 March 2012, Gillard was told by Germaine Greer that she had a “big arse” (Q and A, “Politics”) and on 27 August 2012, Greer said Gillard looked like an “organ grinder’s monkey” (Q and A, “Media”). Such an attack by a prominent feminist from the 1970s, on the personal appearance of the Prime Minister, reinforced the perception that it was acceptable to criticise a woman in this position, in ways men have never been. 

Inside Politics: Leadership and Bullying inside the Liberal Party

While Gillard’s leadership was likely cut short by the ongoing attacks on her character, Liberal Deputy leader Julie Bishop was thwarted from rising to the leadership of the Liberal Party, thus making it unlikely she will become the Liberal Party’s first female Prime Minister. Julie Bishop was Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2013 to 2018 and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party from 2007 to 2018, having entered politics in 1998.

With the impending demise of Prime Minister Turnbull in August 2018, Bishop sought support from within the Liberal Party to run for the leadership. In the second round of leadership votes Bishop stood for the leadership in a three-cornered race, coming last in the vote to Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison. Bishop resigned as the Foreign Affairs Minister and took a seat on the backbench.

When asked if the Liberal Party would elect a popular female leader, Bishop replied: “When we find one, I’m sure we will.” Political journalist Annabel Crabb offered further insight into what Bishop meant when she addressed the press in her red Rodo shoes, labelling the statement as “one of Julie Bishop’s chilliest-ever slapdowns.” Crabb, somewhat sardonically, suggested this translated as Bishop listing someone with her qualifications and experience as: “Woman Works Hard, Is Good at Her Job, Doesn't Screw Up, Loses Out Anyway.”

For political journalist Tony Wright, Bishop was “clearly furious with those who had let their testosterone get the better of them and their party” and proceeded to “stride out in a pair of heels in the most vivid red to announce that, despite having resigned the deputy position she had occupied for 11 years, she was not about to quit the Parliament.” In response to the lack of support for Bishop in the leadership spill, female members of the federal parliament took to wearing red in the parliamentary chambers signalling that female members were “fed up with the machinations of the male majority” (Wright).

Red signifies power, strength and anger. Worn in parliament, it was noticeable and striking, making a powerful statement. The following day, Bishop said: “It is evident … that there is an acceptance of a level of behaviour in Canberra that would not be tolerated in any other workplace across Australia" (Wright).

Colour is political. The Suffragettes of the early twentieth century donned the colours of purple and white to create a statement of unity and solidarity. In recent months, Dr Kerryn Phelps used purple in her election campaign to win the vacated seat of Wentworth, following Turnbull’s resignation, perhaps as a nod to the Suffragettes. Public anger in Wentworth saw Phelps elected, despite the electorate having been seen as a safe Liberal seat.

On 21 February 2019, the last sitting day of Parliament before the budget and federal election, Julie Bishop stood to announce her intention to leave politics at the next election. To some this was a surprise. To others it was expected. On finishing her speech, Bishop immediately exited the Lower House without acknowledging the Prime Minister. A proverbial full-stop to her outrage. She wore Suffragette white.

Victorian Liberal backbencher Julia Banks, having declared herself so repelled by bullying during the Turnbull-Dutton leadership delirium, announced she was quitting the Liberal Party and sitting in the House of Representatives as an Independent. Banks said she could no longer tolerate the bullying, 

led by members of the reactionary right wing, the coup was aided by many MPs trading their vote for a leadership change in exchange for their individual promotion, preselection endorsements or silence. Their actions were undeniably for themselves, for their position in the party, their power, their personal ambition – not for the Australian people.

The images of male Liberal Members of Parliament standing with their backs turned to Banks, as she tended her resignation from the Liberal Party, were powerful, indicating their disrespect and contempt. Yet Banks’s decision to stay in politics, as with Wong and Bishop is admirable. To maintain the rage from within the institutions and structures that act to sustain patriarchy is a brave, but necessary choice.

Today, as much as any time in the past, a woman’s place is in politics, however, recent events highlight the ongoing poor treatment of women in Australian politics. Yet, in the face of negative treatment – gendered attacks on their character, dismissive treatment of their leadership abilities, and ongoing bullying and sexism, political women are fighting back. They are once again channelling their rage at the way they are being treated and how their abilities are constantly questioned. They are enraged to the point of standing in the face of adversity to bring about social and political change, just as the suffragettes and the women’s movements of the 1970s did before them. The current trend towards women planning to stand as Independents at the 2019 federal election is one indication of this. Women within the major parties, particularly on the conservative side of politics, have become quiet. Some are withdrawing, but most are likely regrouping, gathering the rage within and ready to make a stand after the dust of the 2019 election has settled.


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Author Biography

Angelika Heurich, University of New England, Armidale, NSW.

Angelika Heurich is a PhD candidate and casual academic in Sociology, in the School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, at the University of New England, in Armidale, NSW. She is currently researching the reasons prominent Australian women choose to enter politics or, alternatively, use their public profile to bring about social change. She is also passionate about seeking ways in which women can further their gender equality and personal empowerment at all levels in society.