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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 141

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (9:57 PM) —As you would know, Mr Deputy President, tomorrow is International Women’s Day, when we honour the achievements of women and recognise issues that continue to affect many women and girls in Australia and in other countries. It is celebrated in many forms all around the world. Today many women must still fight for the right to make choices about their lives and their bodies.

International Women’s Day was first observed on 8 March 1911 in Europe. It grew out of women’s struggle for better working conditions and the right to vote. For the United Nations, International Women’s Day has been observed on 8 March since the 1975 International Women’s Year. The United Nations theme this year is Gender Equality Beyond 2005: Building a More Secure Future. While it is a day for celebrating achievements, it is also a day for identifying the hurdles that are still in the way.

South Australia pioneered women’s right to vote and stand for parliament 111 years ago. Catherine Helen Spence was the first female political candidate in Australia, standing for election in the Constitutional Convention of 1897, thus becoming the founding mother of Federation. The movement for Federation was supported by many women, who believed it would assist the long struggle to win the vote for women, as indeed it did. Despite gaining the right to vote and run for office, it was not until 1943 that women entered the federal parliament—Enid Lyons in the lower house and Dorothy Tangney in the upper house. Dorothy Tangney was 32 when she was elected. She served for 23 years and was still the only woman in the Senate when she retired in 1968. Her parting shot was a motion against the then Prime Minister, saying that the government had ‘failed to honour its international obligations by taking legislative steps for achieving equal pay for men and women for work of equal value’.

It was not until 1974, some 30 years later, that women were again elected to the Senate, and it was not until 1986 that we had the first female leader of a political party in Australia in Janine Haines. Role models are very important whenever there is an underrepresentation of a particular group in any field of endeavour. They keep getting written out of the history books, as any student of politics, art, science or history will know. Janine Haines and many other women were role models and have made a big difference for women, but we will not have equality until there are equal numbers of women and men in politics.

Today, still only around a quarter of the parliament is female. Women are still underrepresented in cabinets and shadow cabinets. We still only have one female leader of a state or territory: Clare Martin in the Northern Territory. And while women have been underrepresented in the parliament, Indigenous women were missing altogether until just a few years ago, when Carol Martin in WA became the first Indigenous woman to be elected to any Australian parliament. She was soon followed by Kathryn Hay in Tasmania; Linda Burney in New South Wales; and Marion Scrymgour in the Northern Territory, who last year became the first Indigenous woman to hold a ministry in any Australian government.

While the two major parties have taken small steps to promote women, the Democrats have always led the way in putting women in positions of power—women like South Australian Democrats leader Sandra Kanck and another member of the Legislative Assembly, Kate Reynolds. Formerly we had Helen Hodgson in WA; Liz Kirkby in New South Wales, who was then the oldest and perhaps most experienced woman elected to parliament; and Roslyn Dundas, who was the first Democrat elected to the ACT parliament and the youngest ever woman elected.

Earlier this year when the Australian Labor Party chose a new leader I was astonished to see claims about Julia Gillard being unsuitable as a leader because she was single and childless. I make the point that it would be barely noteworthy for a man to be in this domestic situation, let alone for it to rule him out of the leadership stakes. It seems to me the media are much more ruthless in building up and tearing down women leaders than they are men. I think it is one of the reasons that women are hesitant to get involved in representative politics.

There is no doubt that politics is not only a cold environment for women; it is a very difficult environment for anyone trying to balance work and family. I salute the women in all professions who manage to raise children or manage to persuade their partners to do so while they travel or simply work full time. I take this opportunity to publicly welcome back to the parliament after maternity leave my colleague Senator Natasha Stott Despoja. As the Herald Sun and the Adelaide Advertiser noted today, Senator Stott Despoja has been an advocate of more support for working mothers. In 2002 she introduced into the federal parliament historic legislation for a national system of paid maternity leave: a government funded payment for 14 weeks at the basic wage. During the 2004 election the Democrats also released a plan for free child care and free preschool. We think these initiatives are long overdue and consistent with the concept of shared responsibility for children, which I think we should all be promoting.

Almost 20 years after the Democrats chose the first female leader of a political party, improvements in women’s representation in politics and women’s standing in law and society seem to have stalled. We say that the Howard government has been responsible for a steady grinding down of women’s rights and government responsibilities for them. The conservative hammer seems to be tapping away at rights won that women thought were rock solid. As soon as the Prime Minister was elected, non-sexist language was dubbed by him to be ‘too politically correct’—being too correct is always an interesting concept—and women had to be again known as ‘chairmen’.

The Prime Minister wants single mothers forced back to the work force once their kids turn six; the neglect of affordable child care is closing options for thousands of women wanting to return to the work force; and women more than ever are shouldering, however lovingly, the burden of care for profoundly disabled children and partners with chronic illness that were once much more the responsibility of government. As I said earlier, I think we should return to the language and practice of shared responsibility for children by men, by communities and by the public purse.

The commissioner for the Office of the Status of Women is still out there talking about who in the family brings in the garbage and who cooks. But that is not all there is to raising children. There is helping in schools, protecting children from abuse, being there when they are sick and leading by example in forming positive relationships. The Prime Minister announced just after the 2004 election that the Office for Women would be downgraded from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Department of Family and Community Services, despite promising in 1995 that it would remain with PM&C. This places women’s policy and issues within a much narrower frame work—in other words, the role of women within the family.

The Women’s Statistics Unit has been abolished within the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in case we are counting. The women’s budget statement has been progressively downgraded and was last year replaced with a paper entitled What the Australian government is doing for women, published separately and well after the budget. Women’s health promotion was wiped from the public health agreements with the states until some of us made a fuss. And there have been ongoing delays in government reporting to the United Nations regarding its commitments under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW.

Gladly, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues stood up for women’s rights to reproductive health services this week against the efforts of the United States to declare that abortion was not a right for women. The Democrats will move a motion in the parliament tomorrow to congratulate the minister, Senator Patterson, on her stand. We do not often have occasion to congratulate the government for its stand on an issue such as abortion, but when we do we are very happy to do so.

Last year ended and this year started with the re-emergence of the abortion debate. I am proud to be a member of a party that is pro-choice and pro-children. The Democrats have a petition that calls for there to be no reduction in women’s ability to access terminations. I have already given a number of speeches in the parliament about the importance of sex education and emergency contraception and against the campaign being waged by a few conservative people—mostly men—to instil fear and shame in women who choose to terminate a pregnancy.

The Democrats believe in genuine reproductive choices about contraception, conception and motherhood, and this is one of the focuses of the Democrats’ new campaign, Women’s Rights Watch. That campaign was launched today on the Democrats’ web site and via postcards. I encourage everyone to sign up, including men. Those postcards will be distributed widely around the country in universities, theatres, galleries, cafes and hotels. We also have a number of fact sheets online which we believe will allow women’s rights to be fought. There are also handouts to download on myths and facts about abortion. (Time expired)