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Political equality for women and the Women's Charter for Political Reform.



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Political Equality for Women and the Women's Charter for Political Reform. by Joan Bielski

Since 1992 the numbers of women MPs has only risen from 10% to approx. 25%. The low numbers of women in our parliaments suggests either that women are not interested in political careers, or there are major barriers to their participation. 25% is not enough in this the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage for women to efffectively influence public policy .

Women Into Politics, a coalition of women's organisations and individuals, have since 1992 been pressing the political parties to adopt equal opportunity principles and practices in their organisations and to increase the numbers of women in our parliaments.

Women into Politics consoders that justice, efficiency and the public interest require approximately equal representation of women and men in our lawmaking institutions. Women Into Politics appreciates that equal numbers alone will not ensure equal treatment in public policy and that it will depend on the quality and the level of feminist consciousness of women elected.

Women Into Politics also considers that we could not continue to urge more women to consider politics unless we tried to do something about the sleaze factor in politics. Parliamentarians, while adhering to the philosophy of a particular political party, bring to the deliberations of our parliaments and their parties different life experiences and different areas of expertise. The norm of Australian political life to date has largely been the male life experience, the male life style, male expertise and what powerful men consider is right and suitable for women.

It is wrongly assumed that the effect of policies, programmes and legislation on women will be the same as for men. Many policies and programmes are developed without consideration of women's priorities and needs, women's different life pattern, their still unequal economic status, their roles as primary carers of children and the aged as well as contributors to the paid workforce.

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Presently decisions are often made about matters affecting women without effective input from women and are frequently discriminatory.

Many of you were surely angered by the decisions to amend the Anti-Discrimination Act to allow discrimination against single women, including lesbians, in the IVF programme and the decision to grant a baby bonus to home based mothers, the latter made in response to powerful men's views about what women should have and what women as a group should be encouraged to do - this while ignoring women's call over decades for paid maternity leave.

As well the welfare system is increasingly being predicated on women's unpaid work or inadequate public welfare programmes. Women's NGO's down the years have to fill the gap with women appropriate services or to lobby for appropriate mainstream programmes as well as to defend past gains.

Women have little or no influence on foreign policy or immigration policy. Women fleeing oppressive regimes are not given asylum on the basis of female oppression. Aid to third world countries for family planning purposes is conditional on the recipients not allowing abortions. Foreign aid is given by governments dominated by men to governments dominated by men for men's business. Women in third world countries are frequently left out of the programmes, many of which that benefit the donors as much if not more than the recipients.

Our government hesitates to listen to Australian women's calls to sign the Optional Protocol to CEDAW, which would allow women who experience discrimination and who fail to get redress in their own countries to appeal to the UN. Women's aid NGOs attempt to fill the gap and/or to lobby for appropriate aid programmes for women.

Equal numbers of women and men MPs is not the only objective.

Many of the pioneering women MPs from both the major parties were committed feminists and advocates for women. Now most Australian women MPs, with a few shining exceptions, appear to be first and foremost party loyalists, no different to their lack lustre male predecessors, going where the party demands, this in parties steadily declining in relevancy, public esteem and membership. Women MPs are beneficiaries of the feminist revolution and feminist advocacy but many appear unwilling to take risks or to be public advocates for women or talk with the women's movement.

Women need women MPs, paid not only to represent a specific electorate but able to represent women - women MPs aware of women's life patterns, women's life style, women's socioeconomic status; women MPs willing to advocate women's rights and welfare and to place women on the political agenda of their parties. Women need paid representatives in Parliament able to speak knowledgeably about the impact of legislation and programmes on women just as much farmers or small business or any other group do.

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After a 100 years of women's lobbying the women's movement should consider supporting women MPs and political aspirants with a feminist consciousness. Emily's List has set up a valuable model of what an assistance group can do - seek out, train and financially support feminist women in their run for election. From what I am able to ascertain, the Liberal Women's Forum does similar work but does not require their candidates to be committed feminists.

During the 1990s,Women Into Politics began exploring with women in seminars and workhops how women might achieve political power. We came to the conclusion that there is much unthinking discrimination against women in the political parties; that the culture, structure and the sleaze factor in Australian politics are serious deterrents to women's participation in politics and that the barriers to women's equal participation in political life, like the barriers to education and workforce participation must be similarly addressed, through legislative, structural and attitudinal change.

Hence the 'Women's Charter for Political Reform. 2001. A charter for political equality for women and for good government for all Australian Citizens, published prior to the 2001 federal elections.

The Women's Charter calls for (1) an amendment to the Sex Discrimination and Race Relations Acts to cover the political parties, one of our few pivotal public institutions now exempt from the Act (2) the Commonwealth Electoral Act to be amended to give the Australian Electoral

Commission the power to oversee the finances of political parties; that donations to political parties be limited by law and that public funding of political parties be increased in order to reduce the influence of money on public affairs (3) a national independent statutory Conduct, Privileges and Remuneration Commission be established, empowered to ensure standards of probity; to oversee parliamentary remuneration, superannuation, allowances and privileges; to investigate abuses of power or privileges and to remove these matters from the manipulations of Prime Ministers and parliamentarians (4) changes in the system of parliamentary representation and parliamentary procedures to make them more open and family friendly and less open to Prime Ministerial manipulation (5) a legislated Bill of Rights which among many other provisions would guarantee substantive equality for women but also protect appropriate programs for women where warranted (6) regular People's Conventions to allow voters to place on the political agenda their policy preferences and priorities.

The Charter contains a summary of the major six recommendations and the mechanism for implementation. A further section sets out the rationale.

First The Women's Charter ask that the Sex Discrimination and Race Relations Acts be amended to cover the political parties. We certainly do not speak for indigenous and

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people from non-English speaking backgrounds, but we thought it was not reasonable or acceptable to demands changes for women without remembering others who rights are also not guaranteed and the law should be inclusive..

The Women's Charter also asks that the Electoral Commission and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission be empowered to oversee the implementation of equal opportunity procedures. Successive Australian Government so far have failed to honour their obligations under CEDAW Article 7 and the International Covernant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 25 to promote political equality for women.

An amendment to the Sex Discrimination to outlaw discrimination on political parties would require Australia's governments to begin the process of honouring Australia's treaty obligations.

Political parties can discriminate without fear of penalty because they are exempt as voluntaty organisations from the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act.

It is neither reasonable nor just or democratic that organisations, which exercise political power and which receive large sums of money from the public purse for electioneering purposes are free to discriminate against some citizens.

There are a number of hearsay reports to suggest that the major political parties practice discrimination against women and that the women involved are rarely in a position to respond if they have hopes of political preferment.

As far as we can ascertain only one woman has attempted to use the Sex Discrimination legislation to challenge discrimination in a political party. While discrimination was well established, in that the perpetrator, a person of influence in his party, intervened in a pre-selection and made discriminatory statements to a major metropolitan newspaper, it was ruled as not unlawful because the anti-discrimination legislation did cover political parties.

Women experience discriminatory remarks and discriminatory attitudes during pre-selections. Selectors often exhibit the attitudes of some employers. Men with young families are seen as suitable, reliable and available. Women with families are seen as not suitable, not reliable and should not be available.

While anti-discrimination legislation does not abolish discrimination, it does inhibit discriminatory language and behaviour. If political parties were subject to the same legislation that applies throughout the public service and private enterprise they would be compelled to apply the principles of non-discrimination throughout their rules, practices and procedures and their female members would have access to they law if they believed they were discriminated against.

A level playing field might encourage more women to participate and more readily justify the political parties' access to public money. If there were approximately equal

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numbers of women and men in our parliaments then the list of errors and ommissions which I mentioned in my opening remarks might be avoided

The UK in 2001 legislated to permit special measures to increase the numbers of women MPs. The French in 2001 are similarly embarking on a programme to equalise the numbers of men and female candidates for public office.

Australian governments as yet do nothing. It has been left to a few women in the parties to raise the issue of equality for party women, no doubt at the same time risking their political careers or their chances of getting into Cabinet.

The Women's Charter asks that the Australian Electoral Commission Act be amended to require the Commission to supervise the financial management of the political parties, including their state and federal organisations.

We ask that private donations be legally limited to $1000 for individuals and $10000 for companies, corporations and unions; that the giving and receiving direct or indirect larger donations be considered a bribe and a criminal offence; that payments for access to a serving politician also be a criminal offence, punished by exclusion from public office and that increased public funding on a not so lavish scale be granted to fill the gap.

While we appreciate that most MPs are hardworking and honest, women in our workshops and seminars listed the sleaze factor a major deterrent to their considering a political career. Politicians were variously perceived as self serving, lacking in principles, abusive of parliamentary privileges, corrupt, opportunistic, frequently involved conflict of interest, cronyism, nepotism, branch stacking and pre-selection fraud. Hardly a day goes by without a media report which confirms this perception.

The practice of funding elections and political activity by large donations by business, wealthy individuals and unions, from fees paid to parties by companies and lobbyists to attend events such as party conferences; from donations or fees paid for access to ministers or to a politician for speaking at an event help to create the public's perception of politics as a dirty business and that politicians only listen to those with deep pockets. These donations diminish the democratic process and devalue the individual vote. In 1998-99, $37 million dollars (Parliamentary Library figures) were donated to political parties. It is too much to ask people to believe that this large sum was given for the good of the body politic. This state of affairs does not auger well for the cash strapped women's movement.

Women Into Politics are not the only ones voicing their distaste for these practises. Dr Carmen Lawrence (SMH 28/8/00) speaking at the Sydney Institute last year, is quoted as saying "We run the risk of becoming a 'corporate democracy' in which the number of shares you have purchased in the party of your choice determines your effective voting power". Similarly the SMH writer asked whether anyone would doubt that Joe De Bruyn, the leader of the Shop Assistants Union, which donated $300 000 to the ALP prior to the

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1996 elections and who was an active participant in the IVF debate weilds more power that the women's movement. (SMH 28/8/00).

Other political systems are attempting to grapple with the problem of money in politics. The restrictions on donations we suggest is far less draconian than those put forward in the McCann-Fiengold Bill now wending its way through the US legislature.

Restrictions on donations and more public funding of elections hopefully would have the effect of having the political parties make bigger and better efforts to broaden their membership base; to respect their membership; to rely on their membership and reduce the influence of big money.

The Women's Charter asks that the system a statutory Conduct, Privileges and Remuneration Commission be established to replace the Remunerations Tribunal with powers not only to decide on and administer parliamentary remuneration, superannuation, allowances, registration of property and pecuniary interests, the privileges, entitlements and facilities available to parliamentarians; but also to investigate standards of probity; to investigate abuses of executive power, financial misconduct and the abuse of parliamentary entitlements.

This reform does not threaten the working of an independent Parliament. It does remove such matters from the immediate influence of the Prime Minister and government of the day, from the Department of Finance and the manipulations of parliamentarians to a statutory authority.

Many people realise the dangers of the increasing public anger and cynicism of voters about their parliamentary representatives. Speaking of the facilities available to our federal representatives , Alan Ramsay (SMH 28/3/01 said " The $1.1 billion new Parliament House has been a five star hotel ever since it opened for business 10 years ago. It costs $100 million a year to run and with the additional millions that are poured in each year into regularly updating MPs' facilities and technology should make voters weep with rage'(end of quote). Yet even this well generously funded institution perpetuates a form of discrimination against MPs and staffers with children - there is no on-site child care.

Ramsay also quotes Mark Latham MHR as saying "We have 16 committees of this House but we do not have one examining our own expenditures. If you look around different areas of public policy in this country, you will see that the institution in the greatest crisis is democracy itself. The thing we have neglected is the thing under our very nose - the massive public distrust and dissatisfaction with representative democracy. If we cannot heal ourselves, if we cannot reform our own institution at this time when democracy suffers such a loss of faith, we are in big trouble indeed" (SMH 28/3/01).

The UK Parliamentary Commission for Standards and to some extent the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption offer precedents for an independent authority to regulate the legislators.

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The Women's Charter adopted the outcome statement of the 1999 Women's Constitutional Convention; that the Australian Government should legislate a Bill of Rights, which includes an equality right for women, explicitly protects substantive equality rather than formal equality and operates in both the public and private spheres. A Bill of Rights will be discussed by others over the next few days but I would to say that there is a vigourous debate going on in Australia about a Bill of Rights, no doubt in response to the excesses of governments. If women do not participate in this debate, women's interests will again be overlooked.

The Women's Charter asks that at every second federal election every registered voter, excluding serving politicians, be allowed to vote for delegates to a People's Convention to debate policy; to make recommendations to Parliament and by law to have parliament consider their recommendations. The Women's Constitutional Convention in January 1999 and the recent convention on the republican issue in January 2002 are examples on a lesser scale for citizen organised policy conventions.

Women Into Politics considers that it is necessary for citizens to seize the initiative and take back the determination of public policy from the major political parties and the politicians. The emerging issues, such as the environment, third world poverty, its threat to world stability and reconciliation with indigenous people rarely get serious or adequate consideration. We have only to see how the republican debate was high-jacked by the politicians to see how little influence the voters have on public policy. Citizens need to take back the political initiative.

How was the Women's Charter received? How do we proceed from here? How do we get the Parliament to pass the necessary legislation?

The Women's Charter was widely distributed to all Federal MHRs, to women MPs in all State Parliaments, to women's organisations and to individual enquirers. It is published on our website. To our knowledge it has been tendered by members of the public to the ALP Committee investigating and reporting on reform in the ALP's policies and organisation. Women Into Politics has also submitted it to these Committees.

Of those who responded so far, most were enthusiastic. One journalist was pessimistic and said we were naïve. One female politician was very critical saying that we would loose our supporters and that we had exceeded our brief. One state party president said it was an important document. Some member organisations responded with enthusaism.

We received acknowledgements from some politicians including the Prime Minister but not from the recent and the current Leaders of the Opposition. One small but vigourous party endorsed the Charter as party policy. The ALP head office assured us that the issues outlined in the Charter would be brought to the notice of those conducting the ALP enquiries into party policies and structure.

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The reforms outlined in the Women's Charter call for legislation and for a level of altruism not currently apparent in Australian public life. However if our politicians want to reform the political process and retrieve their reputations they could well start with the Women's Charter but that is to expect miracles.

However the minor parties and the independents have little to loose and a lot to gain in political esteem if they propose bills to reform our political institutions along the lines the Women's Charter outlines. Women Into Politics is considering lobbying them to put such bills forward. The major parties would look even worse than they do now if they opposed such reforms. At least the citizens would get some sport out of seeing them wriggle, bluster and belittle the proponents.

We do not anticipate that all our proposals, particularly some aspects of the implementation proposals suggested, will be implemented exactly as we have outlined but parliamentary reform is urgent if our Parliaments are to gain the voters respect.

We cannot expect honourable women and men to enter politics unless we work to make politics an honourable occupation. Nor can women expect that women with a feminist consciousness to become our representatives if we do not support such women or if we are unforgiving and apply to them a higher standard than we do to their male counterparts.

A symbolic act would for the Parliament to amend the Sex Discrimination Act in this the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, an act to show that Australians Trust the Women.