The ACT, women and the body politic

Following an historic 2020 election, the ACT’s legislative assembly now comprises 60% women. Not only do women make up the majority of elected representatives, at least half of each party’s MLAs are women and they are in positions of power holding five of the nine ACT cabinet positions.

In a recent webinar, 50/50 Foundation co-director Professor Kim Rubenstein and Associate Professor Chris Wallace asked female MPs from the three major parties – Rachel Stephen-Smith (Labor), Elizabeth Lee (Liberals) and Rebecca Vassarotti (Greens) – how did this breakthrough happen and what lessons can be drawn from the structures, processes and cultures of ACT politics for consideration by federal and state political parties?


The ABC program Q&A has made an art of belligerent antipathy when it pairs MPs from opposing parties on its regular Monday evening timeslot. But when the 50/50 Foundation brought together three female MPs from the ACT’s history-making 2020 election, collegiality, mutual support, respect and a message of working toward the common good was the underpinning narrative of the webinar.

As Elizabeth Lee, the newly minted leader of the ACT Liberals, expressed it: “It is about making sure we were elected for a reason. If we are going to be in the [Legislative Assembly] to emulate the men who have come before us, then they may as well have stayed there,” Lee said.

“We were elected by our constituents to be ourselves and to do things differently. That’s why it’s important to put up candidates with all different life experiences. Being a voice for your community is a huge privilege. And if you can be sure that the people in the decision-making room reflect the broad diversity of our community, then the stronger the decisions  that are made, the stronger our democracy.”

Another factor the three MLA’s held in common is that none had set out with the intention to become a politician. Each had only made the decision when she came to the realisation that politics was the only way to fully influence what each saw as failings within the current political processes and systems.

Liberal leader Elizabeth Lee.

Rachel Stephen-Smith, currently the ACT Minister for Health, told the webinar that she had worked in the policy arena as a public servant for some time. But working in Prime Minister & Cabinet she became frustrated by what she saw as the frittering away of Australia’s enormous wealth and opportunity.

“I felt we were wasting the boom the Howard government was blessed with. That we were seeing, despite the economic boom, increased inequality, the failure to invest in the social and physical infrastructure that we need for the future, and the privatisation of public goods – public education and public health increasingly being about choice, not compassion. Choice was being used as a euphemism for privatisation,” said Stephen-Smith.

Choice was being used as a euphemism for privatisation.

With friends in the Labor party and with a natural affinity for its progressive policies, she decided to become a political staffer (to Victorian Senator Kim Carr). But first she took a “gap year” working for the ACT Department of Disability, Housing and Community Services.

“Being manager of strategic policy was possibly the best job I ever had. What I got to see is that it is that the ACT is part of the national big picture but I was also looking at things that really affect our local community. You can clearly see the difference that you can make.”

And so, after serving her time as a staffer, when Stephen-Smith decided it was time to enter the political fray, it was at the territory rather than federal level.

Labor Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith.

Rebecca Vassarotti, a newly elected member for the Greens (which forms a coalition government with Labor), was propelled by similar motivations. Having spent years in the community services and not-for-profit sector, she says Tony Abbott’s infamous 2014 budget was a watershed moment.

“There were some really significant policy initiatives being proposed that were going to have a devastating impact on some of our most vulnerable people,” Vassarotti said.

“What became really clear to me was that many of the politicians who I was working with were not bad people. But they were really disconnected from the reality of many people’s lives. It made me realise that this group of people – politicians – are working in very small circles and are not really connected with the impacts of really big decisions.”

Being a Canberra local born and bred, Vassarotti said there was never any question – once she had made the decision – that she would run for local politics.

“All the other decisions in the lead up to my political engaged, were relatively easy. But the decision to publicly align to a political party was, quite frankly, a bit scary,” she said.

The decision to publicly align to a political party was, quite frankly, a bit scary

Elizabeth Lee, too, didn’t have politics on her radar. Raised with a strong set of values by her parents “that we should take responsibility for our own actions, value freedom, and give back to our community”, Lee’s work as a lawyer was strongly influenced by “being the word of justice for clients who may not be in a position to do it for themselves”.

She started to see a bigger role for herself as an advocate and representative but couldn’t quite articulate what that role was. Until a friend said: “I’m pretty sure that’s politics, Elizabeth.”

After a few failed attempts (“they say resilience counts”), Lee was elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly in 2016. With her promotion to leader of the ACT Liberals following the October election, she now proudly heads the ACT’s (and Liberal Party’s) first female-female leadership team alongside deputy leader Guilia Jones.

All three agree that the Hare-Clark electoral system and the citizenry of Canberra work in tandem to embrace women politicians. The Hare-Clark system (proposed in Australia by Catherine Helen Spence, Australia’s first female political candidate) allows each party to put up five candidates in each electorate giving the voter greater choice (if the voter is a diehard Liberal supporter, but doesn’t like the incumbent, there are four other people to choose from, for example).

“We have to give credit where credit is due and that’s to the voting public of Canberra,” says Lee.

Or, as Stephen-Smith puts it: “Hare-Clark enables people to choose who they want to represent them and Canberrans are choosing women. That is a deliberate choice.”

Then there is the history of the ACT which saw the first ever female jurisdictional leader with Rosemary Follett in 1989. Both Liberal and Labor have had female government leaders, including Katy Gallagher (Labor) and Kate Carnell (Liberal).

First-time MLA Rebecca Vassarotti from the Greens.

Importantly, the prevalence of women in ACT government has also strongly influenced the work-life balance sheet.

As Vassarotti pointed out, becoming a politician is a “whole-family endeavour”.

“The business of politics is set up with an expectation about being single or having a set of family support structures. We need to own the fact that we are fitting into a construct that is quite patriarchal, to be perfectly honest,” Vassarotti said.

Having more women involved is changing things because we want to do things differently.

“We need to change the way politics is done. In the ACT, we have a female-majority Cabinet and a Cabinet of two-parties. That forces us to be much more collaborative. Having more women involved is changing things because we want to do things differently.”

Indeed, Stephen-Smith said Katy Gallagher and Guilia Jones should be given credit for changing the way ACT Parliament does politics.

“It is totally unnecessary for Parliament to sit late into the night so people can talk,” Stephen-Smith said. “Most of the words spoken in most Parliaments are not heard by anybody outside the chamber. The ACT has changed that. We have reasonable sitting hours on the limited number of days that we need to set. It is a very practical change that has made a real difference in making political representation realistic.”

And, she went on, politics needs to change, not because women are fragile.

“Women are tough. Women can argue just as men can argue. But, in fact, politics didn’t just attract men, it attracted a particular type of man. But we want diversity in our politics. We need to change politics to be a safer, better place for everybody.”

And in the ACT, that is exactly what is happening.

The 50/50 by 2030 Foundation will post a video of the webinar on its website when it is available.


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