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Wanted: More diverse voices in Parliament

By Tegan Forder

Freelance Writer and Editor & YWCA Supporter

Which country has the highest representation of women in Parliament?

That’s the question former speaker Anna Burke posed to those gathered for YWCA Victoria's TINATALKS #4, Ms Representation: Politics, Power and Participation, on Tuesday night.

Rwanda is the answer with 63.8 per cent of seats in the lower house – Australia is not even close languishing at 56th behind countries such as El Salvador and Afghanistan.

This stat is beyond shameful but at the end of the night the crowd would have left feeling inspired that things are changing.

Fearless feminist Clementine Ford led a frank and passionate discussion with Burke, Greens candidate for Wills Samantha Ratnam and Labor candidate for the Federal Seat of Melbourne Sophie Ismail.


Hot topics on the night included diversity in politics, the merits of quotas, Peter Slipper, feminism, the realities of negotiation, unconscious bias and that there appeared to be more sympathy for a gorilla than refugee children.

It was a welcome addition to the current bland and lacklustre political debate where, for the most part, we hear from old white guys in ties talking about being a feminist and who organises childcare.

The optimistic mood was summed up by one audience member who said: “I wanted to say how much it means to a young, queer woman to have people that actually represent me up there. Thank you so much for the barriers you’re breaking down.”


And change can happen. During her 18 years in Parliament, Burke has seen a lot of it. She was only the second female speaker and one of the first to have a baby while an elected member.

Burke might be retiring (“I don’t have to be nice anymore”) but Ratnam and Ismail, who both migrated to Australia, are keen to continue being part of the change and representing their communities.

Speaking about her experience on local council and as Mayor of Moreland City Council, Ratnam stressed the need to listen to a diverse range of voices when making decisions in order to counter unconscious bias.

Ismail, a former lawyer, has been labelled an identikit candidate because she ‘ticks the boxes’ on being a woman, from a multicultural background and gay. But she says her lived experience will help her represent the views of her community.

“I know what humiliation feels like. It’s these experiences that can result in self-doubt, questioning of who you are... I know what that’s like.”

While they may have their political differences, all agreed that one of the most effective ways to change the conversation around issues such as gender equality, asylum seekers and the rights of minority groups was to include more diverse voices.

And as they said, we can all do our bit on July 2 – so don’t forget to vote!


You can follow Tegan on Twitter at @TeganForder and read her words at www.wordsbytegan.com

Photo credit to Susanne Newton/Women's Melbourne Network