Facing a room full of women at the HerVote town hall in Sydney, Zali Steggall replied to the burning feminist question: “Can you have it all?”
She was unequivocal.
“Everyone always says women can’t have it all, but I actually think women can have it all,” she said.
“We just have to have it on our terms and how we want it.”
Steggall, the Olympian-turned-barrister challenging Tony Abbott for the Sydney seat of Warringah in next month’s Federal election, represents a changing of the guard in Australian politics.
Women are standing up to be heard and counted in public life, determining the circumstances in which they enter Parliament, what they fight for and how they’re represented.
“When I came to decide this latest career change, a huge motivating factor was that sense of wanting more voices in Parliament,” Steggall told the HerVote forum, a partnership between Future Women and Twitter, last week.
“We despair often when we see the headlines or hear about the treatment women face in Parliament … But at the end of the day if we’re not prepared to stand up, then we really can’t complain. It’s up to each and every one of us to change our future.”
Steggall’s point united her fellow female panellists – seasoned MPs Tanya Plibersek and Sussan Ley, and emerging candidates Hollie Hughes and Shireen Morris.
They’re forging their own paths in the male-dominated political arena.
Hollie Hughes, from Moree in regional NSW, won the top spot on the Liberal’s Senate ticket for NSW.
She’s been a staunch disability support advocate since her son, Fred, was diagnosed with autism seven years ago.
The long-time Liberal wants to take her fight for better regional services all the way to the Australian Senate.
“At the time (of Fred’s diagnosis) I was serving as the state executive of the Liberal Party, and I said to my husband, ‘Do you think I should give it up?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely not, there’s never been a more important time for you to be a pain.’ And I can tell you, at this point, there is not a person in the Liberal Party at the most senior echelons who does not know more about autism than they thought they were ever going to know,” the disability support advocate told the forum.
“It incredibly important that people who represent all parts of the community, and have those personal experiences, are in the Parliament, because if you don’t have those voices, if you don’t have those personal experiences, and you don’t have that lived experience, you can never fully appreciate and understand what the unintended consequences are when legislation is going before the Parliament.”
Shireen Morris feels the same way.
The constitutional lawyer spent eight years working at Cape York Institute, an Indigenous think tank in Queensland, developing the concept of a First Nations body in the Constitution.
But when the Turnbull Government rejected the Uluru Statement in 2017, Morris had a moment of clarity.
“For me, that was the moment where after spending eight years trying to be an influencer and pursue law reform from the outside, I thought it seems like you have to be in there to really make a positive difference,” the former singer said.
She’s running for Labor in the Melbourne seat of Deakin and if elected, believes she will become the first Indian-Australian woman in the House of Representatives.
“We have an Anglo-Indian senator in Lisa Singh, a senator for Tasmania. If I were to be successful, apparently, I read the other day I’d be the first in the House of Reps, but I do think things are changing,” the author said.
“I think it’s time for women to take our fair place in the nation, and I think it’s time for women to rise up and be heard.”
Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek has never shied away from making her voice heard since clinching her Sydney seat in 1998, at just 28.
Since then, she has actively campaigned for gender equality in the private and public sectors.
At the HerVote forum, she encouraged women to have a crack at politics – despite its many challenges.
“Roll the dice, have a go … Time away from your family is the hardest part of the job, but the rewards of it are so profound,” the mum-of-three said.
“The way you get to hear about people’s lives, the difference you get to make on an individual level to one person’s life by advocating for them … There is no greater privilege.”
Her political rival, Liberal Party MP Sussan Ley, also encouraged women to enter politics – but was more circumspect.
Despite having three children, three finance degrees, a pilot’s license, and a rigorous career as the Assistant Minister for Regional Development and Territories, Ley says women can’t have it all.
“There’s always this thing about, ‘Can you have it all?’ Of course you can’t have it all – no one can have it all,” she said.
But Ley, who is re-contesting the seat of Farrar, said she spends every day working to get there.
“Nothing was perfect for me, in fact far from it … when you have three children, trying to study, trying to work in Parliament. You just do your best and people love you if you do your best and you are there for them,” she said.
“Yes there are challenges, yes it’s tough, but on the other side of every challenge is a better version of you … And you must speak up, speak your voice, we want to hear you, and we want you somewhere that leads you to the Federal Parliament.”
HerVote is a campaign created by Future Women to elevate women’s voices and inform their opinions ahead of the Federal election on May 18.
The Sydney event on April 5 was hosted by Nine’s Allison Langdon and live streamed to over 52,000 viewers on Twitter.
The next HerVote is set for Melbourne on May 10, with Sarah Hanson-Young, Julia Banks and Shireen Morris sharing their stories.
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