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Vote for Women

Rosalind Dixon, Mehreen Faruqi, Georgia Steele and Julia Banks

What keeps me going and what gives me hope is so many young people, and especially young women of colour, who tell me that when they see me in parliament they know that they can be there as well.

Mehreen Faruqi

120 years ago, Australian women were amongst the first in the world to gain both the right to vote and the right to be elected to parliament – with Indigenous women being made to wait another long 60 years. But it took roughly 40 years before a woman was actually elected to Federal parliament and in 2022, even though there are more women in parliament than ever before, women only make up a third of our elected representatives. 

The steady march towards equality has gained increasing momentum in recent years. Although each passing decade has seen women take huge strides in politics, toxic workplace culture, sexual assault, and scandals continue to cast a shadow over Canberra – rendering public life an unattractive pursuit for younger women.  

As back-to-back budgets continue to overlook women’s issues – childcare, reproductive health, equitable pay, safe and secure housing – it's imperative our front bench starts looking more like modern Australia. With just a few weeks until Australians take to the polling booths, how can we ensure more women get a seat at the table? 

Hear from Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi, author and former Liberal turned Independent MP Julia Banks, and 2022 Independent candidate Georgia Steele in a vibrant discussion about the future of equal representation in Australian politics, chaired by UNSW Sydney’s Rosalind Dixon.


Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney’s brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. The conversation you're about to hear, Vote for Women, features Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi, author, former Liberal turned independent MP Julia Banks, and 2022 Independent candidate Georgia Steele, in a vibrant discussion about the future of equal gender representation in Australian politics, chaired by UNSW Sydney's Rosalind Dixon. We hope you enjoy the discussion.

Rosalind Dixon: Good evening and welcome. This is a special treat in a post COVID world to be in a room all together, to celebrate what is going to be an amazing set of women running for office at our upcoming federal election and to reflect on the role of women in our polity, the challenges and opportunities for all of us as voters. My name is Rosalind Dixon, I'm a professor at the Faculty of Law and Justice here at UNSW Sydney and director of our Pathways to Politics for Women program. Tonight we have a really wonderful array of speakers and guests. But before I introduce them, I wanted to begin by acknowledging that we sit here on Aboriginal land. I want to pay respect to the Gadigal people who are the traditional owners of this land and pay respect to elders past, present, emerging and to Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander colleagues and friends here this evening. But as our Deputy Vice Chancellor, Provost Chancellor Indigenous, Megan Davis reminds us in her powerful words, “when we do acknowledgement, we have to think about what that means”, and for me, it means lending our voice to support the cause of Indigenous people. First Nations add all the roof for structural change to the Constitution, to put Voice into the constitution for First Nations. 

So tonight, it's about women voting, women running for office, and what might be in store for us in just over two and a half weeks, as well as beyond. We have two amazing authors and their books to celebrate as well as someone whose story is still being written. Our alum on our panel is Senator Mehreen Faruqi who is a proud graduate of our engineering faculty, a former colleague, and who's just written this absolutely wonderful book. It's called Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud, when in fact it should be called perfectly migrant, muslim and nearly loud enough. Senator Faruqi speaks on a range of issues for the Greens. She's our senator for this state, having previously served with Courtney and Gabrielle in the New South Wales parliament. And she speaks out on issues of anti-racism education, housing, industry, international aid and animal welfare. Being a Greens Senator keeps you busy on a range of portfolios and she speaks so loudly and powerfully on all of them. On marine safety's Georgia Steele, who's also an alum but only recently, of our Pathways to Politics Program. There's going to be a theme tonight, I see my Dean in the front row. There are a lot of lawyers on this stage. And Georgia’s one of them. A former corporate lawyer who's practised in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, Tokyo, Sapporo, London, and who has brought that corporate experience to her home in Como and is running to challenge one of, if I may say so, probably the least popular members of the Australian House of Representatives, Mr. Craig Kelly.

Mehreen Faruqi: You might be competing with Scott Morrison.

Rosalind Dixon: And she has a tough battle, but is right in the thick of it, and is going to bring us her evolving story from the front lines. And of course, to Georgia’s left is Julia Banks, who would be known to many of you for her role as a member of the Federal Parliament for her brave stance in that capacity ,and running both as a former member of the Liberal Party and as an Independent. She's a lawyer, having been in the highest levels of corporate law in business. And now as an independent consultant. She's written a wonderful book. I was reading it in the school holidays, and my children wondered why I was so fired up. It's called Power Play, and it really is both a testament to the obstacles women face, the struggles in all areas of life, but it's trying to get us to think about how we overcome them, and we recognize them but lean into overcoming them both individually and collectively. So thank you for flying all around the country to join us, Julia and it's a real pleasure to have the chance to celebrate this book and what you have given us already. 

So Julia, why don't you start us off? What were the big two things when you thought about starting your career in politics that you were like, this is why I really need to enter the parliament? Top two issues.

Julia Banks: Well, I think the top two issues, that it was very clear and obvious that, certainly the Liberal Party, needed more women and at the time, but unlike Chantelle, I hadn't engaged in politics that student politics or anything like that my career had been very much in the corporate space as a as a corporate lawyer for decades. But there was this call for more women. But also in my corporate roles, I'd always been an advocate for diversity. And having sat on multiple diversity councils, I mainly work for large organisations, large multinational organisations. And so I answered that call, to be honest. And that's that's what basically, then, you know, triggered that move for me to answer that call, because I felt that would be an opportunity to continue to be that advocate, but on a much broader platform, which is probably what is the largest platform for that advocacy is in our federal parliament.

Rosalind Dixon: What about you, Georgia, no one sends you a job ad for running as an Independent. What's making you run?

Georgia Steele: I decided to run last year while I was doing your program actually, Pathway to Politics for Women. And I… it was at a time when I was becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of action on climate change. I'd never been particularly interested in science, environmental science, but I have small children, and it became increasingly alarming to me, the state of affairs on that topic. It was around the same time, as well, that we started seeing what was happening in our federal parliament in relation to the treatment of women. So it was around the same time that the Brittany Higgins revelations were coming to light, and the Prime Minister was mishandling them in his usual way. And there was just a point where I really thought, are you kidding? Are these the people who are running our federal parliament? If I looked around myself, and my, you know, my colleagues, my friends, I thought that there were any number of women, people, but women, who could get up there and have a better go at it. And so that was a huge inspiration for me as well, just thinking, if things are going to change for women, both in that place, and in the country, more women had to step up and do it.

Rosalind Dixon: So this is probably hour 15 of your day, so it's a tough question. You say women would have made a difference? What would you have done differently when the Brittany Higgins allegations came out? You know, the way it was handled in the parliament by the government, what would have changed, if you'd been in the seat handling those decisions?

Georgia Steele: I would have liked to have thought, regardless of the approach that was taken in front of the media, when the revelations came out, I would have liked to think that I would have handled it much better right from the beginning. If I was the Prime Minister, for example, I would have liked to think that I would have known that that had happened in my house that I was in charge of. I would have taken better care of Brittany Higgins as a staffer in my party, and that it never would have come to a point where those kinds of investigations needed to be run at all in the public sphere. Because that, of course, was extremely damaging for Brittany Higgins after all the trauma that she'd already suffered.

Rosalind Dixon: So better prevention, better systems, better workplace cultures. You write a lot about that in your book, Julia, what would you have done, if the Prime Minister had said to you this is too hot to handle, Julia, I'm giving it to you. Sort it out for me. What would you have done to sort it out? That would have been different?

Julia Banks: Well, I don't think the current prime minister would give me anything to handle, frankly.

Rosalind Dixon: We're entertaining a little bit of a fantasy this evening. There's 100% women on the stage, and, you know, we're having a, you know, a vision of what it would have been like, if vision about power and workplace culture was in place.

Julia Banks: Well, I think… first, I would just make this comment about Brittany Higgins. I mean, not only did she have to endure the alleged rape, but then the harrowing story of what she endured after that, in terms of the cover up and the non zero accountability and the, you know, just trying to make it all go away. I think all of that, that whole two years, as that came out, was a dreadful, dreadful story and a dreadful indictment. But having worked in the parliament, it wasn't surprising to me because I, you know, I had worked as I mentioned for largely blue chip multinational companies who have come a long way and who have the systems and structures in place in the event, and it's not perfect, but nonetheless, there are systems such as whistleblower systems and, and you name it. But I soon realised in Parliament, almost from the start, that there is literally nowhere, nowhere in that house for women to go, particularly women where there is a power disparity, where they're not an MP or… there is literally nothing they can do. There is no structure in place by either of the major parties. And, you know, that's why I was like, in 2021, we saw any number of reports and investigations, and they were either shelved or, or forgotten about or, you know, there was ducking and weaving and all the rest of it. 

And then we had, then, Morrison, you know, he's very good at making announcements and there was the announcement about Setting the Standard report, and Kate Jenkins is an amazing person and has done incredible work in this space, and her incredible work was already done, it was already done in the Respect at Work Report, which had been languishing on of all people, Christian Porter’s desk, and was only really come out, off that desk, big amid the public controversy. And my view is that other reports and other investigations weren't needed, they just needed to overlay the Respect at Work Report on to the parliament, and to fully implement it, particularly the positive duty on the employer to take responsibility for it. Look, I basically… my career was in the manufacturing sector, and I can remember working in that sector – I’ve walked through more factories than you can imagine – and I can tell you, it's much more pleasant walking through a chocolate factory in Belgium than the Vegemite factory in Port Melbourne. But it wasn't until the occupational health and safety legislation came through where the positive duty was on the employer to create a healthy and safe work environment, that real change happened in that sector, and I believe the same applies for workplace misconduct. So what would I have done differently with Brittany Higgins, I would have done what we've seen nothing of the thought being done by Morrison, and that is, show leadership and accountability. Take accountability for what happened, when, you know, you're made aware of that, that incident, and take action to make sure it doesn't happen again, and treat the person with the respect and safety that they deserve.

Rosalind Dixon: And of course, for those of you who don't know, the Kate Jenkins report from the Sex Discrimination Commissioner came out, it provided really comprehensive recommendations about change and systems. And one of the big fights is about when that gets implemented, and how much? There's currently a report in New South Wales pending from another UNSW graduate, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick about change there. And colleagues here have also been involved in trying to get that same sort of accountability and change in the High Court of Australia, which has acted to introduce those sorts of systems. But I was really interested in reading your book, Julia, in light of a report that both Gabrielle and Courtney have referenced, that we launched in February about changing the culture of Parliament around hours, alcohol, you say it's time to get rid of the booze, it's time to change how the house operates. Do you think that would make a difference to how we create a safe workplace for all staff and parliamentarians but including women? Because of course, you tell your own brave story in this book, and have in the media, about harassment. And that was very linked to alcohol and a certain kind of culture.

Julia Banks: Yeah, look, I think the main difference between a, sort of, sexist culture if you like, or workplace misconduct, is probably the better way to put it. Workplace misconduct in the corporate space versus in federal politics, is that it's obviously much more covert in the corporate space. It still goes on, but it's much more covert, and there are structures and systems in place to deal with it. But it still happens. In politics is very overt, and there are so many antiquated processes and systems in place, like the 24/7 availability of alcohol, is there. It's also a very hierarchical structure, and a lot of the MPs go there without any people management skills or leadership training or, or anything like that. They're just elected to Parliament. But I really believe those issues like alcohol, and the hours, and all the rest of it. You know, a lot of the politicians complain about time away. Well, I really believe they overplay a lot of that, because they're not the only people in the world who have careers which requires them to travel, or to be away from home, right? You know, it has been described as a boarding school environment. But I mean, seriously, I've worked for big companies, so has my husband, there were times in my career where 35 to 40% of my year was spent away from home. So I think a lot of those are housekeeping issues. I think the bigger issue is the leader defines the culture. And we need to talk about where zero accountability happens. I mean, I saw a program, I think it was Q&A, or one of the current affairs programs, where they had where they had leaders from the business sector, the public sector, and they had a couple of senior federal MPs there. And all of them said, oh, yes, zero tolerance of that sort of behaviour. But what we saw in 2021, out of our parliament was not zero tolerance of that behaviour. We saw zero accountability. Either, it's not my problem, or he's an innocent man, or it's human frailty, or, you know, we're having an investigation, or I've got now my new cabinet of women who've now got women in their business card titles, so it's all going to be fixed. So we saw a lot of cosmetic things happening. We saw the platitudes, the announcements, but we didn't see real accountability or real action.

Rosalind Dixon: Leadership and accountability. Taking it back to climate Mehreen, if I may, for the Greens, it's an everyone issue. Do you see it in the same way that Georgia does, that it has this kind of link to being a woman, being a parent, being a mum, like, Is climate now a women's issue, as well as in everyone issue?

Mehreen Faruqi: Before I answer your question, I'd like to acknowledge the sovereign owners of the land we gathered on and pay my respects to elder's past and present. This always was and always will be, Aboriginal land. Hello, everyone. I'm very delighted to be here. UNSW was my home for 15 out of the 30 years that I've lived in Australia. So it's always always such a pleasure to be back. I think climate has always been a women's issue. It's nothing new for us. And why I say that is, because gender inequity plays out in the climate crisis, just as it does in every other issue. So the country that I grew up in, in Pakistan, women and girls are on the frontline of the climate crisis, because they usually have the duties of, you know, getting fuel, to cook food, collecting water, especially in rural areas. And as the climate crisis hits, that's becoming harder and harder, they have to go further to get firewood and water. And that takes away from their time that they could use to study or to have paid work. So that's just one example. But also when climate disasters hit, women are the most affected. So of course, it's a front and centre issue for us. And the climate crisis is so inextricably linked with the inequality crisis, not just in terms of gender, but in every other way, shape, or form. If you look at the global north versus the global South, we know that people who least contributed to the climate crisis are facing the impacts, and have been facing them for decades. We say the climate crisis is there now, because of more, you know, climate induced bushfires and floods, and drought but the climate crisis has been in the Pacific, with water, kind of, lapping on their doorstep, for a very long time. So absolutely, this is an issue that is front and centre. I think, especially with young people's minds these days, because it is their future that is at stake.

Rosalind Dixon: So, supposing, in two and a half weeks, we see a wave that's a teal wave, and a green wave, and an orange wave, I was trying to choose my colours, but I didn't realise that actually Georgia Steele's orange, I thought I was avoiding, you know, red, blue, teal. So there's a lot of women, a lot of Greens, a lot of teal candidates get in the house in two and a half weeks, and they have to sit down with both major parties to make that 2050, 2030, set of goals concrete and real. What will you be asking for? What's the best case scenario if we wake up on, you know, the 23rd of may and there's been a negotiation?

Mehreen Faruqi: So the best case, from where I sit, is that we have turfed out Scott Morrison and his toxic government. Who is toxic for women, toxic for climate, and we have a new government with the Greens in the balance of power. And we have been quite open in saying, there are a number of things that we want to put on the table. Of course, climate crisis is front and centre. We have a plan of reducing emissions by 75% by 2030 and 100% by 2035. That's what the scientists across the world are telling us. That's what we need. 2050 is just too late. This is the defining decade. And if we don't do it now, it's kind of run away from us. So that's in terms of climate, but like I said, these issues of climate and inequality are actually interlinked. Housing affordability is, you know, top of people's minds, cost of living, student debt, we know that fees are rising with inflation and union, tafe fees. So, you know, we want to make sure that hand in hand with addressing the climate crisis, we address these issues that are increasing the inequality gap as well.

Rosalind Dixon: So Georgia, this is the question you don't want. It's the question that a lot of independent candidates are being asked. If you happen to be elected and be in a position to hold the balance of power in the lower house and determine who is the government, what is going to be at the top of your list sitting down to negotiate? 

Georgia Steele: That's not the question that I thought it was going to be. I thought it was the question, which is the most asked question of the campaign, which is who would you support in a hung parliament?

Rosalind Dixon: Well, I deliberately tried to make it harder. To dodge.

Georgia Steele: Yes, I've been very clear about my priorities, when that happens. I said when, not if. And they are obviously action on climate change, I will be negotiating with that as my number one priority. I'll also be looking to negotiate on integrity measures for federal parliament, we need a federal anti corruption commission, we need changes to electoral laws, we need to have truth in political advertising laws, there's a range of measures that can be brought in there that don't have to be as difficult as what the government has made them. So those would be the two priorities on which I would negotiate.

Rosalind Dixon: And like a good game theorists don't tell which side you're going to start negotiating with.

Georgia Steele: It's negotiating one oh one, Ros. 

Rosalind Dixon: It's good poker play.

So now I want to turn to a less optimistic version of the story, which is, it's really hard being a political candidate, all of you've done it. And one of the things that I think is really shocking when you read both Mehreen and Julia's books, if you haven't heard their stories before, is the hate. And the hate that gets thrown at all candidates in public life, but particularly women. You know, Julia has talked about it before, and in the book very powerfully… I said to Mehreen reading her book, there's a story about her posting a lovely moment with her daughter on social media that just attracts the most vile racist hate. And, you know, one of the things that's disturbing about our politics is there's some developments where when we really are upset with people, when we disagree, it's become the norm that people get death threats, that they get threats of all kind, you've experienced that Julia, not being able to go to the footy because of credible threat against you. How do we deal with that? If we're trying to tell the optimistic story of this wave of grassroots women and activists, seeing some of them in the room, it's fantastic. This is a moment of optimism and involvement, but up against it is this wave of toxicity, that's racist, and sexist and everything else in between, primarily on social media. So Mehreen, tell us about that moment, and how you've weathered it and how you think about being resilient in the face of that kind of hate? How do we maintain optimism about change, and people like you running for office, when that's the kind of stuff you have to deal with?

Mehreen Faruqi: I mean, I have to be honest, and say, I never kind of expected that kind of vile, visceral sexism and racism, when I got into politics and in public life. Obviously, you know, being a person of colour, in a colonial country, when you come here, you do face racism, what people call it everyday racism or casual racism. But it is really a symptom of the deep systemic racism and discrimination that has existed in this country from the day, First Nations people were, you know, oppressed and occupied, frankly, and that's where it goes into. But you know, the Australia that I came to was the Australia that I grew up, my dad telling me, my dad studied here as well, by the way, he came here in 1956, on the Colombo Plan, and came back got married, had us and said, you know, the most beautiful city in the world is Sydney. That's what, kind of, brought us here. So it was a bit of a shock to the system coming into parliament and you know, facing that hate and racism every single day. And not, I guess, not really on what I say in terms of Greens policies, or other things, but because of who I am, it is always about my race, my religion, where I come from, and it just shows you that for some people, I will not be accepted of what they were version of a true blue Aussie is. So I think that that is really disturbing. And I mean, I hear a lot of talk about resilience, people say to me, you must have a very thick skin, Mehreen, or you must have developed a very thick skin. And I actually take offence to that. I don't want to have a thick skin. Why should I have a thick skin? Or why should I be resilient against this thing which shouldn't actually exist? I guess my role is to work to change the system. I don't want to have a thick skin because I want to be sensitive to the needs of people I represent because you can't… once you have a thick skin, I don't think you can pick and choose, you know, how sensitive you are, or are not, to issues. 

So what keeps me going and what gives me hope is so many young people, and especially young women of colour, who tell me that when they see me in Parliament, they know that they can be there as well. Like I had no role model. When I stepped into politics, there was literally no one like me, I was the first Muslim woman ever in any parliament in Australia. So I think, if I can open that door, break down that door, make it easier for others like me, to take that same journey that I have taken if they want to, I would fulfil my role, frankly, because Parliament needs to change. It is such a whitewashed world with literally almost one pathway into politics, which is, you know, involved in student unions and working for a politician, then becoming one. And it is so hard for someone like me who grew up a world away, to even think about… like I couldn't, in my wildest dreams think that I would ever be there. But you know, such other wonderful twists and turns of life. So I guess for me, it is about being who I am. Even when I wear shalwar kameez in parliament, I get so many messages from people, especially from South Asian women who say, you know, good on your representation does matter. This is a country where 50% of us were either born overseas, or you know, our parents were born overseas. But where are those people in Parliament that completely disappear? And that's a big issue. I think once we change that, then the system can slowly change as well.

Rosalind Dixon: Georgia, have you had enough of the social media hate,

Georgia Steele: I was going to say I don't have a book describing the hate that I've received, but I have a Facebook page, and anyone can go and have a look at that. Yes, I had had enough on day one. I get, you know, daily attacks as a woman on the campaign trail. It's through social media, it's through email. It's less through the mainstream media, or any of the more traditional channels. It's now started, as of the weekend, to be in person, out in public, where the attacks come.

Rosalind Dixon: Tell us about that. People yelling at you. What does that look like?

Georgia Steele: So up until this last weekend, I had only been attacked by the very, very brave keyboard warriors. Never by a person, I was at a market event where I was with a team of volunteers trying to speak to voters. And a gentleman came up to me, we had a very difficult conversation about where my donations come from, which is a very common topic. And I say it was difficult because he was extremely aggressive, extremely rude to me and ended the conversation with words which I shall not repeat, but which were said fairly quietly to my face, so that no one else could hear. And it's you know, it's very rattling, you have immediate concerns for your safety, and you are put off your game, momentarily. But then you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and remember that if you don't do this none of that will ever change. So it can become quite the motivator.

Rosalind Dixon: One of the issues that was on the coalition's agenda was an attack on big media companies really, when you were in government, you know, that attack often had a particular flavour, it wasn't really about the kind of harassment that people experience online. Is there any hope? Is there any way that we can use regulation or the criminal law to change that? Or is it all about, as you say, Mehreen, you know, setting a tone and fighting racism and sexism at the root cause so that Georgia doesn't encounter it at the market, and you can go to the footy next time the family has tickets?

Julia Banks: Well, look, first may I say that having gone through a campaign as a Liberal, you know, where my major opponent was the opposition, and then going through an independent campaign, the hate and the vitriol and the social media and the death threats, that was so much worse. When it was, sort of like, the standard graffiti when it was major party versus major party. The standard graffiti on the boards and all the rest of it. But as an independent running in a safe liberal seat, it reached acute insidious levels and it was so serious and so bad that seeing what's being played out against the independents, for example Allegra Spender, and Zoe Daniel, and Monique Ryan in the mainstream press, it then filters out, it's almost like it gives the keyboard warriors, and I I'm reluctant to describe them as keyboard warriors, because I was able to track down many of those people, you know, because I'd been within the Liberal party. It was so vile, and the more… I wrote a piece on this last week because the more a woman represents a threat to these safe Liberal seats, the more vitriolic the attacks become. I mean, we've seen in Victoria alone, our treasurer, referred to Dr. Monique Ryan, a paediatric neurologist, who, you know, has spent her entire career helping children, saving their lives, supporting their parents, calling her no more than a sign or a billboard. How is that acceptable behaviour? And then it being printed and regurgitated in the mainstream press, and then that triggers and incites more of that social media vitriol. Every time I got a headline in the Murdoch press, you know, like The Australian, it was literally the week before the election, and The Australian confected this story. Were ringing my former employer and confected basically a story which implied I had been taken to court for workplace bullying. And then that headline was then cut and pasted on a brochure and letterbox dropped in the entire electorate. And then you see this spike in social media hate, and literally a man coming up to my face on the campaign trail, and saying, I'm not voting for you, you're an effing bitch. Right? You're a bully. And it's just extraordinary. So I think, regulation, the press are not regulated in terms of sexist language. I could just rattle off the headlines that I got, and a number of them were because, like, during the citizenship crisis, for example, where by the way, I was 100%, being a lawyer, I knew I was not a dual citizen. Nonetheless, that was, you know, a push by forces that wanted to see me part of those headlines, you know, the Greek tragedy, they always had that sort of flavour, and that incited social media posts such as wog, criminal, slut, for example, one that’s seared in my brain. You know, when I ran as an independent, there was a headline that people like Zali Steggal, Karen Phelps and I were Labour mutton dressed as Liberal lamb. 

Rosalind Dixon: Yeah. 

Julia Banks: It’s just extraordinary that that's allowable in this country. I mean, freedom of the press sure, but why should women have to, particularly when we've got the worst defamation laws than anywhere, and, you know, certainly women don't… and we've seen a very litigious government, you know, who are prepared to take on the ABC, for example. Why would women submit to taking defamation action? And why should we have to? Why is that language allowed in headlines about women?

Georgia Steele: Well, as a constitutional lawyer, I have to say it's tricky to regulate. But I think the point being that we have to change something about our discourse and how it…

Rosalind Dixon: but even a code of… it's not even embraced in a journalist code of conduct…

Mehreen Faruqi: We don't even have a code of conduct in Parliament to be really frank. So yeah, so you know, I'm now on that committee, which hopefully will come up with a code of conduct. But you know, Julia is right, to change the system, we have to attack it from a number of…

Rosalind Dixon: Every direction.

Mehreen Faruqi: Every direction right? And parliament itself is a sexist, racist place. Like I can give you so many examples of how sexism and racism flies around. And these are not one off attacks. Often on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on social media, these are orchestrated attacks. And I just want to give you a quick example of one of those. When I delivered my first speech to the Senate, while I got a lot of love from people there were 1000s upon 1000s of messages of hate, and you know, things like put your burqa on and shut the fuck up, deport the whining bitch, revoke citizenship and deport, can someone shoot this bitch, put a bomb under her, it'll be great bashing her. And then the Guardian did a whole investigative report on that and found out that this was an orchestrated attack from a number of far right groups who had picked me and Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from the US. And basically it was an international plot to unleash Islamophobic hate on Muslim women politicians and there was very little action that was taken. And you know, this does damage people. You know, when people say, you know, like you, Facebook and keyboard warriors, I hate the word trolls because they're not some mythical creatures. 

Rosalind Dixon: They’re not.

Mehreen Faruqi: They are real people sending these vile messages to real people, you know, my son has had death threats, because he speaks out like me as well. Like, how is that acceptable in society? And you know, and I have to say it, often for women of colour and people of colour, it doesn't even get media attention. So you know, we are second rate, in that sense as well.

Rosalind Dixon: It's shocking. And, you know, it really is part of what we have to change if we're going to have women like you in the system. And I think it's partly how we talk to each other and the discourse that we have in ordinary life, you know, I had a very, very mild version of saying something somewhat controversial in the press last year, and people were ringing up the law school to ask for me to be fired. That's a loss of perspective and tolerance and respect that we have to reinvest in, in every part of our life, I think, as citizens and educators and people who are in a position to make a difference about how people think about each other and talk about each other. We've got some wonderful questions from the audience on Slider, which I want to get to. You know, one of the things that's hard is for young women, really young women, a couple of our audience members want to talk about girls. Georgia, you've got the youngest children of the panellists, how do we get young girls and women to still aspire to political office and involvement, when these are the stories that if they read the books and hear from, you know, the seasoned warriors on the stage, that they have to think through and encounter. How do we get young women involved girls to be optimistic about their role in our polity, given all of this?

Georgia Steele: One of the things that struck me when Mehreen and Julia were talking about their experiences, and when you're asking about what we do about it, there's such a lack of leadership in this country at the moment in relation to the way that people talk about each other, and the political discourse that we have, I can never imagine a situation where a politician from one side of politics would get up on the floor of the house and talk about something that had happened to someone from the other side of politics and talk about how unacceptable it is, you know, let alone not use the kind of divisive rhetoric that they themselves use. So I think that we need to expect more of our federal parliamentarians, all of them, to assist us to raise the level of debate. It's a very troubling base level of political discourse that we have in this country at the moment. And I think that once you start to address that, once it starts to be a bit of a tide turning, then young women will not be as turned off by it, as they inevitably are at the moment. I grew up, thankfully, without social media. But if I was a young woman growing up now seeing what's possible on social media, I'd be even more reluctant to step forward for public office than what I was when I decided to, because young women these days have already been burned by social media. I hadn't been. And when that became a part of my life, I was old enough to take it on the chin. So social media does have a lot to answer for. But I think that there is a lot to be said for, you know, asking more of our leaders, in relation to this topic.

Mehreen Faruqi: I don't actually think that young women are being turned off politics. Though young women I come across, and you might have seen in the media recently, are just so fired up. And so angry.

Rosalind Dixon: Well, this election they are. Yeah.

Mehreen Faruqi: Absolutely. I mean, us telling our stories, I feel, have fired them up. Like I don't know if you've heard of Anjali Sharma who is a 17 year old young woman who took the environment minister to court for approving the expansion of a coal mine, because you know, that was irresponsible. So yeah, I feel that they're not turned off at all. They want to change the face, body and soul of politics. They want to be there at the table. And you know, I'm with them. And part of my role for the last seven years since I've been in politics is to provide platforms for young women of colour, and for First Nations women. And I think it is our responsibility, people like me, who may have been first in some ways to do that, so more of us can be there.

Julia Banks: And can I just add to that, I believe we cannot be complacent, because we have gone backwards in this country. I mean, the Global Gender Equality Gap Index, we're now ranked 50th. In 2006, we were ranked 15th. We were ranked 50th when New Zealand was ranked fourth. We've gone backwards in this country. And that index is rated on social, political and economic equality. And I don't think we can put the, you know, hope, all in young women, I think we have to give a lot of the credit to older women. And if I can use one example, like the Brittany Higgins example, I really believe that Brittany Higgins’ story would not have got the traction it got, would not have been relegated the way it was, if it were not for the fact that Australia is very lucky that we have senior women journalists who have enormous power. I believe if Brittany's story was told, even as recently as five years, or 10 years ago, it would have been a 24 hour hit, and then it would have been covered. But that traction is the forces of women and forces of power, where women are in those positions of power now to say, we've had enough. I mean, it was reflected in the march for justice. And it's quite interesting that, you know, basically 2021 was different, that had happened during Scott Morrison's reign. 

Mehreen Faruqi: But not just women in positional power, it was the young women, you know, in schools who came out, you know, one after the other telling their stories of sexual harassment, I think that's where the courage really comes from.

Julia Banks: I actually, I really struggle with the concept that this is a generational issue, and it's all going to be better because these young women are happy to speak out. I don't believe it's, it's just that. I believe it's because there has been change. But we are very much at risk of going backwards. If we don't ride on the wave of that change. 

Rosalind Dixon: And it takes all of us I think it takes the senior journalists, the young women, the activists, the people marching, you know, one of the things I loved about the cohort that graduated from our Pathways program last year, is there are a lot of them who ran for local council, we had one young woman who's a First Nation woman who was 19, who ran, she said, the first time I voted was, I voted for myself. That was pretty special. But we also had women in their 60s running for local council. And said, I've had enough, you know. It takes all of us and you haven't, you know, young and old. And your political journey, it never ends, you know, you can retire from your first and your second job. But that just frees up more time to start your political career. And it is really inspiring, seeing a lot of older Australians out, you know, handing out, putting up signs, wearing T-shirts and being really involved.

Julia Banks: I also can I just make one more comment about numbers, because I believe that until we get the critical mass until we get 50/50 women and men in our federal parliament, we're just not going to make the progress that we need to make. And we've seen the success of the Labour Party's quota program, until the Liberals just get out of their paradigm and implement a quota system, this country will never have equal representation of men and women in our parliament.

Mehreen Faruqi: Why stop at 50/50? Men have had control of politics for such a long time, look at where we are now. And I think it also… it matters who the women are. I mean, even with 50/50 women in the Senate now, it's the first time I think it's ever happened, it’s still mainly white people there. I just think that is not on for a place like this. It doesn't bring in the lived experiences and the perspectives that are needed to solve the issues for everyone who lives in this country. And that's why we see policies that basically screw over migrant women and women in general, we won't get there unless there is a real… because we're not a homogenous group of women, you know. It always bothers me when we compare equality between two genders. That's not how it is. Because within that group of women, there are women who are much more marginalised than others. And unless we make sure that those women are represented, the 50/50 won’t work either.

Georgia Steele: Can I add something to that, that I know Ros will like, and it's to raise a constitutional issue. Mehreen talks about the need for further diversity in Parliament. And that is just undoubtedly the case, section 44 is a real obstacle to that in our country. 

Rosalind Dixon: Totally.

Georgia Steele: Section 44, as you all know, requires a candidate running for parliament to renounce any dual citizenship that they have, that excludes the vast majority, I would suggest, of Australians who might want to run for parliament. And I think it's incredibly unfair to ask candidates for those kinds of positions to renounce a citizenship which might form a very core part of their personality, and their identity. Even if they've never lived in the country, which they have dual citizenship with. I had to satisfy myself, obviously, that I didn't have any dual citizenship, Mehreen, you may have had to renounce whatever dual citizenship that you may have had. And I just… I think that's terrible, and it needs to be changed. I don’t think we should ask people to do it. 

Julia Banks: Thanks for the high court, we have to live with the absurdity of section 44.

Rosalind Dixon: You never give up on constitutional changes. You're a constitutional lawyer.

Mehreen Faruqi: And absolutely, I think that's such a good point. I have been there. I did have to renounce my Pakistani citizenship. And I didn't know till I signed the form how I would feel, and I put the form in my drawer because it really felt like I was severing off connections from my history. And you know, and my past, it is a terrible, terrible thing to do.

Georgia Steele: It’s shocking. 

Mehreen Faruqi: It is shocking. But also, I think there's another element to why we don't have diversity in Parliament's political parties, even if you don't have dual citizenship, are not pre-selecting diverse candidates for winnable seats. When they are, I mean, look at the example of Fowler. That is something that made me so upset and really disappointed, when we had a fabulous candidate in a major party, who was the representative of that community yet we parachuted someone from outside that electorate, a white woman, to represent that community. I mean, political parties have to take some responsibility for that as well. If you put us in unwinnable seats and expect us to denounce our citizenship, we were not going to do that.

Rosalind Dixon: As Courtney said, you know, quotas generally, and in winnable, seats matter a lot. But the Q word is obviously, you know, a deeply controversial one in some parts of the political spectrum. I think one of the things I want to press on is, how do we get there, this is to all of you, in a way that brings men along as allies, you know, Julia Banks tells a really powerful story in her book about a very shocking and very awful experience where you were the subject of an attempted sexual assault in corporate life, but a really senior man did step up. And was an ally, and Georgia talks about, you know, being in a parliament where someone else on the other side has been maligned or abused, and being the person who steps up and says, I don't agree with anything that person says or thinks, other than the fact that they don't deserve to be treated like that. How do we bring people along as allies? You know, I think it's even more important when we think about quotas to be, you know, they serve a critically important purpose and, you know, have done great good, in a world of non-binary identity, they get harder and harder. But we need an alliance, we need to make sure that those who are there don't feel threatened by the power of diverse representation, culturally, linguistically, ethnically, racially and gender diversity, how do we bring allies along, so that we can make that change that is so critically needed in the ways that you've all said? Mehreen I'm going to go from you to… last words from the panel. How do we bring allies along, diverse allies, including men?

Mehreen Faruqi: Obviously, you know, we all have allies, I wouldn't be where I am, if I didn't have allies, but there are just not enough allies out there at the moment. And to be frank, like, obviously, I work with everyone. But I do want allies who are men to be genuine in their allyship. There are many out there who are quite performative. So we have a lot of people out there who will put on social media, kind of,  posts, and you know, do those sorts of things, which is fine. But really, what we need them to do. is what you said, step up. If someone is throwing hate at you, or racism at you, we need people to step up and push back on that. It's no good otherwise, saying you are a feminist or you're an anti-racist. Ally, being an ally is one thing. But also, it is important to step aside and give room to other people. That's a big part of ally-ship as well, to make room for women to make room for people of colour, you have to step aside. But giving up power is a very hard thing for most people. And in a patriarchal society, men have had the power to do that. I don't know if it is our responsibility, always to bring people on board. You know, and again, it comes down to this whole system that we live in, a colonial patriarchal system. And there are many different ways that we have to dismantle it. And I for one am just sick and tired of chipping away at it, to be really frank. Like you said, we're going backwards. 

Julia Banks: Yeah, yeah.

Mehreen Faruqi: So we have to make some big bold steps, you know, call this out as it is because I want the walls to break down now. You know, enough is enough. And I feel that it's quite palpable, that sentiment in society as well. So it is about telling it like it is. I don't care if people feel threatened. I'm sorry. They have to deal with it. Really. You have to deal with it. I mean, how long will we go on being sidelined and oppressed and bypassed?

Rosalind Dixon: So step up, step aside and deal with it?

Mehreen Faruqi: Absolutely. 

Rosalind Dixon: Georgia?

Georgia Steele: Oh look, this is probably coming from my 15 years in the corporate sector, but you know, maybe we need to put some incentives in there for the men. Make some KPIs about bringing women along on the way. It's funny to think about it in federal parliament, but in corporations of course, men have KPIs that include having a certain number of women on their team. There are rules in corporations and in the public sector now, as everybody knows, where you have to interview a certain number of female candidates, and diverse candidates in other ways, for every position. We know that in federal parliament, there are just no rules whatsoever. And in the party system, the parties make their own rules. So perhaps parties as well as quotas for places in safe seats, as well as quotas for seats in parliament. Perhaps we could start incentivizing men to a sponsorship role of women within the parties within the parliament itself. 

Rosalind Dixon: Julia?

Julia Banks: So I was just thinking when Mehreen was talking, that Scott Morrison would agree with you, except that he said he wants to see women rise, but not at the expense of men. 

Mehreen Faruqi: Of men. Yeah. 

Julia Banks: Yeah. 

Mehreen Faruqi: Yeah, exactly. 

Rosalind Dixon: Yeah. Well, it's time Scott.

Julia Banks: Well, I think, a really interesting phenomena that, if I can answer it in this way, that what we saw a lot of emerging during 2021 was the whole not all men situation. You know, hashtag not all men, etc, etc. And I think we have to let men know, let men and women know, let the world know. We know it's not all men. We know it's not all men. We marry them, they're amongst our best mentors, we love them, they're our fathers, our sons, our brothers, our closest work colleagues, we know it's not all men. But we need to really understand too, that the most important fact is that only less than 2% of women make these stories up, less than 2%. So we know it's not all men. So why is it that we continue to put this burden of speaking out and, and talking up, as you say, Mehreen. Why do we continue to put this burden on women to do that? If we look back at last year in 2021, and again, I'm channelling my corporate space and experience. We saw all the noise and all the media coming out of Federal Parliament House, which is 5000 people, right? We heard crickets, crickets from the major organisations, and let's face it, most of them in power in the major organisations happen to be men. We have the coalition, the Champions of Change, but where were they, during that debate? You know,, why were they coming out and saying we should implement the respect at work thing in every organisation? Why weren't they saying that to the federal government? We hear crickets. So I just think, as a general society, we can't continue to put this burden on women. We need men in power to step up. And let's face it, most people who are in positional power in this country are men, and we need them to step up and make way. 

Mehreen Faruqi: We need them to get out of the way, frankly.

Rosalind Dixon: I mean, step up, step aside…

Mehreen Faruqi: Parliament House is the most protected place in Australia. 

Julia Banks: Yeah. 

Mehreen Faruqi: And women are not safe there.

Julia Banks: And it’s the most unsafe workplace.. 

Mehreen Faruqi: Yes. Exactly. I mean, that just says it all. 

Julia Banks: I’ve called it before… the most unsafe workplace. And that's why I believe quotas are critical, are absolutely critical, because then you get a critical mass. You can't incentivize, well, God knows what would happen to our budget, our country, if we incentivized half the MPs…

Georgia Steele: They don’t need monetary incentives. 

Julia Banks: You can’t incentivise them, they don't need any more incentives. That's why quotas, self imposed, and quotas particularly in safe seats, and more diverse where the intersectionality happens… has to happen, at that major party level, before we're going to see any real change. 

Rosalind Dixon: So we're out of time. But the lesson’s clear, you know, we all have to do our part, and that is loud and clear. Step up, step aside and deal with it. I love those words. I think what's gonna be really interesting is watching what happens in the next two and a half weeks. And I know that lots of people in this room, and listening, and viewing afterwards are part of that process of stepping up. And let's hope it leads to lots of men and women voting, but a lot of votes for women and for change, because you can see from the panel here, there's just so much depth of experience, passion, commitment and capacity to make our politics better with these sorts of women in the house, diverse and experienced as they are. So please join me in thanking our wonderful panellists for a terrific discussion. 

Ann Mossop: Thanks for listening. For more information, visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Julia Banks

Julia Banks

Julia Banks is an author, businesswoman, lawyer and keynote speaker who runs her own consultancy business, and holds several non executive advisory positions. She has extensive experience in the corporate and legal sector and served as a Federal Member of the Parliament of Australia. 
Julia's bestselling book Power Play: Breaking through bias, barriers and boys clubs contains practical advice and anecdotes revealing the unvarnished realities of any workplace across all sectors where power disparities and gender politics collide; from the unequal opportunities, casual sexism and systemic misogyny, to pressures around looks, age and family responsibilities and the consequences of speaking out. 
Julia's extensive experience is across the private and public sectors, having worked as senior corporate counsel and executive director roles for global companies for over 20 years prior to being elected as a Federal Member of Parliament in 2016. Julia's key areas of expertise and leadership experience are in the areas of governance, workplace culture risk, issues and crisis management. 

Julia Banks appears by arrangement with Saxton Speakers Bureau.

Mehreen Faruqi

Mehreen Faruqi

Dr Mehreen Faruqi is the Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens and a Greens Senator for NSW. She is the Australian Greens spokesperson on education, animal welfare, anti-racism and international aid. Mehreen is a civil and environmental engineer and a life-long activist for social and environmental justice. She became the first Muslim woman to sit in any Australian parliament when she joined the NSW Parliament in 2013. In 2018, she took her proudly feminist and anti-racist approach to challenging the status quo to federal parliament when she joined the Senate.
Mehreen has been an unflinching voice on social, environmental and racial justice, pushing to dismantle the systems of power, privilege and patriarchy that allow these injustices to continue. Mehreen’s recently published memoir and manifesto Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud is a no-holds-barred account by a political outsider about what happens when you confront a system steeped in power and patriarchy.

Georgia Steele

Georgia Steele

Georgia Steele is a politics junkie, a cricket tragic, an optimist and a Japanophile. She's lived, worked and studied in Japan, speaks the language and now lives to please a Japanese mother-in-law. Georgia is a lawyer, and now independent candidate running for the House of Representatives in the Federal seat of Hughes. She has worked in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Tokyo, Sapporo, London and always, professionally, in a man's world. In that former professional life, Georgia practised as a corporate and commercial litigator at Allens and Freshfields, for 15 years, across four continents, and then for a major Australian retail bank. She hates conflict; so choosing litigation and politics makes no sense at all, but she couldn't sit by any longer while the current government hijacked her children's future. She is taking on the incumbent and leader of the United Australia Party, Craig Kelly MP, is endorsed by Climate 200 and is running on platforms of climate action, enhanced Federal integrity measures, and equality. It was UNSW's inaugural Pathways to Politics for Women Program that filled Georgia with the confidence (or is it hubris?) to take on Mr Kelly, a decision she's sure she'll understand making, one day. Georgia lives in sleepy Como with her husband, two kids, and her dog Scout (who is now employed full-time as the Steele Campaign mascot).

Photo of Rosalind Dixon

Rosalind Dixon

Rosalind Dixon is a Professor of Law and Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at UNSW Sydney. She is a graduate of UNSW and Harvard, and has taught at law schools around the world – including Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago and National University Singapore, and is the author of a new book, with Richard Holden, From Free to Fair Markets: Liberalism after COVID out later this year. She is passionate about law and politics, and currently Director of the Pathways to Politics for Women Program at NSW. 

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