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Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Page: 315


Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:38): In recent days political donation scandals have dominated the media and at times debate in this place. It is thanks to the New South Wales corruption watchdog, ICAC, and also to the bill pay system that Senator Dastyari uses that has turned the spotlight on the corrupting influence of political donations.

In speaking on this issue, I have noted how serious the impact is on the body politic and it got me thinking of what this corruption in all its form does to our very right to vote. My thoughts turned to the suffragettes whose actions changed the very face of democracy.

The suffragette movement made great sacrifices to gain the vote. It was a noble cause. It was a courageous fight. Many women suffered greatly to achieve equality in the democratic process. Some even died. Yet their sacrifices are being trashed by the corruption and dishonesty of some contemporary politicians, and a political donations regime which literally sells votes to the highest bidder—votes which they died for.

One leader of the suffragette movement in Britain was Sylvia Pankhurst. She was thrown in prison and went on a hunger strike. Her sacrifice for my right to vote, I believe, is extraordinary. I read about her work and her life a long time ago. When I was thinking about this today, I went back to refresh my memories. I think it is a part of our history that we should all remember.

The authorities that she came up against at the time were well aware of her political power and they force-fed her when she was jailed. She described the experience in a 1913 article:

I struggled as hard as I could, but they were six and each one of them much bigger and stronger than I. They soon had me on the bed and firmly held me down by the shoulders, the arms, the knees, and the ankles.

Then the doctors came stealing in behind. Someone seized me by the head and thrust a sheet under my chin. I felt a man's hands trying to force my mouth open. I set my teeth and tightened my lips over them with all my strength. My breath was coming so quickly that I felt as if I should suffocate. I felt his fingers trying to press my lips apart—getting inside—and I felt them and a steel gag running around my gums and feeling for gaps in my teeth.

I felt I should go mad; I felt like a poor wild thing caught in a steel trap. I was tugging at my head to get it free. There were two of them holding it. There were two of them wrenching at my mouth. My breath was coming faster and with a sort of low scream that was getting louder. I heard them talking: 'Here is a gap.'

They are Sylvia's words.

Sylvia Pankhurst and so many others fought valiantly to participate in the democratic process. They had faith that the right to vote could mean fair representation and improve the lives of all. They had faith that the democratic system would be an ally in the fight against oppression and inequality. What would they make of democracy today, the system they fought so hard to be a part of?

What would they make of a senator with such a cosy relationship with rich donors that he can call on them to pay his travel bills? What would they make of a cabinet secretary who testified he had no knowledge of huge political donations between organisations that he was deeply involved in? What would they make of a prime minister personally donating at least $2 million of his own money to help buy an election for his party? I think Sylvia Pankhurst would have been most concerned and she would have fought back.

There are many reforms we can make to honour the suffragettes' sacrifices and restore public confidence in our democratic process. We need caps on donations and bans on donations from corrupting industries. We need real-time online disclosure so voters can be informed when they cast their ballot. We need expenditure caps so that campaigns are a contest of ideas, not bank transfers and television advertisements.

These reforms are owed to everyone who has historically been denied a say and fought to get it. Without serious reform to stop corporations and rich donors buying politicians, we are dishonouring the sacrifice of those who fought for the right of all adults to vote—the suffragettes, the people involved in the right for Aboriginal people to vote and all the people who have worked to establish the emerging democracies that we are seeing occurring around the world and it continues to this day.

Importantly, we all lose when political decision making and policies can be bought by vested interests. The current system is not good enough. It must change, and I hope people do contemplate the extraordinary life of Sylvia Pankhurst and remember what she fought for. It remains as relevant to today as it was when she suffered so much. Thank you.

Senate adjourned at 19:44