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Monday, 8 March 1999
Page: 2410

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Senator STOTT DESPOJA (10:19 PM) —It is a great pleasure to follow on from Senator Lundy's speech commemorating, among other things, International Women's Day. I also rise to speak on the issue of IWD.

The idea for a national women's day came about at the turn of the last century when, in accordance with a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, the first National Women's Day was observed in the United States on 28 February 1909. The following year the Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen, a conference of more than 100 women from 17 countries, established a women's day—to be celebrated across the world—to honour the women's movement and to assist in the campaign for universal suffrage. This day was celebrated for the first time on 19 March in Austria, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland when more than one million men and women attended rallies demanding the right for women to vote, to be able to hold public office, to participate in education and training and to work free from discrimination.

While the idea of a day of commemoration of the women's movement is only around 100 years old, the origins of the struggle of women for equality are ancient—yet they are as relevant today as they were, some would say, centuries ago. The women's movement can be traced back many centuries; indeed, we could go back as far as classical Greece where Lysistrata initiated a sexual strike against men to end war—and those in the chamber who are aware of their classical studies would know that story only too well.

Today women around the world campaign for social justice and to bring about an end to discrimination. They do that through varying ways and techniques—and Senator Lundy has just mapped out a very present, but also future, way of achieving change through an increasingly democratic medium, that of the Internet.

Tonight, if I get time, obviously I will touch on women's participation in a range of areas and sectors and professions. But I would begin by looking at women in the political arena, women in leadership positions. We have yet to assume our fair share of leadership roles in this country, but that is not to say we have not had a number of female pioneers.

The first women to stand for election in the country was Catherine Helen Spence, from my home state of South Australia. She ran for the National Australasian Convention prior to the turn of the century and came 22nd in a candidate field of 33. She was not elected in 1897, but a century on I think she remains an inspiration on state, national and international levels. More than 100 years on from Catherine Helen Spence's electoral defeat, women comprise only 21.4 per cent—that is around one in five—of members of the parliament. This is one of our best results yet, so we have still got a way to go.

In almost 100 years we have seen 25 men in the position of Prime Minister; not one woman has attained that position yet. The laws of probability are stacked against this result, but the laws of patriarchy have weighed the balance strongly in its favour. One could assume from this statistic that politics is either not very scientific or is not a good bet for Australian women. In truth, it is neither at present. However, Australian politics are still a far better bet for Australian women than for many of our international sisters. While there is certainly a great deal of improvement needed in our country, our representative levels are something like double the international average when it comes to women's participation. Indeed, Australia has some reasons to be proud of our her story of political women and our role in the journey towards political equality.

In politics and in public policy, Australia has often led the way. While many would be aware that Australia led the way in the fight for women's suffrage, when in 1894 South Australia became one of the first places in the entire world to grant women not only the right to vote but also the right to stand for parliament, I imagine some people would share my surprise in noting that the word `femocrat', like the Hills Hoist, is also an Australian invention. In the parliamentary web site, I note that there is reference to the fathers» «of» «the» «house . Tonight I would like to pay tribute to some of the mothers of the house. These are women who have achieved significant firsts in our parliamentary herstory, and they include the Hon. Joan Child, who became the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1986. Madam President, I pay due deference to you, the first female President of the Senate. You join Senator Sue West in an all female leadership team.

I am particularly proud that in 1986 the Australian Democrats led the way with the election of Senator Janine Haines as the first woman to lead an Australian parliamentary party, an achievement reflected three years later in the states and territories when Rosemary Follett from the ACT became the first female to head a government, an achievement followed by the Hon. Joan Kirner in Victoria and Carmen Lawrence in WA in 1990. In the law, women have made other achievements. In 1987 Mary Gaudron became the first woman to be appointed to the High Court of Australia.

Senator Ian Macdonald —What about the achievements of Dame Enid Lyons or Annabelle Rankin?

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I hope dearly that Senator Macdonald will take on this theme because, as he so rightly interjects, there are many women all over on different sides of politics who have been—

Senator Ian Macdonald —But apart from the President you did not mention one from the non-socialist side.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —For the information of the house, I was talking about the first women in those positions. I am sure that Senator Macdonald does not mean to impute those particular women or their party status in any way. We have mentioned a number of women from different political parties. I hope that he does not seek to reflect in any negative or partisan way on tonight's celebration of International Women's Day. In 1990 Deidre O'Connor became the first female Federal Court judge and president of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. In 1991 the Law Institute of Australia appointed Gail Owen as the first president in its 132-year history.

As a passionate republican, many of whom are in this chamber tonight, I believe we have a great opportunity to right some of the wrongs in errors of our past through that particular discourse. Unlike the women of this nation, denied the opportunity to participate in the Federation and constitutional debates some 100 years before, last year I and other women were proud to take our places as delegates at the Constitutional Convention alongside women like Lowitja O'Donoghue, Poppy King, Janet Holmes a Court, Misha Schubert, Mia Handshin, Nova Peris-Kneebone and Heidi Zwar. A number of younger and older and certainly diverse Australians were represented at the Constitutional Convention.

These women were all compelling advocates for an Australian republic. Heidi Zwar was not a republican, but I think she deserves acknowledgment as a young woman being involved. They were all in favour of a new era of liberty, egality and fraternity but also sorority. The choice of a woman as the first head of state is something that I personally think would symbolise our move into the next century as a nation committed to equality between sexes. It is appropriate that we progress from the system of a monarchy, a system which is essentially patriarchal, and embrace the system where it does not matter whether a person is male or female to be a head of state—that is, a republic. Gender equality must be placed at the top of the agenda if we are to capture our full potential as a nation.

Politics and law are not the only places where women do not always get a fair go. Despite their prowess and success in the sporting arena, women are not treated equally to their male colleagues in that particular area of Australian life. In 1990, women's sports coverage in Australian newspapers stood at an abysmal two per cent. Between 1980 and 1996, this figure increased by 500 per cent, with women's sports attracting 10.7 per cent of newspapers' coverage. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the proportion of medals won by female athletes was 44 per cent higher than their representation in the Australian team. I look forward to more balanced coverage in the 2000 Olympics.

In education, one of the most important tools for preparing girls and women, despite the gains of women participating in undergraduate and prior levels of education, they are still under-represented in higher and further education. Women are participating in undergraduate education in greater numbers than men, but then their participation drops off quite dramatically in postgraduate study, in particular in those courses that attract up-front fees.

In employment, there is still a lower status, prestige and pay attached to women's work, although equal pay for equal work was granted by the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in 1972. Despite that, women's earnings are still 84 per cent of men's full-time earnings. While we celebrate many gains tonight and today, and indeed as we progress to the next century, there are still some struggles, some battles, some campaigns left to be fought and resolved. I hope that all legislators, those currently serving and aspiring politicians, will take on board working for social justice and equality for women as part of their goals.