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Women in Politics -

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PRU GOWARD: The '80s saw a big increase in the number of women in politics, but it's still exceptional to find a woman in Federal Cabinet. In 1983 Senator Susan Ryan became the first Labor woman to be a Federal Minister. She was joined in 1987 by Senator Margaret Reynolds and Ros Kelly. Ros Kelly, now Minister for the Environment, is one of those rare beasts - a woman in the House of Representatives, where they're very thin on the ground; and not only that, a young, blond mother of two who's managed to overcome the stereotype and be taken seriously.

Since entering the Hawke Ministry in 1987, Ros Kelly has held three portfolios: Defence Science and Personnel, Telecommunications and now the Environment. Like many female politicians, Ros Kelly began her working life as a teacher, before taking the plunge into politics.

ROS KELLY: Young girls growing up, as I did, in the 50s and 60s in the western suburbs of Sydney, wouldn't have thought for one second that they could ever achieve political aspirations. And so what happened with me, I suppose, is that I just grew a step at a time. I started to teach, and then I came over to Canberra and I got involved in the Labor Party. And in 1974 they were forming a new advisory body in the ACT to run all the local issues. And I nominated for that, and I did it primarily because by then I was the secretary of the biggest branch in the Labor Party in the ACT and there were no other women who were known at all who would have a chance of being selected. So I thought: I'll just have a go at it.

PRU GOWARD: Were you conscious that you were nominating because you were a woman and you thought that gave you an advantage?

ROS KELLY: No, I didn't think it would give me any advantage; I just thought the team needed a bit of balance. And I was also young, I was only 24. So I thought all these old blokes are running; basically it's a young city, you should really have a balance. And so I nominated. And, even though the Labor Party did very badly in the election - it was in '74 and there was a very bad atmosphere at the time - I ended up number one on the ticket which I was just amazed at. And the fellow who had been the leader of the team, a fellow called Gordon Walsh, was just horrified that I was number one. So I just really took a back seat, but I got elected.

And then from there it just grew. You know, I had experience in the Assembly and then I was on the various boards and authorities. The most important, the most significant event was when I became Chairman of the ACT Schools Authority. I had been a member of the Authority and one of the parent reps asked me if I would nominate. Now, I had never thought about nominating. I said: no, I couldn't do that job. And he said: well, it's either you or someone else. And then I thought: well, I think I could do it better than that other someone else. So I nominated, and then I was elected. And from that my base in the community just got bigger, and so I decided then to run for Federal Parliament in 1978.

PRU GOWARD: Has it helped being a very attractive, sexy, blond woman in politics?

ROS KELLY: Look, if anything, being young and being blond has been the big disadvantage - not being a woman - because people have a stereotype of blondes. And I was speaking to a dear friend of mine, Dame Beryl Beaurepaire, recently, and she said she remembers when she first was told about me, and she said I was portrayed in typical blond, sort of tizzy terms. And she said: `I was amazed when I met you and found out you were none of those things'. And when I was a candidate, my first time in lead-up to the '80 election when I was elected, my political opponent at the time was a Liberal male, and he started his campaign by saying: `How would you like Canberra in the '80s, run by a blue-eyed blonde who jumps out of boxes onto Bob Hawke's knee?' I didn't respond to that, of course. But the fascinating thing is that I had so many women, Liberal women, ring me and say they couldn't vote Liberal after those comments.

So, basically, that was a problem. I don't think it was really a problem with my women voters, and it may well have been an issue of conversation, but I don't think it was much more than that.

PRU GOWARD: What was the attitude of your Party to your political ambitions?

ROS KELLY: For the great majority of branch members, there's never been any discrimination towards me at all. I do remember when I'd nominated, I had three men running against me; and one of them was a dear old pet, and I remember him saying: she might get the preselection but there is no way the electorate's going to vote for a woman. But what I did, I took on that issue head on, and Mackerras has done some survey work on voting patterns, and it showed that once a woman got in, in fact they often increased their majority. So I just used that to counter it, and it really then sort of died away as an issue.

And during the campaign period, I thought it would be interesting for future reference to do some survey work to see what people thought about having a woman candidate. And it was fascinating because 7 per cent said they'd prefer a male; 7 per cent said they'd prefer a female, and the rest of them said they didn't care. Now, that was in 1979. So I would think, now, it's just not an issue at all what your sex is.

PRU GOWARD: You've trained as a teacher. Has that disadvantaged or advantaged you politically, and particularly political credibility and a capacity to grasp issues?

ROS KELLY: I think it's been an enormous help to me in terms of communications. You see, teachers know how to communicate with an audience and communicate very simply, and to hold an audience. And they're the skills that you use all the time if you're a good politician.

PRU GOWARD: So you don't miss not having done economics or law?

ROS KELLY: I do. I suppose I miss not having done economics. And so I've had to become a bush lawyer and a bush economist on the run. And you can do those things. It was a big help to me, I think, living with an economist. My husband was one, and at least I learned to understand the jargon and use it fairly confidently, and I think that's half the battle. But the great thing for me, is that because I am not a trained economist or lawyer, I have got to get a message across to ordinary voters, most of whom aren't either. So I have to simplify an issue for them to communicate it to them. And I never use jargon, because it's not familiar to me. And I think that's a big help to my constituents.

PRU GOWARD: Would you recommend, though, that people did economics and law if they were going into politics?

ROS KELLY: I'd recommend that they get as much training in anything as they can. You see, I think people forget about the skills of politics. Once you've actually studied to get one degree, if you really apply yourself, you can learn all the other areas. When I took Defence over, I knew nothing about it, nothing. I just locked myself away and I studied, and I went out to learn. And in six months I think I had a fairly good idea of what it was. And not only that, by that time - you don't just know, you can break the parameters and you can work out where you want to take the portfolio. That's what you've got to be able to do. You've not got to just learn about it, but you've got to say: where do I want this to be in 12 months time? And you've got to think forward all the time. So you've got to be actually able to plan and manage your portfolio as well.

PRU GOWARD: Well, you had an apprenticeship in local politics, as you say, as Chairman of the ACT Schools Authority, most significantly. What sort of apprenticeship was that for Federal politics?

ROS KELLY: It was really excellent. I am sure without that I wouldn't have had the confidence to run for Federal Parliament. You see, for women it's different from men. Men work on the basis that they're really born to it, they're born to do anything. And actually I think, I've noticed with my niece, who's now in her 20s that she's got that view too, that there's really nothing that she can't do. And I really think that's the fundamental difference between generations.

When I was growing up, it was just something I just did not comprehend that I would be able to do, to run for Federal Parliament. I didn't even think about it in my horizons. And so what I needed to do was go through that process of growing, of doing an Assembly job, then having a leadership role in a statutory authority so I built a profile up in the community. And it was only then, in 1978, that I even had enough confidence to consider nominating. I wouldn't have even considered it before that date.

PRU GOWARD: But actually all that community work, although it's a long way around in a sense, is, I would have thought, very useful for politics. You wouldn't regret it, would you?

ROS KELLY: I don't regret it one bit. And it just gives me a confidence now, 20 years later, to say that there is no one who knows my electorate better than I do. And that is a marvellous base to have in Federal Parliament. And I frankly think many others should consider going that way, because you do learn as you go, and you prove yourself each step of the way, not just to your colleagues in the community but to yourself. And I think that's important.

PRU GOWARD: Yes. Would you say that the electorate treats women candidates differently to males?

ROS KELLY: No, not really. I don't think so any more. There's no doubt there was a bit of curiosity value in the early '80s. When I was elected in 1980, there had been no women in the House of Representatives before me. But I think now it's not an issue at all. In fact, I really think it's an advantage now. The electorate like us.

PRU GOWARD: Why do you think they prefer - the polls show they actually marginally prefer women candidates.

ROS KELLY: I think for a couple of reasons. One, they don't see us in a stereotype view of politicians. Politicians are loathed in the community, but we aren't because they don't see us as like the rest of them. They're more inclined to believe what we say, and they think we're genuine. And we are. And we do relate, I think, in a very personal way with our electorates.

PRU GOWARD: What about the way women develop and solve policy issues? Would you say there was any difference there from your observation in committees?

ROS KELLY: Oh, I think there is. I think women basically just want to get to the core of the problem and solve it. We just don't have a lot of time to muck around. But it is interesting. You've really got to get to a position of authority before you can exert your influence through that process. When you are just sitting there as a committee member, it's really more frustrating in the parliamentary process because you really can't fix it yourself unless you chair the committee. If you chair it then you get the whole thing run very sensibly and very quickly. And, of course, if you're a Minister then you run the whole show and you can get things done a lot more efficiently. You know, people say to me: how do you manage to get everything done? Well, the reason I do is because I'm efficient about what I do and I manage my time well. And I think a lot of men have never had to do that.

PRU GOWARD: So why has it taken so long for women to become, at all, a feature of Australian political life? I think we've only just passed the 100 women mark.

ROS KELLY: I think it's very difficult because of the geographic layout of this country. I was in Perth last week and it really just dawned on my how tough it is for those women members from Western Australia. I would hate to be physically apart from my children when they're growing up. Now, I'm fortunate I don't have to be because I'm based here in Canberra. But for someone like Carolyn Jakobsen, I mean I think she's a wonder person. She came in when her children were about nine and 11, and she has come over to Canberra every week; she's never failed in her duty; she's now Chairman of the Caucus; and she's one of the great unsung heroines of this place, that she's been able to bring those children up - wonderful girls they are, too - by commuting across Australia. I think it's much easier for someone like me whose kids can, if necessary, if something goes wrong at school I can pop over to see them. When Jessie's got a recital next Thursday night I can go to that during the dinner break, I can go home at night and put them to bed. It's still not easy, but it's a lot easier than it is for the others. I think that is the single biggest factor for women.

PRU GOWARD: But that doesn't explain women who's children have grown up.

ROS KELLY: No. But then, of course, they've got to get the breaks. And you see to get elected to the House of Representatives, it's a very elaborate process. You have got to sit through hundreds of meetings to get your preselection first. And many women just can't be bothered with the nonsense that goes on at a lot of these meetings. They just give up in despair.

PRU GOWARD: Is it a nasty process, though? Is that what puts them off?

ROS KELLY: No, I don't think it is; it's not particularly nasty. And if you're that sensitive you can't survive anyway in this process. No, it's not that, it's just really time consuming. In fact, it's not nasty at all. The contact with the branches is one of the nice, positive things, because they're really the salt of the earth people and you feel that what you do is really worthwhile when you're working for them. So no, it's not that, it really is the time and the commitment, and you've got to choose the right time of your life. It is very hard when your children are little, so you wait till they're older, so you wait till they're 16 or so. Then you've got to start the process going, and then you've got to get yourself preselected. Well, it's very hard, and so there are a few who can really make it.

PRU GOWARD: How did you get into the Ministry?

ROS KELLY: Initially by working the system, just like all the boys do. I mean, did I get in because I was a woman? Yes and no. I mean, I had to work out a formula to get me in. Now, the boys all find formulas. They argue that they are Queenslanders or they're left-handed or they're right-handed, they're a faction representative or something. So I had a look at the numbers and saw that it would be difficult while I had Susan there, you see. Susan Ryan was in.

PRU GOWARD: An incredible obstacle, you said.

ROS KELLY: If Susan Ryan wasn't there, I knew I'd get in anyway, right? But as she was, and I thought she deserved to stay there - despite the fact some people were giving her a stabbing at the time. I thought: how can I work out a formula to get me in, to get Susan in, and there was only one way and that was to have one woman from each faction. It had to be me, it had to be Susan. And the Prime Minister thought about it and thought it was an excellent idea. And the Treasurer did too, so we all got in.

PRU GOWARD: So was it a problem that you were both from the ACT?

ROS KELLY: Yes, that was the problem, we were both from the ACT. Had Susan - I been from Queensland, for example, I would have been in like a flash. But I wasn't. So it was quite clear that that was going to be the obstacle. And, you see, you've always got to work your way round it.

PRU GOWARD: So, in a sense, you're a token? You got in as the woman from the Right.

ROS KELLY: Yeah, that's right.

PRU GOWARD: How do you feel about that?

ROS KELLY: I'm not in the least concerned. I never work on the basis that - there are low disadvantages in this job and if there are any advantages you take them. Who remembers now how I got in? All they know is that she did Defence and she did a good job, and she's in this job and she's doing a good job. On the other hand, had I messed it up, I wouldn't have the job now.

PRU GOWARD: And it would be very bad for women in politics?

ROS KELLY: And not only that, I wouldn't have lasted very long at all. Had I messed it up, I would have been out on my ear very quickly.

PRU GOWARD: Now, did you choose Defence and Defence Support, which is an awful job?

ROS KELLY: No, no. It was great; no, I didn't.

PRU GOWARD: You had every Defence wife in the country hating you.

ROS KELLY: Initially.

PRU GOWARD: At the beginning. I mean, it was a real political problem for the Government.

ROS KELLY: Oh no. The Prime Minister chooses portfolios, and he was going to give me Immigration; I was working with Mick Young. And Mick Young, that well-known feminist, said he wouldn't work with me. He said - I didn't mind him saying it, but I did mind in front of all my colleagues - he said: I wouldn't work with you; I won't have a Rasputin in my camp - whatever that meant. He and I had had a falling out some time before, because he thought I was just dreadfully ambitious and wanted his job. Well, the reality of it is, I mean, I am ambitious, so was everyone else.

PRU GOWARD: But so is every other person in Caucus.

ROS KELLY: And I don't think I'd been more aggressively ambitious than anyone else; it was just I was probably more conspicuous. So then the boss rang and said: 'There's a problem with you a Mick', he said, 'I didn't know about it'. And I said: No, I didn't know about it, either, but it's obviously there. So he said: 'Well, you can work with Kim'. And I was pretty horrified, but it was still my first portfolio, and so, as usual I thought: well, I've got to do this well, this is the one I've got to prove myself on.

PRU GOWARD: This was Defence Personnel?

ROS KELLY: Yeah, and you're right, when I took it over I was that woman. They hated me. The Defence forces hated me, their wives ....

PRU GOWARD: Describe the issue.

ROS KELLY: Well, it was a horrendous problem at the time, because we were changing the conditions about Defence service homes. That was the first thing. And the second thing is, I frankly think the Defence Force conditions had been neglected for a very long time and there was a lot of pent-up aggression and dissatisfaction. And it was all taken out on me. And we had some pretty wild meetings around the countryside. And I just kept going, and I thought: the generals really don't know what the issues are here, I've got to find out. So I went and visited every Defence force base in Australia and I talked to everyone. I thought the only way to break through this portfolio is for people to get to know me. And when they get to know me they'll see I haven't got horns coming out of my ears and I'm basically normal.

So I went and talked to the Defence Force spouses, and we talked about our families and about education. And then I hit on what is a very important issue, and of course related to my old portfolio, which was about trying to get better uniformity in education across this country. And I realised the housing conditions were appalling. I went and spent my time in a lot of their houses. A lot of them, the women were angry too about the men. It's not a great job for a Defence Force spouse, I have to say.

Then I spent time with the boys as well, in the field, not just the senior officers, and we started a whole progression then of implementation. There'd been a lot of studies done but nothing really implemented. And I think we settled the portfolio down. It took me, I would say, about 14 months before I felt that it was changing. And I still get lots of letters from Defence Force families around the country, even in this portfolio.

PRU GOWARD: It was a great political achievement. I think it's well acknowledged. It killed that story, you got rid of that issue.

ROS KELLY: But you can only get rid of it by doing something about it. It had to be done, it needed to be done. And I was really sorry, then, when I left it. You see, Defence is one of those wonderful jobs that, it's not just a job, you become part of the Defence Force family. And I'll always be part of that now. It doesn't matter what other job I have, or I leave politics, I will still have a lot of friends in the Defence Force in a way that I will never have in the other ... I moved on to Telecommunications and Aviation then, and I look back on that and I say: well, who do I really know from that, who cares about you; hardly anybody; whereas in Defence, I still run into them everywhere. Once you are part of their family, that's it.

PRU GOWARD: Now let's take the environment, and I wonder if there are parallels there. Carmen Lawrence and Joan Kirner have both been described as people put in to save a Labor Government from certain disaster at the polls. When you're desperate you put a woman in. Do you think, to be honest, that that's actually what was happening with the environment, that the greenies were getting out of hand and they needed somebody who could get that issue back on the tracks, manageable for a government that had to have some sort of commitment to development and to jobs?

ROS KELLY: I don't think anyone considered that when I took the job over. But I do think there was a view that 1) I could get a message across to the community and I think 2) that I could broaden the base of the conservation movement. That's what I see it ....

PRU GOWARD: Why would you want to do that?

ROS KELLY: Because it has to reach into everybody's homes. You see, the environment movement is not restricted to the people who are signed up members of Greenpeace or the ACF. The environment movement is very much, it relies on its success on particularly the women who are at home, running homes in this country and the kids that are growing up. And so what we need to do is we need to have them acting in a sensible way, and understanding what we're doing. It isn't just an issue that's fought out in the forests of south-east New South Wales; it is an issue about how you manage your waste in your home, how you have energy efficiency in your home. That is the conservation movement. It is a broad mass movement. And what governments have got to do is relate generally to people and relate them to their own lives.

PRU GOWARD: That's the environment movement, but wasn't your real job to get the environment movement into a position where it wasn't going to get away with denying jobs and denying development?

ROS KELLY: Well, it was coming to the stage where you have to get an integration of the environment and the economy, that's right, and that's a task that I have taken on. Graham Richardson was very keen that I took this job on, and I suspect one of the reasons he was keen for me to take it on was because I was so different from him in style. And there was only just for so long that people could keep comparing me to Richo, because our style is so different. And, so though the first few months was sort of horror territory - not as horror territory as Defence I have to say, not nearly as bad as that, because I'm much more experience now than I was then - but it has taken a few months to break the nexus between Graham's and my style. But I think the electorate's got used to that now; I even think the Press Gallery has, which is quite surprising.

PRU GOWARD: Yes. Do you think you've actually encountered a chauvinism in the press?

ROS KELLY: Absolutely. And I think that, see journalists, particularly journalists with the sorts of quality newspapers they have today, just love sensationalising everything, and everything in this portfolio is seen as conflict or win-loss. And every time I would have a softer approach - which I do, I mean it's just part of me, it's part of my style - it doesn't mean that you don't get the results. But a lot of them found it very hard to understand what I was doing, and they kept comparing my style all the time with Richo's. I mean, particularly in the Parliament. I mean, my style in the Parliament is totally different from the men. And I've worked it out myself; it's taken me some time to work it through, I have to say, because at one stage I did sort of try their more macho style, but it doesn't work with me. You've got to be true to what you are.

PRU GOWARD: So what is your style?

ROS KELLY: It's much softer. I get up and answer a question. I try. I don't personalise the discussion; I really try to provide information. And I think that is the way you build your credibility up, and in the end, you show the Opposition up.

PRU GOWARD: So has it been in any way a difficulty for a female Cabinet Minister dealing with the press that's used to a male way of doing things, to the point where they can't see that there's another way?

ROS KELLY: I think it has taken time to educate them. I think, you know, they destroyed Susan Ryan. And I said, at one stage, I wasn't going to let them destroy me, and I'm very serious about that. And they've just got to get used to me. I'm here for the long haul. And I think they have now. I think they have realised that, in this portfolio, you do not have to be a head-kicker to actually achieve. But they all follow the leader to a degree, and if someone writes, you know, 'Is she tough enough?', they all follow the same lead. So you've got to actually break it in some way, and I found the only way to break it was to just keep getting on and doing the job. I think probably the greenhouse gas decision was a circuit breaker.

PRU GOWARD: Big achievement, that.

ROS KELLY: Well, it was, seeing it was pretty difficult to get. I always believed I'd get it because it was the right decision.

PRU GOWARD: Would you agree that there is such a thing as feminisation of politics going on; that Hawke, for example, is a conciliator rather than a confrontationist, or do you think that's overstating it?

ROS KELLY: I don't think most of my colleagues would realise there is a feminisation of politics going on. I think there's no doubt that the electorate has a view that they're sick of the confrontation in politics, that they do want people to be genuine, so in that sort of sense it's feminisation of a lot of what we call the female values. They want their politicians to relate to people. But I don't think most of my colleagues would think about it for one second.

PRU GOWARD: What do you see as the most important issue confronting Australian women?

ROS KELLY: Education. I just believe that if you've got an education then you've got choices. If you don't have an education you don't have it. I see that now with my generation. My sister is two years younger than me, and she left school when she was 15, and now her children are 15 and 16, and the jobs that she can get are so limited because she hasn't got any education. And so everywhere I go I say to young girls: you've got to get the qualifications. If you choose then to drop out, if you choose then to go and stay at home for five years and have your kids, terrific, that's your choice. But for goodness sake get your qualifications now. And as our community ages, our women have got to have the chance to go back and retrain.

We used to think of life in a different way, I think. I used to think 40 was really over the hill. Now you say: I've probably got 20 more years of working. My sister has got 20 more years to work. What is she going to do with those 20 years? So the best thing a government can do for its women - and then for its men of course - is to provide a good education system. It's also the best thing any parent can do. And if we do that with our women .... tape ends