The scent of power: on the trail of women and power in Australian
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
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,
"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."
"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."