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The women sparking a ‘seismic change’ to the culture of parliaments

Hennessy spent 10 years on Labor’s frontbench, including as Victoria’s Attorney-General. She quit the ministry in December to spend more time with her family, but will remain in politics.

She says women often hesitate about raising things like inconvenient meeting times because of entrenched assumptions that women with caring responsibilities aren’t also capable at their jobs.

Victorian Labor MP Jill Hennessy with her daughters Ginger (left) and Lily Rose.

Victorian Labor MP Jill Hennessy with her daughters Ginger (left) and Lily Rose. Credit:Twitter

“Having more women in cabinet has also opened those issues up and ventilated those issues and helped people bring a bit more of their true selves into the political domain,” she says.

Bringing more women into Parliament and eventually having a gender-equal cabinet under Andrews has led to “seismic change” in parliamentary culture, not only on practical measures.

“The sheer presence of more women means that women contribute and participate more,” Hennessy says.

“The culture and the nature of the political debates and discussions, they’re different in tone, they’re different in language, they’re more layered in the sorts of social and economic considerations.”

NSW Minister for Women Bronnie Taylor thinks women are less comfortable than men in making personal attacks, even in the notorious “bear pit” of the NSW Parliament. As well, having more women around makes it easier to call out bad behaviour.

NSW Minister for Women Bronnie Taylor says women bring different focuses and different ways of doing things to a workplace.

NSW Minister for Women Bronnie Taylor says women bring different focuses and different ways of doing things to a workplace.Credit:Rhett Wyman

“The more that we do that, and the more that we are able to do that, particularly at the moment where it’s so highlighted, I think that’s where the real power lies,” Taylor says.

Long-serving NSW Liberal MP Catherine Cusack believes there must be a “critical mass” of women around the table, not just one or two, to bring proper change.

“It’s not much fun when there are hardly any women and all the boys are sitting there talking about rugby league,” she says.

Jaclyn Symes, who is now Victoria’s Attorney-General, says some might think having more women in cabinet would make it softer, but her experience had been that it led the government to be braver in tackling big issues.

Victorian minister Jaclyn Symes says having more women in cabinet has made the government braver about tackling big issues.

Victorian minister Jaclyn Symes says having more women in cabinet has made the government braver about tackling big issues.Credit:Eddie Jim

She points to allowing assisted dying, decriminalising public drunkeness, banning gay conversion therapy, the treaty process with the Indigenous community, and large infrastructure and transport programs – all led by female ministers.

“I think women ensure that we have those important conversations which drive to the outcomes; you obviously can’t get an outcome unless you start the conversation,” Symes says.

Taylor saw clearly in her pre-politics career as a nurse that when there was a better gender balance in workplaces, you got better outcomes as well. Women bring different focuses and different ways of doing things, she says.

“You tend to be passionate about the things that affect you,” the Nationals minister says.

“We have to have the women that are prepared to speak out and say, you know what, this is an issue.”

Former federal Labor frontbencher Kate Ellis, in her new book Sex, Lies and Question Time, writes there is no doubt that whenever women are elected, they have common ground to build on.

Victoria’s longest-serving female minister Jacinta Allan, who has been in Parliament more than 20 years, says the days are gone where women were only seen as capable of holding “caring, education, social policy” portfolios.

MP Jacinta Allan has been in Victoria’s Parliament for more than 20 years and is the leader of the lower house.

MP Jacinta Allan has been in Victoria’s Parliament for more than 20 years and is the leader of the lower house.Credit:Justin McManus

Along with that comes an understanding that women’s voices and contributions are important – and less talking over women or claiming credit for their ideas during cabinet meetings.

Allan says leadership from the top is vital, including in the more administrative roles in Parliament, because it sets the tone for all parties to follows.

She is the leader of Victoria’s lower house while Symes leads the government in the upper house and was previously Labor’s whip, the person responsible for wrangling members and granting leave. Together they have quietly changed pairing arrangements to better accommodate MPs’ caring responsibilities, particularly for young parents.

Symes says traditionally, “you have to be on your deathbed to miss Parliament” but she’s been open to granting members from all parties leave for significant family reasons.

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“When I started to do that, it was frowned upon by some of the members, non-government members,” she says. “Well, I think it’s pretty exceptional if your kid’s Peter Pan in the play and you’re going to miss it.”

“I think everyone’s more alive to it and that’s helped by having more women around who are also looking out for the interests of men and their families.”

Female ministers from NSW also nominate sensible pairing arrangements that recognise that people have family lives as well as political ones as a key change in their workplace.

Another practical change NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell won early on in her time in Parliament was to have travel allowances extended to cover dependent children, not just spouses.

“That’s a small change. But it was actually really important for what I needed to do to help manage that work-life balance, to be a mum and to be an MP,” Mitchell says.

Sarah Mitchell.

Sarah Mitchell.Credit:James Brickwood

“Like any workplace, if you have a gender imbalance, then obviously there’s going to be subtle differences. If you have more men, then you are going to have a bit more of a blokey environment, because that’s just the virtue of numbers.”

Despite gains in the numbers of women in Parliaments over recent years, all agree there is still more to do to attract women and overhaul the culture.

A recent survey by Plan International Australia, a charity promoting girls’ equality, found three-quarters of the young women interviewed didn’t believe women in politics were treated fairly. Just one in eight said they would pursue a career in politics.

“Having more voices in the room with different lived experiences and perspectives makes for stronger policy and makes for better decisions,” Plan International Australia’s chief executive Susanne Legena says.

“Even those parties that have made great gains with quotas to increase the number of women are not sufficient to change the culture or the perception of the culture, as we’re seeing it, in places like Parliament House to create the environment that young women are even wanting to go into.”

Federal Liberal MPs Katie Allen and Sarah Henderson have floated ideas for a ban on alcohol in Parliament or breath testing for politicians to crack down on bad behaviour. Ellis suggests further practical changes to sitting hours, travel entitlements and specific late-night pairing for parents of young children.

“There is often a sense in Parliament that we should do things the way we’ve always done things. But questioning the status quo, especially when the status quo dates from 100 years ago, is a vital part of what makes a democracy,” she writes.

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Hennessy acknowledges that having greater numbers of women has helped bring parliamentary practices “from the age of the dinosaur into at least the 1980s”. But it also provides a base to achieve those further changes that would benefit the whole community.

“One of the things I really enjoyed about being in a cabinet with 50 per cent women is that you didn’t have to start at the start to explain about sexism or disadvantage or what it’s like to be a victim of a sexual assault or what genuine equality of opportunity looks like,” she says.

“You didn’t have to go and re-educate and re-explain to people all of those things.”

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