Pollies, power and women in parliament

(Speech to BPW Sydney 19 November 2013)

I would like to show my respect to and acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, of elders past and present, on which this event takes place.

I’d like to thank Caitlin Medley and BPW Sydney for the very kind invitation to speak to you tonight. I apologise that it has taken me so long to return to a BPW event. For many years I was involved with BPW both as President at a local level and as a member of various standing committees at an international level. But unfortunately competing demands meant I had to withdraw simply in order to conserve limited time and energy.

The topic I have been asked to discuss tonight is an interesting one: Pollies, power and women in parliament. It is interesting because I am neither a pollie – an elected representative –  nor am I in parliament. Nonetheless, like a tired old race horse, I have run as a self-funded independent political candidate in two State elections, one local government election and most recently as a NSW Senate candidate for the WikiLeaks Party at the last federal election, so hopefully my observations may be useful and encourage you to think differently about politics and power.

The good news is that power is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events. Seems simple enough. The bad news, according to the late community organiser Saul Alinsky, is that as long as you are not organised you will never have power.  People don’t get power until they take it.

Alinsky’s view is best illustrated in an article by Cathy Alexander published on Crikey earlier this year which reveals that no political party has more than 50,000 members.  Yet because they‘re organised and have financial resources they make all of the decisions which affect our lives.

 So I was pleased to read that the aim of BPW Sydney is to ‘advance the economic empowerment of women through community and political activity and supporting women’s appointment to power, leadership and decision making roles.’

During my first election campaign I remained President of Business Professional Women in my local area. I was politically unseasoned. I had unrealistically high expectations. I’d never been a member of a political party because of the compromises that inevitably involves. I had no political war-chest. I ran simply because I, like many others, didn’t like the policies or attitude of the candidate most likely to win.

But what was interesting was that during this first election campaign, despite BPW’s ideals, aims and ambitions, some members of my local Business Professional Women club made it known to me that they felt that there was a risk that I was using the local Presidency of BPW for my own ends. That was the first time I experienced the brutal edge of the sisterhood.

It was the view of a vocal minority (who incidentally were active members of the major political parties), that the organisation must remain apolitical. As you all know apolitical means having no political relevance or importance. A mistake, sadly, that many women’s organisations make. Conflict and controversy are not dirty words: they are in fact necessary to effect change.

But one thing I was smart enough to understand is the importance of managing perceptions so I offered my resignation during the election period. Only two members of my local club volunteered to assist on election day. With a small budget, without allocating preferences, I achieved 8.2% of the vote in my electorate and finished ahead of the Greens.

As far as I know no female Independent candidate has ever been elected to the lower house in the NSW Parliament, although I’m happy to stand corrected.

The response of local women reminded me ironically of Germaine Greer’s remark that, “Women are our team, we have to wear their colours, we have to support them, we have to turn out, we have to be there.” That certainly wasn’t my experience, but I didn’t begrudge the positions taken by other women. That’s the first lesson of politics: don’t make the mistake of turning differences of opinion into questions of morality or principle.

Germaine Greer was also right to highlight more recently that, “One of the things I want women to learn is how to build groups, how to give each other a break, how to learn to play, to be silly, to not always demand intimacy. It grieves me that women are constantly working, constantly building, constantly looking towards an end result and not just hanging out…”

Supporting women’s appointment to power, leadership and decision making roles requires an understanding of and strategy for lifting women into power and a willingness to be led. It requires competitiveness to be put to one side. For those being lifted into power it’s about knowing how to ask for help, it requires a vision, an explanation of why you’re doing what you’re doing and where you want to get to. You need resilience to criticism, confidence in your opinions, the wisdom to seek advice and the courage to allow yourself to fail in order to emerge even stronger. Aung San Suu Kyi appropriately said leadership is to serve not to lead, to be a steward not a commander.

My second and third elections taught me that to win political campaigns you don’t need to diligently and carefully articulate policies, as I had been doing: rather, you need a strategy, money and volunteers. Even though I achieved over 20% of the vote at the last State election it wasn’t enough to be elected.

I was informed by a Liberal insider that when the Liberal candidate was told that the polls were suggesting that she wouldn’t win, she injected $50,000 of her own money into the campaign in the final 48 hours before the election. I have no reason to doubt the truth of this but to give you some perspective, my entire campaign budget was $70,000.00.

Recognising the extensive resources of the major political parties, former Independent member, John Hatton AO, had already given me sound advice when he said, “To win as an Independent candidate you either have to be extremely lucky or your opponent must be in extreme difficulty of their own making.” Although I don’t wish to detract from the wonderful victory of Cathy McGowan, the first female Independent in the Federal House of Representatives, Sophie Mirabella’s conduct illustrates his point: she didn’t make it easy for her electorate to return her to the seat of Indi.

On reflection it would have been far easier for me to join a major political party. Emily’s list offer financial, political and personal support program for progressive Labor women candidates and Members of Parliament. No doubt the Liberal Party has similar attractive incentives. But this flies in the face of the advice from our war weary feminist predecessors that we need political structures to deliver our own aims and priorities; that where there is institutional inertia we have to make space; and that liberation doesn’t mean assimilation.

Our feminist predecessors seem to have settled on a common thread about the new focus for feminism. If there is to be a fourth wave it must focus not on transforming the corporate, economic and political models but smashing them.

Gloria Steinem describes us as being in “a more difficult phase, a slower phase, of trying to actually change power structures, the way that political decisions are made, the way that economics operates, the way in which families do and don’t raise children, really the structures of life.”

Writer and activist Arundhati Roy notes that ‘the liberal feminist movements have not been at the forefront of challenging the new economic policies, even though women have been the greatest sufferers. By manipulating the disbursement of the funds, the foundations have largely succeeded in circumscribing the range of what “political” activity should be. The funding briefs of NGOs now prescribe what counts as women’s “issues” and what doesn’t.’

Germaine Greer addresses the point more subtly: “ I think it’s important to point out that we haven’t even got there yet. When we talk about equality, we’re actually enunciating a profoundly conservative aim. We just want to have what somebody else has got. We don’t really want to change the whole system. Now, it’s important that we do that stuff, that we go and fight in the army and then we discover what armies do and how they make soldiers crazy and we try to work out if there is any way forward using that particular paradigm, accepting the existing world as it’s set up, so we join all the male organisations, we sit on the boards of companies that make all kinds of nasty things that hurt people, without ever finding a moment where we can say, “Actually, can we just stop doing all of this and do something different?” We’re not even there yet. Until we’ve actually worked out how the world, as we’ve inherited it works, how masculinity is imposed on men and what it does to them, because it is a very demanding and inhuman creed, until we have figured that out, we cannot even see a way forward. But the way forward is there and it’s young women like you who are going to find it.”

If the fourth wave of feminism is to challenge power structures then that requires individuals and groups to know their own situation in depth. Where does oppression come from? Who or what is oppressing you and how can it be overcome? You have to think analytically and strategically. You have to understand, plan and prepare.

If women are to take power in the Alinsky sense, they have to understand that power is not a monolith. It has internal problems, it has sympathisers and people within the power structure who become uneasy. It has human characteristics including fear, vulnerability and sensitivity to ridicule.

In time women’s groups will, I hope, reach the conclusion that power is best achieved by forming coalitions or uniting behind certain political candidates capable of articulating, negotiating and delivering their list of demands. In time women’s groups will realise that they need to create or commission works from writers, satirists, artists, actors and musicians that strip bare power structures and the people within them.  In time women will come to realise that cooperation is used by the 1% while competitiveness is left to the 99%.

Eliminating the gender pay gap, for example, will not be achieved by politely asking, coaxing or pleading.  We’ve tried that and it hasn’t worked. It will require resolution, a commitment to outspokenness and a willingness to endure friction, hostility, personal attacks and personal sacrifice.

Collective bodies like BPW can provide a critical support framework and a support base for worthwhile candidates, even if they prefer not to be officially involved. They have the structure – and the numbers – from which support can be garnered and from which Alinsky’s “organisation” can readily be formed.   They can thus help to transform an ideal with which we agree into an attainable goal by investing it with political power. But amongst ourselves we do need an approach of cooperation rather than competition.

I agree with the late American broadcaster and writer Studs Terkel that ‘most of us are looking for a calling not a job. Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit.’ The spirit is always reaching out to somewhere higher than it has been before.  If your spirit is calling you to action you owe it to yourself to follow that calling, no matter what the personal cost might be.  And if you see another woman putting it all on the line to follow a calling that you believe in, you owe it both to her and to yourself to give her all the support you can muster.

Thank you.

Copyright Kellie Tranter 2013. All rights reserved.

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