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Sydney Morning Herald: Female MPs lead push to drive more women into parliament

By Lisa Visentin for the Sydney Morning Herald. Published on 12 June 2023.

A new group of federal MPs from across the political divide are collaborating to bolster the ranks of women in public office as part of a fresh drive to train and mentor women for political careers in all tiers of government.

Labor MP Sally Sitou, a co-chair of the cross-party group which will be launched in Parliament House on Thursday, said the immediate goal was to mentor and support staffers working in the building to take on leadership roles or consider running for office.

“The key purpose of the group is to really show that we ought to see more women in parliament across the spectrum. I say that as someone from the Labor Party, but we’re better served when there are more women in the Greens and independents and the Coalition,” Sitou said.

“There are some fantastic women who are working as staffers. We want them to see a role for themselves at local, state or federal government as well.”

The group, called the Parliamentary Friends Group of Women for Election, will also be co-chaired by Liberal MP Bridget Archer and Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

It will support the broader work of the Women for Election (WFE) organisation, which in March received a $5 million federal grant to provide training and resources for women candidates in all tiers of government, particularly those from diverse and under-represented communities.

The federal parliament now has record levels of female representation (45 per cent), with the majority of the Labor partyroom women (53 per cent), but the number of Liberal women MPs plunged at the last election to below 30 per cent.

Sitou, a first-term MP who participated in WFE programs while running for the Sydney seat of Reid, said it was important to show women there was a clear pathway into public office, but there were also other avenues for a political career.

“If you see yourself becoming a chief-of-staff to a minister, heading up a think tank or an advocacy group, or being part of a union but aspiring to a leadership role, then we want to encourage that,” she said.

WFE chief executive Licia Heath said the parliamentary group would also act as a non-partisan forum to build solidarity among female MPs, and would host events between now and the next federal election centred on lifting the numbers and status of women in public office.

In a separate push, former NSW attorney-general Gabrielle Upton has proposed Australia look to the example of the UK and Canadian parliaments and embed formalised cross-party women’s committees in parliamentary structures.

“Not only would it be good for the women of the parliament, where you could have issues discussed more formally about the environment of the parliament, instead of it being episodic when an issue arises, but it would be a great forum to examine issues affecting women more broadly across the community,” Upton, who was the state’s first female attorney-general between 2015 and 2017, said.

 

Her proposal is informed by a recent study tour of parliaments and women’s political organisations in the UK, Canada, and the US, and draws on the example of the UK Women and Equalities Select Committee and the Canadian Standing Committee on the Status of Women. Her findings are contained in a report to the NSW Parliament, but Upton says they could be applied broadly to other states or federally.

Upton, who retired from politics in March, said while there was now a concerted focus on driving up the number of women in parliaments, particularly within Liberal ranks, there was a lack of institutional support for them once they had been elected.

Reflecting on her 12-year career as a Liberal MP, Upton said women would achieve “earlier and faster” if they had access to a snap induction course delivered with a “gendered lens” at the start of their political career. She said it should prepare them for the combativeness of the parliament, such as question time, and provide hands-on training for media appearances and ways to deal with the social media abuse disproportionately endured by female MPs.

“If someone had said to me, ‘you’re coming to parliament, let’s do a short, sharp training, where you get to practice at the despatch box’, that would have been fantastic. Let’s give every woman a chance to stand behind the lectern to give it a go, get critical but helpful feedback…that’s the kind of thing I’m suggesting.”