When she was 12, Julia Gillard was the Prime Minister of Australia and Barack Obama was the President of the United States. At a young age, I thought this image of leadership was normal, standard, not at all strange.
How wrong he was.
Looking back, the political landscape seemed to be finally opening up. It is therefore surprising, and disappointing, that victories have since been so few and far between.
Parliament continues to be dominated by wealthy white men. For a young Asian-Australian woman like me, it’s a visual reminder of who has the power and who doesn’t.
But we cannot get lost in pessimism. There are good reasons to think that these elections will be very different. This time, a record number of women are running as independent candidates. If successful enough, the next government could decide.
In 2022, 49 female candidates have launched independent campaigns, almost twice as many as in previous elections. Most are calling for action on climate change, gender equality and an end to political corruption.
Liberal favorites are Monique Ryan vs. Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong, Zoe Daniel vs. Tim Wilson in Goldstein, Sophie Scamps vs. Jason Falinski in Mackellar, Allegra Spender vs. Dave Sharma in Wentworth, and Kylea Tink vs. Trent Zimmerman. in North Sydney.
Why do so many women raise their hands to run?
The main reason, many of them say, is that the government has not taken essential measures on climate change. The Earth is on its way to a 1.5 augmentC rise in about a decade. This will lead to irreversible devastation, including the sinking of the Pacific lowlands and frequent and severe floods, droughts and heat waves that will affect billions more people.
Australia has repeatedly ignored these warnings. In 2021, we ranked last among all nations developed by our greenhouse gas emissions and lack of advancement beyond fossil fuels. The two major parties have made little mention of climate change in these elections and have been criticized for their funding connections to oil and gas.
Allegra Spender, Wentworth’s independent candidate, says she decided to run because “she could no longer look from the sidelines.” She says that “the next 10 years, especially when it comes to the weather, are crucial, and I think we need to act absolutely now.”
Spender is committed to reducing emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and creating a rapid transition to renewable energy. Other independents are pushing for an even greater reduction in emissions from 60 to 70 percent.
Demanding justice for survivors and accountability
The government has also been heavily monitored for its failure to properly address the culture of misogyny and sexual violence in Parliament. Last year, among other revelations, Brittany Higgins alleged that she was raped in Parliament.
Liberal MP Christian Porter also faced allegations of sexual assault as a teenager, which he vehemently denied.
Knowing these allegations was horrible, but the women did not back down.
I joined young and old women in marching to Parliament to protest the treatment of women and to demand justice for the survivors. It was not a feeling of optimism. It was a demand for responsibility. We were together, strong.
The number of women running in these elections shows that this movement has not fallen. Most independent candidates are pushing for policies that ensure the safety, equity and respect of women, including the full implementation of the Jenkins Review recommendations to create a safer political culture.
Ensure integrity in government
The last pillar of the independent movement is to ensure integrity in politics. Nearly half of Australians do not trust the government to do the right thing.
To address this, many independent candidates support a strong, independent anti-corruption commission to ensure that politicians always act in the best interests of the people.
Conservatives seem to be scared. Recently, former Prime Minister John Howard took a look, describing the green-green candidates as “anti-liberal groups.” Ironically, the idea that a sustainable planet, gender equality, and a corruption-free policy are “anti-liberal” is partly the reason why many liberal seats are threatened.
At the same time, the rise of independent candidates reveals deeper problems with our democracy. It is a problem that there is a loss of confidence in our main political parties. It is also a problem that the burden of “fixing the mess of men” falls on the shoulders of women.
Almost all the independent women candidates in this election are white and rich. Having more women in parliament is progress, but it is a reminder of how the political structure for the elite is constructed: those with social power, time, money, and connections. For many Australians, running for politics is out of reach.
What gives me hope?
One of the few independent candidates from diverse backgrounds is Dai Le, an Asian-Australian woman representing Fowler’s seat. He decided to run for office after Labor MP Kristina Kenneally was parachuted into the highly multicultural seat. He tells her he had to withdraw money from his mortgage to fund his campaign.
This is a common story for many independent candidates. Independent senator Jacqui Lambie had to sell her house so she could afford to run for the Tasmanian Senate and remembers burning her savings and super in the process.
If “teal” independent women can change power in politics, imagine the country we could create if we had representatives from intersectional backgrounds, race, age, disability, class, and beyond?
Yet independent women in these elections are proving that women are not passive actors but forces of change in our democracy.
As a young woman and advocate for gender equality, I am often asked what to expect when it comes to politics. My answer is simple: I really believe that what happens on the ground will end up shaping what happens on the hill.
The rise of independent women proves it.
Yasmin Poole is a youth advocate, the influential 2021 youth of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and the national ambassador of Australia for Plan International. I’ll see Raising his voice in Compass, presented by Yasmin Poole, on ABC TV on Sunday, May 8 at 6:30 pm or catch up on iview.
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