Former Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja has criticised the lack of women representing Australia in parliament, and the falling behavioural standards of parliamentary behaviour.
The founding chair of Our Watch – the national organisation to prevent violence against women and their children – spoke exclusively to Nance Haxton for the Griffith University political podcast A Middle Ground from the WOMADelaide world music festival in Adelaide where she gave the International Women’s Day address.
The former leader of the Democrats says societal attitudes underpin domestic violence, with international evidence showing that high levels of familial abuse are rooted in attitudes that disrespect women, and see women as inferior.
Part of this problem, she believes, is that behavioural standards in federal Parliament have diminished, with attitudes towards women improving little in the nearly 25 years since she was first voted into the Senate.
“I’ve had the chance to reflect on, some of the ridiculous stereotypes and double standards that I was subjected to, but also I just think, we really lack diversity and difference in our Parliaments generally, but we need more women specifically in our decision-making institutions but Parliament especially,” Ms Stott-Despoja says.
“I think, generally, there’s been a diminution in behavioural standards.
“I don’t want to discount progress and certainly political parties have increased in the main, their representation, particularly the Labor Party.
“The Liberal Party has been woeful, particularly in recent elections, but I honestly didn’t think in 24 years since I first entered Parliament, that we’d actually see a decline during some modern electoral cycles in women’s representation.
“The fact that we’re only around, what 32 per cent representation of women in Federal Politics and Parliament, that is shameful.”
She says while women are called ‘sluts’ in parliament, and a woman’s suitability for office is judged by her parental responsibilities, it shows that even in this modern age Australians are not used to women in positions of power or leading the country.
“We certainly have a lot to make up for, and I think it can be done but we just need the political goodwill, the commitment from politicians and indeed all those men who are scurrying out the Parliamentary doors right now … why are they not being represented by women? Why are they not being replaced by the talented women that we know are out there?” she says.
“There is no question that women, in the Liberal Party who have been in positions of power, are either leaving or not being promoted and certainly men, in the Liberal Party who are leaving Parliament are … in the main being replaced by men.”
Ms Stott-Despoja says that critical mass is not enough, and gender parity is the heart of the solution, for not just ethical but economic reasons.
“The research is pretty clear…there’s no question, you increase a nation’s economic growth if you get greater participation rates of women in the workforce generally.
“We also know that if you solve issues that affect women, like say violence against women, in Australia you’d probably save around 21 billion dollars a year.
“So this is an issue that has economic issues associated with it, but in the main, it’s also fair. It’s also about human rights and surely we want a fair equal, safer, respectful society?”
Melbourne University Press has just published the essay “On Violence” by Ms Stott-Despoja as part of its essay series pairing Australia’s leading thinkers and cultural figures with some of the big themes in life.
Ms Stott-Despoja describes domestic violence as “Australia’s national emergency”.
She says it’s a sad fact of Australian life, that every two minutes, police are called to a family violence matter, and every week, a woman is murdered violently by a current or former partner.
“You have one in four women over the age of 15, experiencing some form of physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime,” she says.
“That is a pretty poor indicator of gender progress and gender equality.
“My focus in entirely primary prevention and it’s about addressing those attitudes and behaviours that give rise to violence in the first place.
“I find there are so many people, ordinary Australians come up to me every day and say, what can I do? So, this is my attempt to show people, what maybe you could do.
“I’m hopeful because I know that violence is preventable. I know it’s not an innate part of the biological condition or make up of people. I know that we’ve seen progress in places where you do address attitudes and behaviors. I know that if you have countries where gender equality is greater, the rates of violence against women and children decrease.
“But I also feel that there’s momentum for change right now. I feel the community is sick of the death toll. They’re sickened by the statistics, they want change.
“So, that gives me hope. I just want it to happen a little faster than it’s happening.”