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The scent of power: on the trail of women and power in Australian politics

In The scent of power (Sydney, HarperCollins Publishers Pty Ltd, 1996), and held in the Bray Reference Library and the Mortlock Library of South Australiana, Adelaide writer Susan Mitchell set out to trace the so-called 'feminisation' of Australian federal politics. She also chronicles a decisive period for women in Australian politics in the late 1990s, as the battle to set 'quotas' for female candidates began in earnest.

Interviewees included three South Australian politicians in Adelaide during 1995—former Australian Democrat Senator Janine Haines, the then Liberal Shadow Minister Amanda Vanstone, and the youngest female Senator ever, Australian Democrat Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja.

Extracts of these interesting interviews are included here with kind permission from Susan Mitchell, Janine Haines, Amanda Vanstone and Natasha Stott-Despoja.

Susan Mitchell began her interview with Janine Haines by asking about the future feminisation of politics—or rather, the possibility of it.

"Certainly some women are put off going into politics when they see how women politicians are treated, but there are equally many men who are put off when they see how the men in politics are treated."

Janine did not believe that as soon as there was a certain number of women in parliament everything would be fine, but she thought that at least with more numbers in caucuses and party rooms women would be in a better position to influence the agenda. She was scornful of the idea that the quota system won't work because women who enter on the basis of their gender will be less highly regarded.

"Nobody worries whether the blokes are the right blokes. Some of the biggest male dorks are hanging about, not just on the back benches but the front benches too. There are blokes who couldn't get up without somebody else having written a speech for them. Even then, they couldn't read it properly. I'm not joking. But nobody says anything about that. They've got there because of their faction, or they're an old unionist or a businessman or a farmer. Where there is real perceived power, they're not going to let women in without a fight or without the law being changed. It's the 1990s equivalent of equal pay."

Janine's advice to women who were considering entering politics.

"Go for it. You don't not go for a driver's licence because people get killed on the roads. You go on the road knowing that every other person out there is a lunatic, so take the same attitude to politics. The women you need to model yourself on are the athletes. Forget about women in business, the law and medicine, look at your women athletes. They go for it. They do whatever it takes to win. Sometimes it's not good for them, but in the end they win. They never give up."

Susan Mitchell began her interview with Amanda Vanstone by talking about politicians, particularly women, who don’t like the bull-pit atmosphere of parliamentary politics. She, however, seemed to thrive on it. She agreed in her usual down-to-earth, no-nonsense fashion.

"Look Susan. It’s an adversarial system, and you’re never going to change that....The fact is, you always come back to elections. You have to choose between one party and another. that’s how government is decided. You pick who gets in and who gets kicked out. It’s probably my legal training, but I think the adversarial system is the best way to get as close as possible to the best result, to what the truth is. If you haven’t got a magic wand or a magic key to unlock the truth then competing arguments are the best way to go.

Now if you have more women there....I’ve got this book here called The moral sense. Basically, it says what an enormous role women play in giving a moral sense to the community. For example, in the school yard, if the boys are playing a game, they’ll play to the end and they’ll learn to play by the rules. Boys don’t cry because the rules are that if you’ve lost, well you’ve lost. You come back next time, you play the game, you sort out who the leader is and you follow the leader. Girls are entirely different. They choose simpler games, but if someone bursts into tears and says, ‘I don’t like this game, I don’t want to play any more,’ then the head honcho of the girls will probably say, ‘well let’s go and play another game.’ What’s important to the girls is keeping the networks together, keeping the communication lines open, not winning the game. The adversarial system taken to its extreme by some of the boys is pathetic. Some say the job of Opposition is to oppose, no matter what the issue. Well that’s just ludicrous. The place will change with more women there because they will want to keep the networks open.”

Susan Mitchell asked Natasha Stott-Despoja if she thought there was a general feeling from people for more women in politics?

"Definitely. There's a sense that it's not only right as in correct and proper that 52 per cent of the population is more represented more appropriately, but also I think there's a need to see women's faces and their views reflected in the parliament. I think that a lot of people feel that way, regardless of what perspective they come from. When I speak to schools the students say, 'Why isn't 50 per cent of the parliament female?' They don't quite understand why it wouldn't be. And just talking to many women in the community there's a sense that they feel that their views aren't adequately represented by a male-dominated parliament."

Why now?

"It's a combination of factors. The media looking for a new angle on politics; and there's the high-profile role that a number of female politicians have had in the last couple of years. .....So there's been a focus on the women who are in politics which has led to a broader debate. The women's suffrage centenary had a large role to play in alerting people to the notion of women's suffrage and women's rights, and I think that might have been responsible for putting a magnifying glass on our political system. It had a really strong impact on my life. There were those women struggling a hundred years ago and when you looked at the rate of progress it was abysmally slow. In 1994 only 13 per cent of our politicians on a federal level were women."

So would more women make politics better?

''I'm very strongly arguing that women won't necessarily have an ameliorating effect on politics. Why should we be purer or better? Who's to say that if we did control the country or the world or the parliament we wouldn't do the same kind of job as men? I think we'd do a better job."


"We've probably struggled twice as much and had twice the skills to get there in the first place. So there's already a higher standard among women who are in the political arena. As Janine Haines said, it won't necessarily make the parliament behave better but it might bring an end to some of the political stag fights. At least it would see that women were getting equal representation on the issues affecting them."

As a Democrat, she's in a party with a lot of women, I suggested.

"Apart from the fact that we have women-friendly and progressive policies, because we're a younger party we didn't inherit the same male-dominated institutions or supporters. The Labor Party have taken a bold step in instituting quotas. My concern about the quota system is that the 35 per cent level will become a ceiling that once we have achieved or get close to achieving that target, people will feel that that's it. Anything the old parties do to increase the numbers of women in the parliament is fine by me."

Did she really think men would give up power that easily?

"Men have shown over the centuries that they don't relinquish power, so it has to be taken or wrested from them. To do that requires a degree of power and, as we know, in most political parties women tend to be less powerful. It's a big problem. In those old parties they're going to have to find ways of appealing to the men in electoral terms because it comes back to "Is that what the community wants?" There's no sense of enduring success with women in politics in this country. What scares me is that there comes a point when they are stopped or cut down or forced to leave. I think that's why a lot of younger women decide not to put themselves into it or they choose different political or community channels."


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