Our new parliament will have a record number of women – will this finally make it a safe place to work?

It looks like the House of Representatives will have at least 57 women. What will this mean for culture in parliament? asks Sonia Palmieri, Australian National University in this article republished from The Conversation.

The 2022 federal election was a victory for women candidates and a historic moment in Australia’s journey towards a parliament that genuinely supports and promotes gender equality in all its work.

At this point in the count, it looks like the House of Representatives will have at least 57 women, or 38% women in the house. This is our highest proportion of women in the lower house.

The Senate reached and exceeded 50% in the last legislature, and will maintain it in the new legislature. The new levels will see Australia reverse a 20-year decline in the international ranking of women in national parliaments, from 57th to around 37th, ahead of Portugal, Tanzania and Italy.

How did it happen? And what will this mean for culture in Parliament?

First, look at the numbers

The simplest explanation is numerical: more women won because more women than ever competed for seats in 2022, making true the maxim “you have to be there to win. Women made up just under 40% of all candidates in Saturday’s poll – an increase, according to analyst Ben Raue, of around 32% in 2016 and 2019, and less than 28% in 2013.

Independent Allegra Spender is the new MP for Wentworth, having beaten incumbent Liberal Dave Sharma. Bianca De Marchi/AAP

The 2022 figures also indicate that female candidates actually outperformed male candidates.

And consider the swing

The Liberal Party’s vote depletion has been accompanied by a wave of unexpected victories for women.

Women won as challengers in safe or fairly safe seats previously held by incumbent MPs and ministers. This includes high-profile victories by independent and underage women in the party at Curtin, Fowler, Goldstein, Kooyong, Mackellar, North Sydney, Ryan and Wentworth.

But it also includes the victories of Labor women who took the seats of Boothby, Chisholm, Hasluck, Higgins, Pearce, Reid, Robertson and Swan.

New Labor MP Zeneta Mascarenhas on election night.
Zeneta Mascarenhas was elected to Swan’s Perth seat, with a swing of over 12%. Richard Wainwright/AAP

In this there is a historical comparison to the 1996 election in which the landslide election of John Howard saw an unprecedented 23 women enter the House of Representatives. The Liberal Party had also placed these women in unwinnable seats, but the extent of the move away from Labor has changed the meaning of a secure seat, as opposed to a marginal seat.

In fact, these women consolidated their positions in the 1998 elections, and the number of women increased further. The switch to the Coalition in 1996 was so significant that it was difficult for the Labor Party to come back. However, the women of the “class of 1996” also retained their marginal seats through concerted work in their constituencies. The Class of 2022 would do well to heed this lesson.

In 2022, Australian voters took advantage of the alternatives presented by independent and green women candidates. Raue, again, was the first to notice the seismic shift in the proportion of women showing up as self-employed in 2022: a whopping 65%, down from around 22% in 2019.

Women made the deliberate choice not to run for the main political parties. And for good reason: Australia’s major parties have proven time and again that their pre-selection processes are top-down, disconnected and impervious to growing calls for equality and diversity.

These campaigns were also led by a record number of volunteers, knocking on a record number of doors, having a record number of conversations with local communities. These community campaigns followed the model set by Cathy McGowan in India in 2013 and serve as a key lesson not just in Australia, but around the world.

It is also true that swing and community campaigns have led to the loss of female talent. Moderate Liberal Katie Allen could not stem her electorate’s dissatisfaction with Higgins’ government in Melbourne. Similarly, Labour’s Terri Butler could not prevent the ‘Greenslide’ in Brisbane’s Griffith. Parachuted Labor candidate Kristina Keneally couldn’t convince the people of Fowler that she would be their best representative.

New Kooyong MP Monique Ryan with supporters on election night.
New independents like Monique Ryan were elected following strong community campaigns. Luis Ascui/AAP

Voters wanted something different

In what was arguably one of the country’s bloodiest election campaigns, it seems Australian voters wanted something different.

Gender equality was not at the top of the list of issues considered important in this election, in fact it was well below climate change and the cost of living.

But voters across the country have chosen candidates who have explicitly expressed a desire to change our political culture. Candidates for Climate 200, for example, have made women’s safety and equality one of their top policies.

The last Parliament made headlines about Parliament’s toxic work culture.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Set the Standard report late last year found that the ‘win at all costs’ mentality of major political parties was a key driver of parliamentary workplaces dangerous. Deep partisan differences have also prevented cross-party collaboration in the name of gender equality.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins listens to a speech.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins made 28 recommendations to fix Parliament’s working culture in November 2021. Lukas Coch/AAP

The election of so many women and so many women beyond the major parties is a huge opportunity to change that.

The new Labor government will have to engage with a new type of women in parliaments: women, above all, who are new to parliament but who have worked in professional workplaces. They will convey these standards and expectations to the Senate.

The new cross-bench will not be encumbered by the need to protect a part. In fact, they were given a mandate by their constituents to hold Parliament to account, not just on all of the recommendations of the Set the Standard report, but on all 55 recommendations of Jenkins [email protected] sexual harassment report.

The women on the cross-bench won’t always agree with each other, let alone with the new government, but there’s a feeling they’ll approach the job differently. As Goldstein’s new Independent MP Zoe Daniel told ABC’s Insiders after the election, “Independents are already communicating and collaborating [with each other]”.

If this approach continues, it will make a big difference in the way Parliament works.

Sonia Palmieri, gender policy researcher, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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