Watch: Tanya Plibersek’s Keynote Address from Breakthrough 2016

Our Rightful Place

By Tanya Plibersek | 25 Nov 2016, Breakthrough 2016, Melbourne Town Hall

Last month the Hon. Tanya Plibersek MP, Deputy Leader of the Opposition spoke at Breakthrough 2016, “the biggest gender equality conference in our nation’s history” (The Age, Nov 28). Hosted by the Victorian Women’s Trust, Breakthrough was a two day event that gathered the wisdom of 100+ speakers and 1000 strong audience. Together, we unpacked the barriers that still exist for gender equality and mapped out pathways forward. Tanya’s address was the entry point for the theme ‘Our Rightful Place’, an exploration of the need for fair and equal representation across our society. Read more about the themes and the Breakthrough event program here.

Over the next few months, the Victorian Women’s Trust will be rolling out a series of community actions, directly informed by Breakthrough 2016. Early next year, we will be releasing the audio and transcripts from the sessions at Breakthrough. Be part of the action — sign up to our mailing list! Until then, watch Tanya’s take on ‘Our Rightful Place’.


(End of Anne Summers intro)
Tanya is a very special person, I’m really looking forward to hearing her speak today and I’m sure you all are too. Please make welcome, Tanya Plibersek.

Well thank you, how fantastic to be in a room full of feminists! It’s a great pleasure to be here today and I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we’re meeting on today, and pay my respects to elders past and present. To any Indigenous people in the room, particular respects to you today. Also I want to thank Anne Summers for that gorgeous introduction, and she is an icon of feminism, not just in Australia but around the world. It’s a great privilege to count her amongst my friends. Thank you all of you for that warm welcome, for all of the amazing women that are here today. To the Victorian Women’s Trust board, to the staff and volunteers who are putting on this conference. To Mary Crooks, the Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, a special thanks to you.

It’s so great to be in Melbourne, in Victoria, the home of some great feminists. Vida Goldstein, the first women to stand for parliament. Henrietta Dugdale, one of the founders of the first female suffragette society in Australia. This afternoon, we’re talking about women and leadership. About the slow pace of change, about why it’s so important that we have women in leadership positions, and what’s got to give to get us there. But it’s pretty hard to talk about women and leadership without acknowledging that just three weeks ago America’s first female presidential candidate for a major party, one of the most experienced candidates ever to run for president, was defeated by a man who had no experience in government. And incidentally, had said some pretty foul things about women, people with disabilities, racial minorities, migrants and Muslims.

There has been a lot of soul searching done since the US presidential election about what it means for a number of the values that we hold dear. It’s shone a light on what we’ve learnt about the prospects for women in leadership. Six years ago, Julia Gillard became Australia’s first ever female Prime Minister. In many ways, it seemed impossible until it happened. White Australian women gained the vote and the right to stand for Parliament in 1902. It was over 40 years before Dorothy Tangney and Enid Lyons became the first women to be elected into the federal parliament, and it was 108 years until Julia Gillard reached the countries highest office. What had for so long seemed impossible, quickly became the new normal. In fact, if you lived in my electorate at that time you would have had Quentin Bryce as your Governor-General, Julia Gillard as your Prime Minister, myself as your federal member of parliament. Our beloved Dame Marie Bashir as the New South Wales Governor. Premier Kristina Keneally, Verity Firth as your state member, and Clover Moore as the Lord Mayor.


Yeah. There was a brief shining moment. But of course, progress has been patchy and there have been set backs along the way. But at least it looked like we were heading in the right direction; a critical mass, of women in politics. In the days before the US election the grave of Susan B Anthony, the American suffragette, was covered with “I’m with her” stickers in support of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Many people believed that it was time, that America was going to have its first female president. Much was made of the fact that the democrat’s election night party venue had a great glass ceiling, and Hillary was finally going to smash it. But, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat instead became a harsh reminder that we cannot take progress for granted.

Hillary Clinton faced an election campaign marked by graphic sexism. From the comments made by now President elect Donald Trump, to the campaign merchandise sold at the Republican National Convention. T-shirts saying, “Trump that bitch” and pins declaring “Trump 2016: Finally, someone with balls”.  President Obama said, “I don’t think that there has ever been someone so qualified to hold this office”. Yet people complained that Hillary Clinton was not likeable, that she was not authentic, Donald Trump didn’t have to be likeable. Polling said that voters thought that Trump was more honest and trustworthy than Clinton. Hillary Clinton had been cleared of wrongdoing in her use of a private email server, and apologized for the bad judgement she had shown. Donald Trump had not paid federal taxes for 18 years, was accused of tax fraud and sexual assault during the election campaign. It really can be hard to win, as a woman in politics.

It’d be a big oversimplification to say that Hillary Clinton lost the election just because she’s a woman. But as Julia Gillard said about sexism in her parting speech, “it doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, but it does explain some things and it’s for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.” The trouble is, the minute we try and have a sensible conversation about sexism in politics, we’re accused of playing the gender card. After Julia gave her misogyny speech in the parliament The Australian newspaper described it as, “a distraction. A clumsy and manipulative gender war.” That’s not what the three million people who watched it around the world thought.

When Hillary Clinton called out Donald Trump for the comments he made about sexually assaulting women, he said that she was just playing the woman card. When a woman in power stands up to call out sexism, she’s often dismissed or disparaged. This might explain why some women involved in political life refuse to call themselves feminists. We now have a male Prime Minister who says he’s a feminist, and a female Minister for Women and a female Minister for Foreign Affairs who say that they’re not. I suspect it’s because they may think that aligning themselves with the women’s movement makes them an easier target, makes it more likely that they’ll be dismissed as serious political figures. “Don’t play the gender card, don’t say you’re a feminist”.

Of course sexism isn’t an explanation of everything, but we do have to call it out and understand what it does account for. A number of commentators in the Atlantic and in the Australian Financial Review have described 2016 as a year of backlash. In her famous book from 1991, feminist journalist Susan Faludi says that backlash occurs as a pre-emptive strike that stops women before they have reached the finish line. Sometimes you only take two steps forward only to be pushed right back. In recent years I think that feminism has been infused with a new energy, and I think that there’s an identifiable resurgence of feminist activism. I think the fact that you’re all here today is proof of that. It’s lead to striking changes in public attitudes about a number of feminist issues.

When I first worked in domestic violence, about 25 years ago, there was still a sense that domestic violence was a women’s issue that women feminists had to fix. We’ve now got, by partisan agreement, that this is a key issue for all of us right at the centre of our national agenda. Conversations about privilege, street harassment, rape culture, revenge porn, the gender pay gap, women’s superannuation, I think have moved into the mainstream. The idea of women in leadership has become so normal that when Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau was asked why half his cabinet were women, he simply replied, “Because it’s 2015.” Also in 2015 Queensland swore in its’ first cabinet, Australia’s first cabinet, with a majority of female cabinet ministers; a female premier, and a female deputy. We’d had so many teams where the leader and the deputy were both males, and yet remarkably for the first time a female premier and a female deputy.

But again I say, progress is always patchy. Though we are moving forward, there is definitely an identifiable push back as well. Susan Faludi said that the, “force and fury of backlash churned beneath the surface, largely invisible to the public eye.” Except of course if you go online, and read the comments sections. Feminism has, to a large extent, made it harder for people to publically put their name to sexism. Conversely, anonymity online has allowed for the explosion of horrific abuse. I guess what I’m worried about is that some of the stuff that’s been confined to online abuse has more recently broken through into a wider national discourse. If you look at racism for example, just this week Peter Dutton became the first government minister since The White Australia Policy to stand up in parliament and condemn Australia’s multicultural immigration policy by talking specifically about one group of migrants. This, set against the backdrop of the right wing of the coalition wanting to weaken section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the continual campaign by parts of the media against what they call “political correctness”. An accusation of political correctness works in much the same way as an accusation that you’re playing the gender card.

Mark Latham was out in the press this week celebrating Mr Trump’s tough, politically incorrect talk. I’m sure you’re all very familiar with Mr Trump’s tough, politically incorrect talk. We saw plenty of that during the campaign. What bothers me is that when people say that they like politically incorrect talk, what they’re actually saying is that they like or at least are not troubled by sexism or racism in the public discourse. For me, the problem with that proposition is that it’s not far off saying that you’re not troubled by sexism or racism. I think only people who have never experienced sexism or racism would feel that way.

So the backlash does not explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, but it does explain some things. I really want to emphasize here that I don’t want to oversimplify what happened in the US presidential elections. It was much more than just sexism; it’s way too simple to suggest that Hillary Rodham Clinton did not become president because she is a woman. 42% of American’s did not turn out to vote. 1.7 million fewer voters turned out to vote for Hillary Clinton, than did for Barack Obama four years earlier. Obviously the reopening of the FBI investigation contributed to the Trump campaign narrative of crooked Hillary. Plenty of voters were disillusioned with politics full stop. Despite both Hillary and Bill coming from modest backgrounds and devoting their lives to public service, they were seen as the establishment. The Clinton name, instead of being an advantage, gave a sense of political dynasty. At the bottom of all of this, voters have genuine and serious concerns about economic insecurity and rising inequality. As I’ve said many times before, economic insecurity gives people the feeling that the system is stacked against them, or broken all together. Both in the United States and in Australia people are worried about insecure work, stagnant wages growth. There are uncertain about where jobs for the future will come from. Technological change, terrorism, climate change, unprecedented by generation flows have all contributed to a feeling that the world is changing rapidly, and people are worried that they will be left behind.

So what does this mean for women in leadership? Well first of all, first of all, we cannot take progress for granted. We have to keep prosecuting the case, that democracy is better and stronger when it is more representative. There is no more important a time to have a greater number of women in leadership positions, because the laws that women have fought for can be unwritten. So women need to stand their ground, and we need to do it in a way that brings more people in. We need to fight for bread and butter issues that matter, for the broadest range of people in our community. Lots of media analysis of Donald Trump’s victory focused on the economic insecurity of white working class men, but economic instability and economic inequality is a problem for women too. It’s particularly a problem when we still have a significant gender pay gap in this country. Economic instability and economic inequality is a problem for migrants too, who often face discrimination in the workforce, who often cannot use the skills that they have developed in their country of origin to get jobs here in Australia and are often doing work that they are paid less for.

So the interests of these groups are in accordance, they are not in opposition. We need to make it clear to every Australian that feminism is not about advantage, it’s about equality. Women are half of the population; we should make up half of our parliament. It’s a pretty simple proposition. We govern better when our parliament is more representative of our community. You all know all of the research on this stuff, the Harvard Business Review says that getting more women into your team can boost performance. There’s other research that shows that companies with higher representation of women on their boards or in senior management actually perform better financially. There’s evidence that when you involve women in peace deals after wars, those deals are more durable. We make better decisions when there are more women at the table. It’s a common misconception that government policies, spending, tax, education, health care and all of the rest of it, are gender neutral. While the Women’s Liberation Movement made major gains in fighting for women’s rights, while it’s not possible to legally discriminate against women in the way that it used to be, existing patterns of gender inequality obviously mean that government decisions still have different effects on men and women.

You heard from Senator McAllister about superannuation for example, the gender gap in superannuation earnings and what we can do about that. When the Abbot government came to power in 2013 there was only one woman around a cabinet table of 19 people. The 2014 budget has been widely described, including by the National Foundation for Australian Women, to be one of the worst budgets for women in living memory. When you ask the government to consider how policies effects 50% of the population, it’s not ok to be told that that’s special pleading. One budget later, the coalition had doubled the number of women that they had in their cabinet,


Yes, from one to two that’s right, and this time they were out vilifying mothers as double dipping wroughting fraudsters for claiming both the legal entitlement that they had to paid parental leave, and the workplace entitlement that they had traded away other pay and conditions to get.

It is partly about numbers, these policies; it is partly about the number of women sitting around the table when the decision is made. Only one in five coalition senators and members of parliament are women. We have twice that proportion in our ranks, in the Labor party. Labor has more women on its front bench than the liberals have across their entire parliamentary team; in the whole of the House of Representatives. That means that we put gender equality at the heart of our policymaking, and that’s why we recommitted to a gender impact statement for all government legislation before the last election. That’s why we do that; we put that gender lens over legislation in the Shadow Cabinet process as well. The more women we have in parliament, the more diverse life experience we have sitting there when the decisions are made. We get better decisions that way, but it doesn’t happen by accident. None of this happens by accident, it’s not inevitable. The question really is what’s got to change for this to be embedded, and for all of our institutions to have something closer to 50/50.

I think in many ways, it’s not as complicated as people make it. One of the things that has to change is that there has to be a will to change. We know that getting women into leadership positions is the right thing to do; we know that there is no defensible reason not to do it because in the spirit of Justin Trudeau, it’s 2016, and we know how to do it. You need to make firm commitments, you need to set targets, you need to be prepared to be judged by them, you need to stick to them. In 1994, labour adopted a rule saying that at least 35% of our parliamentarians would be women. We lifted that target, as we achieved it, to 40%, and then at our last federal conference we lifted it again to 50%.


So look at the experience of this, with targets, the number of labour women parliamentarians increased from 18% in 1994, 18%, it’s pretty pathetic isn’t it, 18% in 1994 to 45% now. Over the same period, but without targets, the number of liberal women parliamentarians went from 14%, so not that different from us, a little bit less, but not that different, to just 21%. Half the proportion that we have, less than half. Last year when we raised our target to 50% by 2025 I actually felt confident that we could achieve it.

There’s not one simple solution, we need cultural change, of course we do. We need flexible working arrangements in our institutions. We need a really good hard look at what people are saying when they talk about merit. Because I think that there is, you know, a pretty frequent double standard when people talk about merit. In our party, we need to continue the culture change that has to happen at all levels of the party. We need to continue to affirm that equality should happen at every level of the party, including the most grassroots level, the branch structure, because that’s the pipeline for our future leaders.

We need, you know, last year, in the lead up to the last federal campaign I was talking to a lot of people about parliament and wether they should run for a seat and so on.  You know, talent spotting, a little bit of mentoring. The five people I spoke to who had a real shot of getting a seat in the federal parliament, three women and two men. The three women said to me, that ended up not proceeding, ok, so the five people that I spoke to that had a real shot at it, three of them were women and they said that they could not do it for family reasons. Two of them were men, one said that he wouldn’t do it if the seat wasn’t safe enough, and one said that he wouldn’t do it because the pay wasn’t good enough.


So, we’ve still got some challenges and there’s a lot that we can do to get women into leadership positions and support them when they get there. But for my money, the single most important thing is to set targets and agree to be judged by them.

I’ve actually hit time and have got about one more page to go, so do you forgive me if I go slightly overtime?

Audience: yeah

The fastest way I think of getting to critical mass is setting that target, because it promotes a virtuous cycle of change. You get that critical mass and that makes it easier for the next lot of people. The real power of targets is not the rule change itself; it is the culture change that it drives. It changes people’s mindsets. It removes the permission to say that there are no suitable women. Committing to a target says that this is important to us and we agree to be judged on this. So I’m confident that we’ll meet out target. I’m confident that we’ll beat it. I’m really proud of the women that I work with now, women who have been around for a long time like, many of you are Victorians, the fantastic Jenny Macklin whose made a bigger change to social policy in this country than any other human being alive.


Penny Wong, our leader in the senate.

-Applause, cheers-

Senator Jenny McAllister, who you may have heard from this morning, made such a difference in these issues around superannuation. Tomorrow, you’re going to hear from Terri Butler from Queensland and who in just one term has made a huge difference. There’s Queenslanders in the audience, on issues around domestic and family violence. Anna Bligh, who gave such a compelling talk this week to Emily’s List about how feminism needs to change to encompass cultural diversity as well. And of course Emma Husar, who on this day in particular should be acknowledged for her incredible bravery this week in speaking about her experiences of domestic violence.


I am proud of our team, I am proud of these women, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. But it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to set targets, you have to change culture, we have to recruit the pipeline of the future, we have to work together to do it. Progress is not inevitable, we have to protect it, we have to build on it, because gender equality is too important to risk by taking it for granted. Thank you.

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