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Women in politics - still a long way to go

31 March 2015

Larke Riemer , Anna Bligh And Ros Kelly  Julie Bishop Westpac Bicentennial Foundation Dorothy Tangney Julia Gillard

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Following on from a pretty uneventful state election in NSW, comes the more interesting news that women are beginning to pick up political seats (at least in the Opposition) and our parliaments are slowly moving toward being a little more representative.

If all goes well, 10 new Labor women will join NSW parliament, albeit in Opposition, making the total of Labor women 15 out of 34 Labor members. The Greens managed four members and two of them are women. The Liberals have 12 women out of 53 Liberal members. Across all parties in NSW, women now constitute approximately 30 percent of members. 

NSW Premier Mike Baird’s Liberal camp has handed Gladys Berejiklian the task of “identifying and nurturing more women into the senior ranks of the Liberal Party”. 

In NSW, Labor women are reporting that the change they are seeing in female representation is due to the party’s quota system for female candidates - affirmative action for women candidates was introduced in 1994. The rules, party insiders say, are “rarely used but it has changed the culture of nominations and encouraged more women to be involved”.

Looking around the country, and using Representation of women in Australian parliaments 2014 for data, the Australian territories had the highest proportion of women in Parliament, the Northern Territory with 44 per cent and the ACT with 41.2 per cent. The proportion of women in Federal Parliament is 30.5 per cent; in Tasmania, it is 37.5 per cent.

Up in Queensland the minority Labor government’s Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk could lose her premiership with the sacking of MP Billy Gordon. However, Queensland, which had been the state with the lowest proportion of women in parliament, is doing better since the election of Ms Palaszczuk. Along with her deputy, Jackie Trad, the minority government now has a cabinet with eight female and six male ministers, including the state’s first Indigenous female MP.

In Victoria, Labor Premier Daniel Andrews has stated that Government board appointments must be at least 50 percent women. The quota will also apply to the courts. The Victorian Labor Cabinet has nine women.

According to published sources on the history of Australian politics: “Most Australian women (excluding Indigenous women in some states) won the right to vote in Commonwealth elections as a result of the passing of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902. Four women stood at the 1903 election, the first Commonwealth election conducted after the passage of that Act. None of the four candidates were successful, but they were the first female candidates for any national parliament in the British Commonwealth.

“Edith Cowan was the first woman to enter any Australian parliament when she won the WA Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth in 1921.

“Women were not elected to the Commonwealth Parliament until 1943, when Dorothy Tangney won a Senate position to represent WA and Enid Lyons was elected to the House of Representatives in the seat of Darwin, Tasmania. By 1980, women still made up only three percent of the House of Representatives and 10.9 percent of the Senate.

“Since Federation, women have comprised just 11 percent of the 1656 members who have served in the Commonwealth Parliament. Women’s representation in all Australian parliaments has increased by less than 10 percent over the past 17 years, from 20.7 percent in 1997 to 29.0 percent in 2013.”

A few key political milestones for women, following on from the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, are provided here, courtesy


Senator Susan Ryan (ALP) is the first female Labor minister in the Commonwealth Parliament. As the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, Senator Ryan introduces the Sex Discrimination Act 1984


Mrs Joan Child (ALP) becomes the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives


Senator Janine Haines becomes the first woman to lead an Australian political party (Australian Democrats)


Rosemary Follett (ALP) becomes Australia’s first female head of government and first female Chief Minister of the ACT


Carmen Lawrence (ALP) becomes the first female Premier of an Australian state (Western Australia)


Joan Kirner (ALP) becomes the first female Premier of Victoria


Senator Janet Powell (IND) becomes the first woman member of either house to have a private bill passed by both houses, the Smoking and Tobacco Products Advertisements (Prohibition) Act 1989


Carolyn Jakobsen (ALP) is elected chair of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, the first woman to hold this position


Senator Margaret Reid (LIB) is elected Deputy-President of the Senate


Senator Margaret Reid (LIB) becomes the first woman elected as President of the Senate (1996–2002)


De-Anne Kelly (NAT) becomes the first National Party woman to be elected to the House of Representatives


Jenny Macklin (ALP) becomes Deputy Leader of the Commonwealth Opposition; in 2002 she is elected as Deputy Leader of the ALP, the first woman to hold the position in the major parties at federal level


Clare Martin (ALP) is the first female Chief Minister of the Northern Territory


Linda Burney (ALP) is the first Indigenous Australian to be elected to the Parliament of NSW; she holds several ministerial positions in the NSW Cabinet between 2007 and 2011, and becomes Deputy Leader of the Opposition in NSW in 2011


Senator Judith Troeth (LIB) is a co-sponsor with Senator Fiona Nash (NAT), Senator Claire Moore (ALP), and Senator Lynette Allison (DEM) of the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial Responsibility for Approval of RU486) Bill 2005 (known as the ‘abortion pill’); this Bill removes responsibility for approval of RU486 from the Minister for Health and Ageing and places it with the Therapeutic Goods Administration


Senator Kay Patterson (LIB) introduces the Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006. It is passed, becoming one of only 10 private senators’ bills to become law since 1901


Julia Gillard (ALP) becomes Australia’s first female Deputy Prime Minister


Anna Bligh (ALP) becomes the first female Premier of Queensland


Julie Bishop (LIB) is the first female Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia


Julia Gillard (ALP) becomes Australia’s first female Prime Minister


Nicola Roxon (ALP) becomes Australia’s first female Attorney-General


Lara Giddings (ALP) becomes the first female Premier of Tasmania


Christine Milne (AG) becomes the first woman to lead the Australian Greens at the national level


Julie Bishop becomes first female Minister for Foreign Affairs