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Women in Politics -

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PRU GOWARD: Well, it's not very flattering to be described as a cross between Edna Everidge and a Sherman tank, but Liberal Senator, Bronwyn Bishop, takes it all in her stride. She's been quoted as saying: `at least they're not calling me a wimp'.

Bronwyn Bishop is the first woman to enter Federal Parliament from the New South Wales Branch of the Liberal Party and true to form, she did it as the Leader of the Coalition Senate ticket. Formerly the Shadow Minister for Public Administration and Local Government, she's now a prominent backbencher and makes no secret of her political skill or her ambitions.

BRONWYN BISHOP: I decided to go into politics, or I decided to aspire to go into politics when I was seventeen, and my interest in politics most certainly came out of the study of history which showed me that there were basically two groups of people in the world. There were those people who were part of the decision making process and there were those people who had decisions made for them, and I wanted to be part of the decision making process.

PRU GOWARD: So it was the power, not necessarily the representation of the community?

BRONWYN BISHOP: No, it's not a question of power. It's a question in a democracy of sharing in the decision making process, of being a part of it, to be able to speak on behalf of other people who's views you've listened to, taken account of, and being part of that process.

PRU GOWARD: That was seventeen, you actually didn't get into politics until you were in your forties.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, that's not quite true. I think you can be in politics - as distinct from being a politician - and I was certainly in politics from the time I was seventeen when I joined the Liberal Party. Indeed, I made my first speaking debut, if you like, in a political way in the Lakemba by-election which preceded the win in the '60s, of a Liberal National Government. Out in the Lakemba by-election speaking on a rolling car mike and speaking on street corners on the issues of the day.

PRU GOWARD: Would you say though, that from the time you joined the Liberal Party when you were seventeen, to your early 40s when you became a politician, that all those years were absolutely essential training in the art of politics?

BRONWYN BISHOP: I think from my own perspective, and it could be rose coloured glasses, I suppose, but I do think that all that learning curve that I had is extraordinarily useful and dare I say, makes me much more effective. I believe nobody has a right to say today, I simply want to be a politician. I think it is something you have to do an apprenticeship no matter what the field is in, or how short or how long, you do need to learn what the skills are.

PRU GOWARD: What are they they?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, they're many. First of all, there must be a commitment; you must actually believe that what you're doing really matters. And the day you're in this place and cease to believe what you're doing here is really important, it's time to leave. There must be a commitment to things that you see are essential to fight for, to argue for, to see implemented to make this country a better nation.

PRU GOWARD: They are commitments - are they skills?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, the skills that you learn are how to present those arguments and those ideas, what areas you need to have listen to your views. You need to have contacts of a whole range of people to gather in information. You need to be able to put a case together to sustain what it is you've go to say, and you need to gather a broad base of knowledge and that takes time.

PRU GOWARD: Does it take women too much time; are we disadvantaged in the apprenticeship process because of child rearing and being out of the work force?

BRONWYN BISHOP: I think that there have been fewer women in the past who have really wanted to have a career in the public sphere. I think that's changing, and I like to think I encourage young women, indeed young girls, to think that they can have a place in public life and in decision making. But they have to have a commitment to that, they have to really want to do it and that that isn't an aim in itself. And I think we, perhaps, had fewer people who set that goal than we do now.

PRU GOWARD: Well, describe your apprenticeship?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, it, as I said, began when I was seventeen and from a political point of view I've held office at every level within the party - from vice-president in Young Liberals, through to a branch president, a chairman of a policy committee, a conference president, Federal conference vice-president, chairman of the convention, then vice-person to the party and then, finally, president of the party. And I enjoyed very much the opportunity to have that state presidency when you are judged on how you perform. The buck stops with you.

PRU GOWARD: How you argue your point of view?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, no, how you successfully run the party during that period. In my case, I had getting the state organisation geared up for Nick Greiner to win that election. So that was a particularly tremendous period to be in the chair.

PRU GOWARD: You're also involved in a number of charities and business activities which, I take it, now are all part of that apprenticeship.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Yes, and a lot of them are ongoing. I've always had a deep involvement in the arts. I think I've been on the council of the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales and I'm still Vice-President, and I've been there for 16 years and I still chair the Friends of the Sydney International Piano Competition and sit on that executive, which is a wonderful experience. And as well as that, I've been a life member of the Institute for Deaf and Blind Children and initial chairman of the Micro-search Foundation and a whole host of things that do have a community involvement. And for a number of reasons: a) it's a question of involvement and giving back to the community in a very real sense. And it's not just in a money raising sense, it's in a very grass roots involvement. And on the business side, for a decade I've been on the Pacific Basin Economic Council. I've been a member of the Australia-Indonesian Business Corporation Council.

I attended the first Australian ASEAN Business Council - 1981 I think that was. So my commitment to the need for Australia's commitment to multinational trade is long standing and I still consider quite vital, and I keep those up. I was in Taipei earlier this year where I gave a paper on the proposed Canada-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement which really isn't going to work, but it was an interesting thing to examine.

So all those things have been part of my apprenticeship, if you like, because I seriously believe that you must bring things to politics, rather than take from it. And if you haven't got other experiences to bring and other areas to tap, to hear different opinions, and hear what other people have to say that you can then use as part of decision making, then I don't think you're bringing enough to a commitment.

PRU GOWARD: Why did you choose to go to the Senate; did you have the choice of going to the Reps?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, first of all, I enjoy the Senate; I'm committed to a bicameral system. Perhaps you could say that Queensland might have had better government if it had an Upper House. I believe that there are .. the checks and balances that exist in a bicameral system are important to democracy.

PRU GOWARD: But does the Senate suit women's lives better?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Oh, no. I don't think that's relevant at all.

PRU GOWARD: The fact that you don't have a seat that you have to go and look after.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Oh, well, you see I don't accept that. I say that my electorate is all of New South Wales - all 3.5 million voters. I have my electorate office in Parramatta where I'm servicing a million people. There are more people between Concord Road and the foothills of the Blue Mountains than there are in two of our states put together, for instance. So that I do a full constituent load, if you like - everything from social security, to tax matters, to listening to people's problems with difficulty in getting the house painted, to pension problems, the whole gambit.

PRU GOWARD: So why do you think so many women appear to go to the Senate; do they choose it, or is it that they're denied seats in the Reps?

BRONWYN BISHOP: I can't answer for other states. All I can tell you, Pru, is that I am the first woman from the conservative side of politics to come to the Federal Parliament - either Chamber - full stop.

PRU GOWARD: From the Liberal Party in New South Wales?

BRONWYN BISHOP: From the conservative side of politics.

PRU GOWARD: In New South Wales?

BRONWYN BISHOP: In New South Wales.

PRU GOWARD: And yet you say you got there on your merit.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Yes.

PRU GOWARD: You'd think, as Janine Haines says, that implies that there's been no other women of merit in the whole 86 years since federation.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, I've asked myself that question - why is it that it took so long to occur, and the Labor Party also only has one - Jeannette McHugh - in the Lower House and I suspect we are the largest State. I suspect that - very simply - the competition has been pretty tough and it's been a tough, rigorous battle to achieve it and I think anyone who's looked at my history knows that it has been a genuine, fought for position.

PRU GOWARD: All right, but are you saying that you're more exceptional than any other woman on the conservative side, that might have liked a place in the last 86 years?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, I can go further than that. I am also the first woman to have been elected to the Senate, from New South Wales and indeed, the only women to have been elected to the Senate from New South Wales. So it's not only the conservative side, it's the Labor Party side as well. So I go back to the point that I think it has been a pretty rigorous competition.

PRU GOWARD: But isn't it also possible that there's been incredible discrimination against women, that they've been discouraged from taking political posts in New South Wales, perhaps the background of that particular State's ......

BRONWYN BISHOP: No, I think that's asking for a soft or an easy option, and I don't accept that. I like to think that there'll be many more women who will come through from New South Wales, that you will see more and more talented people presenting themselves. One of the reasons that the Liberal Party was attractive to me when I was seventeen years old, aside from things that it stood for about free enterprise and competition, and all those things, was that it did offer in its own constitution and everything it said - equal opportunity for men and women to compete for all and any of the jobs that were available.

When I became State President, again it was a first for New South Wales. I think it will be a long time before the Labor Party ever matches that. And it was no .. I mean when I was State President, if you like, two men stood against me; I still won on primaries. So it was a fair contest, if you like, in that sense.

PRU GOWARD: You don't feel that the Liberal Party looked around itself in New South Wales and said: time we had a woman there?

BRONWYN BISHOP: I certainly don't think that occurred at all.

PRU GOWARD: So you don't think that over the decades, leading up to the '80s, the lack of education opportunities for women; the lack of child care for women with children who might want to work - let alone have a political career - you don't think they mitigated against women getting into politics in New South Wales, Federal politics?

BRONWYN BISHOP: It's a bit like asking the chicken and the egg. First of all, you've got to want to do it. When I decided I wanted to do it, I chose the law, because I thought if you're going to write the laws of the land, you really ought to understand what you're doing, and so I thought the law is the best training. Now when I did law, there were very few women who did law; it was a bit of an odd thing for a girl to want to do. Now, 50 per cent of our law schools have women. So you have more and more women who are looking at their education as providing them with an ongoing career. When I was growing up that wasn't the norm.

PRU GOWARD: Why were you so unusual?

BRONWYN BISHOP: I don't know. I don't really know the answer to that.

PRU GOWARD: Did you come from a family with a history of ..

BRONWYN BISHOP: I came from a family where my mother certainly had her own career; she was an opera singer. So I was used to all that growing up period to hearing her spend long hours rehearsing and indeed she used to sing on the ABC when opera was sung live in studios and all that sort of thing, and going to recitals with her. So she certainly had her career. My father was an engineer.

PRU GOWARD: Well you've entered another theatre. You would obviously say that you chose law because of its political application and that women going into politics should think hard about a career in law or economics.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well they're good disciplines. I think the law teaches you to think well; it teaches you to know that there's always two sides to every argument and that you've got to argue well if you're going to be successful in putting that case. It also tells you that you don't know all the answers, that you must go and seek them out and deduce answers. And I think that's very valuable training.

PRU GOWARD: What has been your party's reaction to your obvious political ambition?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Oh, I think during, perhaps earlier on, somehow ambition was something that was a pejorative. But I think it's important that we have lots of young girls who are growing up with ambition, and ambition is something which is broad spectrum. It's not necessarily a personal trait; it's an ambition to achieve, to see a greater good, to be ambitious to see your party succeed. It's an all embracing goal and I think that goal setting and achievement on a step by step process is quite important.

PRU GOWARD: Do you think the electorate, and you deal with them in Parramatta all the time?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Indeed.

PRU GOWARD: Do you think the electorate has different expectations of you as a woman rather than a man in politics?

BRONWYN BISHOP: I can only look at that in personal terms. The people who know me have expectations of me to work for them to ensure that I remain steadfast to the things that I and they believe, in to persuade those people who are perhaps swinging voters that they have got to come to our way of thinking, that we can deliver a better Australia. That's the way I would expect to be judged.

PRU GOWARD: And do you find dealing with people, that there are identifiable women's issues?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, I suppose in the health area there are some that are very definitely women's issues because they have problems with .. which are dissimilar from men's problems. Equally, I suppose you can say there are men's issues in the health area that are very specific to them. So in that sense, that's true. And the question of child care is very relevant, but it's also relevant to men as it is to women. With regard to that issue, our policy of offering rebates, to me, is a question of equity; it's not a question of handouts, it's a question of equity. To me, the decision of the High Court that said that child care expenses were not a necessary expense in order to produce assessable income was a very unjust decision.

PRU GOWARD: Not a feminist .. not an anti-feminist position?

BRONWYN BISHOP: It was just an unjust decision because, quite clearly in my thinking, it is a necessary expense to produce assessable income, just as a fax machine or a motor car or a typewriter or a photocopying machine, which are all valid tax deductions, can be necessary items of expenditure. So to me it's a question of equity and the fact that we have chosen to offer that tax rebate is a very important point.

PRU GOWARD: So you'd say child care and health issues are identifiable women's issues? What about equal opportunity, retraining, domestic violence?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, the question of equal opportunity is that - that's what I want - equal opportunity to compete, but none of this affirmative action nonsense, because that makes you a permanent second class citizen. It says you're only here because we gave it a nod and we put in place that we had to have one of you. Now that's not an acceptable way; it hasn't worked in the United States. You have to be able to earn the respect of your peers.

PRU GOWARD: Do you think it occurs at all in Australian politics?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, certainly not in New South Wales politics. I think the Labor Party has certainly used affirmative action, and I really don't think it's helped those people that it's exercised in favour of.

PRU GOWARD: But do you, as a woman politician, feel a special responsibility to your female constituency over those specifically female issues?

BRONWYN BISHOP: I feel a responsibility to all my electors, particularly on economic questions, questions of business, enterprise, areas that have been of vital interest to me over the last decade and particularly have been trade issues. The fact that in the last six years in this country, of all the investment that has gone into plant and machinery, in manufactures, none of it has been for the purpose of export or for even import replacement, which means that the environment or the lead that the Government of the day - that is, this Labor Government - has been given has been not to say it's safe to take a risk and venture forth and try and develop overseas markets. And the question of creating the better economy or the bigger cake in which everybody can share, of course, is the way I would look at the question of poverty and improving the life and lifestyle of Australians.

On the question of domestic violence, it's a very serious problem and I think there has been changing attitudes within police forces, who are placed in a very difficult position very often because, whereas they'll be called in, when it comes to the crunch, point of prosecution, people will back out. So there have been a whole interaction of difficult issues to deal with there. But the fact that they are now being addressed and that people are looking at ways of perhaps, either averting the violence in the first place, or having a better way of the police department and policemen themselves dealing with the issues, I think has been the important development.

PRU GOWARD: When you talk about equal opportunity and you say no, not positive discrimination or affirmative action, what else would you see as falling within the ambit of equal opportunity?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Equal opportunity is just that.

PRU GOWARD: But how do you achieve it, because it isn't there now, is it?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, I'm not so sure about that.

PRU GOWARD: Well, where are the women in politics, when there's 50 per cent of the electorate voting for them; where are the women in science, when there's 50 per cent of the women reading and writing?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, I'm pleased to tell you that I've got one daughter who's doing a science degree now. But just because there are 50 per cent in the population, doesn't mean to say that 50 per cent of all those people will naturally be interested in a particular career.

PRU GOWARD: Statistically, you would expect it.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, would you? I mean in the teaching profession, it's predominantly women.

PRU GOWARD: Yes.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Is that discrimination against men?

PRU GOWARD: It probably is, except that it's so ..

BRONWYN BISHOP: ... not.

PRU GOWARD: Well, it's so lowly paid. I guess it's something they wouldn't want to do.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, it's not necessarily lowly paid and there are opportunities, particularly in New South Wales, for advancement and recognition of excellence and so on.

PRU GOWARD: Very few female principals in the education system.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Yes, well I hope we'll see a change in that because it will be on merit instead of seniority.

PRU GOWARD: Don't you acknowledge anywhere that really, women have had a bit of a tough time getting up there, that statistically you'd have to acknowledge?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Pru, I'll put it this way. It really doesn't help to whinge about it. If it's a bit harder, work a bit harder. There are plenty of individuals who have achieved, who've come from hard beginnings and it has been much harder for them - whether they're men or women - to achieve, and yet we don't talk about breaking up the community into minute little compartments and saying: this little bit's under-represented, this bit's over-represented and so on. What I say is, if you really want to do it, work at it, work hard, and the harder you work, the luckier you get.

PRU GOWARD: Okay. Does your party do enough to encourage women to enter politics, or is that irrelevant to you, they shouldn't have to encourage anybody?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Oh well, to the contrary, Pru. Going right back to what I said when I was seventeen, I saw that the Liberal Party offered opportunities to women, just as they offered them to men, and that is still true. And I would like to think if I can play a part in encouraging other women to persevere and to come through, then the party will be the best of it because you're right, 50 per cent of the population represents 50 per cent of the talent, and the more women that you have competing, offering themselves for the long haul, not the short haul, the better will be the quality of the party overall.

PRU GOWARD: What would you say was the main thrust of your party's policies towards women? Why would they vote for you and not the Labor Party?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Because we really do recognise women as a most important and equal partner in the development of this nation, not in a patronising way, but in a way that says you are contributing to the overall establishment, national pride, economic success, all the things that go to make up a nation. Women in small business are hugely important in this nation and one of the reasons I'm sure that they go into small business is because that they find that they are masters within that business and they can make it shape and fit their lives.

PRU GOWARD: You're almost saying they find it hard to be masters or in charge, when it's not their own business.

BRONWYN BISHOP: No, I'm saying that they'll have no truck with unions who certainly have no time for women and are very male dominated organisations. And that's why, for instance, in the quickly growing property and finance areas of the economy, you will find very low union participation, you will also find very high female membership.

PRU GOWARD: You haven't been in the Senate very long but you've watched politics for a long time. Would you say that the increasing number of women in politics, federal politics this decade, has changed the style of politics, the language, the way it's run, the issues?

BRONWYN BISHOP: Depends on the individual. Just to say that more women have come in per se, I don't think has changed that very much. Indeed, I don't think the presence or non-presence of women in the House of Representatives has deterred the Treasurer from adding to the language such words as scum bags, which I don't really think have helped very much. But on the basis that the women who have come in, and all of them have a strong commitment, and are all able, they've all got something to offer. So in the sense that they've brought ability, that they brought talent, then they've certainly added to the collective pool.

PRU GOWARD: What about legislation; is there one piece of legislation that would not have been passed if it hadn't been for the influence of women directly in the political process as politicians in Federal Parliament debating, insisting that the issues be raised?

BRONWYN BISHOP: I can't think of one off hand, but I can say this: that within the party machine, where certainly in our party, women are very important, have a very strong voice, debate regularly, their point of view would have been heard on various issues that have come forward.

PRU GOWARD: Margaret Reynolds argues that you wouldn't have got your equal opportunity legislation without women as politicians.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, it depends what you mean by equal opportunity legislation and ..

PRU GOWARD: With all the checks and balances now in the public service.

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well, if you mean that it's become advantageous in some industries to have additional people to be employed who have to fill out bits of paper and comply with bits of legislation, I don't know that that's been particularly helpful at all. And indeed, you can argue in universities, for instance, that they've had to put off a decent researcher to put on someone to be a paper-filler-outer. So if you're looking at the overall advantage that's been achieved, you might come out with a zero sum. I think it is much more important to say that more and more women are seeking higher and higher education and that they are looking at their life - they're living longer, for starters - they're looking at the whole of their life in terms of developing an ongoing work program for them. Now some people will just want to be in the work force, in a paid job. It may be of economic necessity, it may be simply because they wish to have a paid job. There are other women who will wish not to be in the paid work force, and there are other women who will wish to have career structures.

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

BRONWYN BISHOP: Well I seee that the most important issues are the same facing all Australians. We have declining standards of living, we have enormous problems with our balance of payments. We need to become more outward looking as a nation, and that means men and women, together. We are part of a global economy, you can't say stop the world, I want to get off. I'd say that the important thing is that how successful we are as a competing nation, internationally, depends the quality of life of every Australian man, woman and child.

PRU GOWARD: Liberal backbencher, Senator Bronwyn Bishop.