A reform agenda for the next 100 years.

by Professor Anne Tiernan

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, in my short address today, I offer some reflections on the experience and achievements of women in the Queensland Parliament over the past century.

I want to look to the future as well as to the past. In doing that, I draw inspiration from politician and philosopher Paul John Keating, who influenced many in my generation to become interested in politics, but particularly in public policy. In a speech to a group of high school students in Melbourne recently, the former Prime Minister exhorted the young to embrace politics, telling them that if Australia is to successfully navigate what he described as ‘the age of impermanence’, we will need ‘open minds and strong leaders to emerge’.

Keating told his audience that ‘public life is where leadership matters most’. This is because (and I quote):

Politics and politicians govern our lives from the cradle to the grave. They may be a deprecated class, often, but politicians change the world. They are and remain central to human progress’.

Keating went on to elaborate what he meant by leadership:

People often talk about leadership, but there are only ever two ingredients: imagination and courage. [These are] Imagination to see something better, to paint something bigger, and to see an opportunity for what it is. And the courage to push changes through.

I’ve quoted Keating at length here, because I was struck by the relevance of these two dimensions of public leadership: imagination and courage, for this centenary of women’s right to stand for election to the Queensland Parliament.

Looking Back: a hotbed of democratic innovation

Imagination and courage drove our nation’s founders — the mothers (too often overlooked), as well as the much better recognised fathers — to champion and campaign over many decades, for political and social reform. That included the right to have a voice; and to be represented in the places where the decisions and laws that affect everyone are taken and made.

Stella Prize Award-Winning author and historian Clare Wright highlights the confluence of activists and thinkers from the federalism movement and the international campaign for women’s suffrage in shaping Australia’s democracy.

She argues the ‘flow of complementary historical forces for progressive change’ helped to ensure that equality of participation for white women and men (but notably not for indigenous Australians), was embedded in our constitutional design.

In contrast to the experience elsewhere, women’s suffrage was achieved peacefully, and much earlier than the ‘great democracies’ of the United States (1920), the United Kingdom (1928) and France (1944).

At the turn of the 20th century century, Australia was recognised internationally as an innovator and leader in the practice of democratic politics. Wright argues that:

By 1910, Australia had become known around the world as a ‘social laboratory’ celebrated for its pioneering welfare legislation. Some commentators attributed Australia’s capacity for experimentation to ‘a new land like ours, with a restless go-ahead population’.

Suffragists, however, were keen to stress the gendered nature of Australian progressivism and were quick to note how crucial votes for women had been in igniting the flame of social change.

As is well known, New Zealand became the first country to grant women the right to vote in national elections in 1894. South Australia followed in December 1894. Other colonies’ efforts to pass similar legislation were frustrated in their propertied upper houses, but not for want of women’s activism. In Queensland between 1894–97, the Women’s Equal Franchise Association and the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement of Queensland campaigned vigorously, collecting the signatures of thousands of women and men on petitions for electoral reform, including women’s suffrage.

South Australia’s success in securing both the right to vote and to stand in the Parliament was a lucky break. It took the advocacy and political skills of then Premier Charles Kingston and former Premier Frederick Holder, to establish women’s suffrage as a pre-condition for federation.

You see, and this is something I’ll come back to, male champions of change have always been needed to help drive more progressive and inclusive representation. That’s the responsibility that comes with privilege. And so it was that in 1902, the newly federated Australia became the only country where white women could both vote and stand for election on a universal and equal basis with men. Between then and 1908 the remaining states came on board.

As Premier of Queensland from 1915–19, T. J. Ryan was another male champion of change. Roger Scott delivered a fine address to another ASPG-Q event, to mark the Centenary of the Ryan government’s swearing in on 1 June 2015. I commend it to you. Professor Scott, who chairs the foundation named after this giant of Queensland Premiers, reflected on Ryan’s idealism and his nationalism. Scott argues that a progressive leader, Ryan ‘positioned Queensland as a dominant influence in social reform during his generation and beyond’. Ryan was instrumental in legislating for the right that we are celebrating today — through passage of the Elections Act 1915.

Irene Longman, Member for Bulimba. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Ryan’s idealism notwithstanding, it would be 14 years before a woman would be elected to Queensland Parliament — Irene Longman (left) in 1929.

Another 37 years would pass until Vi Jordan was elected as the Member for Ipswich West in 1966. At least by then there was a women’s toilet. But it would be many, many more before women would achieve leadership positions and begin to challenge the atmosphere of Parliament that Joan Sheldon (2005) recalled was ‘very aggressively male’ when she was elected in 1990. Only 11 women had sat in the Queensland Parliament before 1989; a further 12 would join their ranks in the 1990s.

However, as Premier Palaszczuk and our other panellists have shown by example, much has been achieved since women’s right to stand for Queensland Parliament was legislated in 1915.

But the work of promoting a more diverse and inclusive Parliament — one that reflects the community it serves — is far from finished, both here and nationally. There is much to do to ensure MPs both understand and are able to represent the concerns and interests of their constituents in a polity that is becoming increasingly diverse.

Not diverse in the ethno-cultural concentrations that are characteristic of other federations (such as Canada or Switzerland, for example), but by spatial, territorial, cultural and economic measures, such as: ethnicity, religion and language; types of industry; access to education, information and services; and importantly, the distribution of opportunities and wealth.[2]

Looking Forward: Tackling systemic barriers to the diversity we need

The audience assembled here will be aware, for example, that Australia’s comparative ranking for women in national parliaments has steadily declined over the past decade from 20th position in 2001 to 48th in 2014.

There are two women in the Federal Cabinet, where as you know, appointments are made strictly on that notoriously neutral concept of ‘merit’ and apparently free of unconscious bias that constructs the public space as inherently male.

We are assured ‘lots of good and talented women are ‘knocking on the door’ of the Abbott Cabinet and others still ‘knocking on the door of the ministry’. Many in the federal Coalition, including the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, have expressed concerned about the lack of a ‘pipeline’ that would give women opportunities and experience to move into leadership. Peta Credlin argues the political parties’ failure to pre-select women candidates for safe seats only entrenches inequality.

Queensland’s record of representative women has been better than our national parliament, but remains quite patchy. Women comprise the majority of the Palaszczuk Cabinet, and we have now had two female Premiers, three women Deputy Premiers (Joan Sheldon, Anna Bligh and Jackie Trad) and two women Treasurers (Joan Sheldon and Anna Bligh).

The former Newman government had only two women Cabinet Ministers; while the Borbidge government had three. Broadly comparable numbers of women were represented in the Beattie and Goss Cabinets, but as elsewhere, they were concentrated mainly in social rather than economic portfolios.

Firsts matter, and as Clare Wright (2015) notes, it is important to identify and celebrate the women who have breached the bastions of male predominance — as our panelists have done. But I’m with Clare when she says that:

‘it’s even more vital to join the dots’; to look at the big picture and women’s trajectory over time.

Joining those dots here would lead us to question why one hundred years on, we continue to struggle to attract candidates from a sufficiently diverse range of ages, backgrounds and experiences to sit in our parliaments both here and nationally.

The proportion of women in the Queensland Parliament fell from 28.1% in the 54th Parliament (2012–15) to around 25% in this current one (the 55th). Of the 433 candidates who contested the 31 January poll, only 30% — just 131 were women. I have broken this down by party, but I haven’t analysed the proportion of those who ran in winnable seats. Suffice it to say, there is as significant a problem with the pipeline here as there is federally, especially for conservative women.

Women comprised 46% of Greens, 39% of Labor and 36% of PUP candidates; but the conservative parties had a less equitable record:

  • Just 22% of LNP candidates and 21% of Family First candidates; were women;
  • While Katter’s Australia Party fielded no women. 100% of its candidates were male.

The relative absence of women leaders at all levels of Australian politics was vividly illustrated last week when our Premier was the sole woman represented at the COAG Leaders’ Summit. It reminds us how much there is still to do, especially when we consider the substantive issues that were under discussion: education, skills and training, infrastructure, housing affordability, health funding and domestic violence.

I tend to avoid making provocative remarks, but I’d put it to you the fact that one woman had a voice in that key decision-making forum on issues so central to the wellbeing and opportunities available to Australians, verges on being a national disgrace.

In any case, women’s representation in positions of political leadership compares poorly with experience in other sectors, where the productivity and other benefits of diversity are increasingly well understood. Outgoing Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, has made an outstanding contribution to building both the moral and the economic case for gender equality. She argues it is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do, as the evidence about performance in companies with greater numbers of women on boards and in senior leadership clearly shows.

The Male Champions of Change Group that Broderick established has mobilised the support and resources of some of the nation’s most powerful leaders, in support of a cause that many of them freely concede they needed to be educated about, because of their unconscious bias to the systemic impediments to women’s participation and advancement.

Some of them, together with a cohort of very impressive women leaders — from business, politics, universities and the not-for-profit sector, are demonstrating imagination and courage as they advocate for and help facilitate changes that will bring the benefits of different skills and broader perspectives to the challenges facing our nation.

I look at the women making seriously valuable contributions to public policy in Australia. They are role models and mentors who tend to have more experience and depth than many of the male leaders they encounter in their day jobs. I think of women like Elizabeth Broderick, Catherine Livingstone, Ann Sherry, Cassandra Goldie and others whose approaches are measured, constructive, inclusive, rigorous and outcomes-focussed.

As President of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), Catherine Livingstone has belled the cat on the lack of political leadership on issues of national significance. She has done that out of frustration with the apparent lack of concern for the long-term. These women have worked together across sectors and intellectual/philosophical divides to find ways forward, common ground where they can agree, which they note is about much more than they disagree.

There’s a lesson in that, I think, for our politics and for Australia’s political culture. I remain optimistic that leaders with imagination and courage can and will emerge if we consciously and deliberately broaden the pipeline of available talent.

Just as our founding mothers and fathers imagined it was possible to build a democratic future that (within the constraints of their understanding) included everyone; and had the courage to pursue it, I believe it is possible to overcome the barriers and impediments that constrain and actively deter women, and indeed many people whose experience and insights would enrich our public life, from engaging in politics.

I believe greater diversity will help to bridge the trust gap that has emerged within a political system that despite the aspirations and the tangible gains of the past century, continues to be (like most of our institutions) disproportionately white and disproportionately male.

Let me conclude with a challenge. I want to challenge a broader range of Queenslanders — and particularly women at all life stages, to stand up; or perhaps to ‘lean in’, as the Premier, our panellists and their trail-blazing predecessors have done. While it is critical to continue to push for gender equality in our parliament, it is necessary too, to promote diversity that ensures our parliament is more generally representative of the full spectrum of Queensland’s community.

If we are to achieve this, as I believe should be our shared ambition — we will need new reserves of imagination and courage. We will need a much wider group of Queenslanders to be willing to embrace public leadership, as our forebears did — to see and be willing to act on opportunities to improve the lives and wellbeing of our citizens and communities.

That seems to me a laudable aim as our democracy matures towards its second century. I hope it won’t take as long as it has to fully embed as the changes made possible by passage of the Elections Act 1915.

Keynote address to the Australasian Studies of Parliament Group (QLD Chapter) commemorating The Centenary of Women’s Right to Stand for the Queensland Parliament. Premier’s Hall, Parliament House, Monday 27 July, 2015.

[1] The Constitution Act Amendment Bill was the eighth bill to have been introduced seeking to grant women suffrage.

[2] My colleague Professor Nicholas Aroney (2015) at the University of Queensland has shown the trend to greater diversity within Australia’s federation since 1901.



Anne Tiernan is Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.

Professor Tiernan’s research focuses on the work of governing. Her scholarly interests include: Australian politics and governance, policy advice, executive studies, policy capacity, federalism and intergovernmental coordination. She has written extensively on the political-administrative interface, caretaker conventions, governmental transitions and the work of policy advising.

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