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Pacific Women Policy Makers' Dialogue

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Address at the Official Dinner of the Dialogue


Speaker: Speech by The Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja (check against delivery)

Scenic Hotel, Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Good evening ladies and gentleman.

Sylvia thank you for your kind introduction, you are very generous. I loved your welcome remarks when you said that you weren't really keen about being selected to speak tonight in this distinguished company –I know exactly how you feel.

But, you have given me a great tip. You just flattered us by telling us how intelligent and beautiful we all were. I thought I would try that trick as well! It seemed to work also for you Mr Chair. Thank you for your kind comments to the gathering and for your support for women in politics, for gender equality and for adding that you were just a little bit intimidated – we like that too.

I won't go through formal acknowledgements because we do have such an array of distinguished people here tonight – distinguished women from parliament, public service and the public sector. It is a great honour to join with you this evening. I do want to acknowledge Fiona's work in getting us all together.

It is wonderful to be speaking at what is the official dinner of the Pacific Women's Parliamentary Partnership Forum this evening. And, indeed, the inaugural Pacific Women Policy Makers' Dialogue. So welcome ladies and gentlemen.

It is wonderful to be in Tonga, and I acknowledge our Tongan hosts and thank them for their hospitality, and the Waterfront Hotel as well. This is my first time to Tonga, not unlike some of you. But I was reliably informed by Uncle Frank Stott this morning, that he built the Australian High Commission in 1981. So I do have some links, albeit down the road.

On a more sombre note, I do acknowledge that Solomon Islands was supposed to be the host of the parliamentary program, and was unable to. On behalf of the gathering, if I may, I extend our sympathies to the people of the Solomon Islands whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed in the recent natural disaster.

Tonight, I am here to speak briefly on women and leadership. I have been asked to offer a few personal reflections and also to reflect on some of the work Australia is doing, particularly in the region. Today was a wonderful opening and I reiterate again how honoured and graced we were by the presence of Her Royal Highness Siu'ilikutapu Kalaniuvalu-Fotofili. I thought the Princess' words of wisdom were both inspiring and incredibly sage, and how exciting that she will do the honours tomorrow morning as well.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of doing some bilateral work, some visits around Tonga, including visiting the Women and Children Crisis Centre. I also got to visit the girls and women who play netball with Kau Mai Tonga–a wonderful program that is addressing some of the issues in Tonga to do with health, and also fostering volunteerism and, most importantly, sisterhood. This idea of women working, playing together, supporting each other–I thought if anything underpins the similarity between the work I was doing yesterday and today, that is it. We support each other by talking about the issues affecting us, and particularly, the obstacles and challenges that face us when it comes to parliamentary representation, political decision making and, more broadly, public sector representation. It has been great to share stories.

We are here to learn what current and aspiring Pacific women politicians need. We want to know the challenges that you face and how you hope this forum, and in fact tomorrow's forum, will be able to assist you in overcoming some of these challenges. I am encouraging you now to think deeply about how these parliamentary partnerships might better support you, and what projects of the Pacific Women initiative you might want to champion in your own country. Talk to Australia and highlight the initiatives that would be useful and how we can partner with you.

Today, I was keen to emphasise the diversity and difference among women, and that is precisely what should be reflected and represented in our parliaments. But while not all communities are the same, we do have more in common than the things that divide us. I also know there are different communities and different cultural and other institutions that we contend with or take into account in our deliberations. It is important to note that in some regions and in some countries we know that leadership may be traditionally perceived as men's work, whereas other communities have traditionally recognised women's leadership. We know initiatives will need to take into account cultural and historical contexts. At the end of the day, we face the same fundamental challenge–no country or community, irrespective of context, will reach its full potential while drawing on the skills of only half of its population.

In terms of the current situation – whether it is in Australia or across the world, women are underrepresented in our decision making institutions, and in particular, in parliament. This is an issue, as you know, close to my heart. I was the youngest woman ever to enter the Australian Federal Parliament. At the time I entered parliament only 14.9 per cent of Members in the Federal Parliament were women. For some of your countries, that may seem relatively promising. However, remember in Australia we granted the right to vote, and the right to stand for Parliament to women at a federal level in 1902. Today's figures are around 31 per cent female representation in our Federal Parliament. If you compare that to some of the progress and rate of change in some of your nations, you will see Australia has a long way to go.

We are all familiar with, especially in the Australian context and other democracies, media portrayals and perceptions of women. To be described in terms of, and judged and valued by, your personal status, your marital status, your family status – notwithstanding the responsibilities that come with those caring and other roles.

My favourite time in politics, and I think this came through today with some of the women I was talking to, was when women worked together. Cross party women support. Not many of your countries have the kind of party system we have in Australia. It is very rare for women to cross the floor, to vote together on legislation, specifically legislation that affects the interests of women. There was a pivotal time in the 2000's, 2006 in particular, where women did work together on issues specifically affecting women. It was the highlight of my parliamentary life - I loved the fact that we worked together, and we worked together in a way that was quite different from the usual engagement with men within our own parties or across the floor. I should be careful in saying that – I am not suggesting that more women in parliament has an ameliorating effect on the place. If you have seen Australian parliament, you will see women often give as good as they get.

I would like to think that some of the patriarchal systems or behaviours may change. But it is not about that. I do not want women to necessarily clean the place up. I want them to do what is right, and what is fair. And we know that ultimately more women in parliament will lead to decision making and policy that better reflects and represents the needs of women, and, I believe, families and children.

We know some of the barriers. We know in the Pacific women make up less than four per cent of parliamentarians. Even by worldwide averages, that is pretty low. So there is a lot of work to be done. We know that politics is still seen in some places as "men's work". We know that masculine political cultures pervade the electoral system in some places. In other cases we know women's access to finance is not comparable to that of men, whether aspiring candidates or men who may already be politicians. We know that women are underrepresented in leadership and decision making roles at the sub-national level of government and in the private sector.

We have been seeing progress, and we heard about that today, if I may reflect on the things that we have heard. Obviously, quotas are a topic of discussion, and in Australia it is a controversial topic still. My Labor colleagues here have introduced targets with, I think, success in Australian politics. Did the government of the day do that? No. Did my party? No, we did not. But we were able to achieve equality representation of women – and I look to Green colleagues here who have achieved parity as well. So, quotas are not always the answer. But I am quite inspired and find positive the fact that Vanuatu and Samoa, for example, have introduced quotas into their political systems. The Vanuatu parliament has mandated a 30-34 per cent quota for women's representation in Municipal Councils. It has already had an effect, and it has been quite exciting to see that. This will be supported by the Department of Women's Affairs, through training and support for elected women. Australia played a role in this – I am excited when we do good things like that. Samoa has reserved five seats in their national parliament, and we heard today from our Samoan representations how exciting it is that there will be five women. That is something to look forward to come the next election.

One initiative I love is the practice parliament. Typical women – we have a practice parliament where the women study for days, make sure they know everything, then do the parliament – do it perfectly and expertly, and learn the standing orders and parliamentary procedures. We really should do this practice parliament for the men! When you hear young women like 'Ana talking about the inspiring impact that it had on her, then you realise that practice parliaments, whether it is in Kiribati, or in Tonga, are a great resource to be utilised.

We will also watch with interest how the Fijian elections pan out. We acknowledge that all five Fijian political parties registered before the elections have appointed a female party president. That is progress as well.

The benefits. It seems a bit strange to be lecturing anyone on the benefits – you know them very well. We know that women in leadership roles have been shown to have a positive effect on bringing new ideas, decision-making and communication styles, which diversify and improve work places and work practices. We know that women's participation in politics and parliament help legitimise political institutions. Democratic institutions need to represent the diversity in our community. In addition to that, we know it will add to better law making. Evidence shows that increased numbers of women in government can lead to improved distribution of resources, and the maintenance of public infrastructure. International studies, particularly during the Global Financial Crisis, indicate that there is a strong correlation within companies between an increased number of women in decision-making power positions and increased corporate performance.

In terms of Australia's role, if I may, we spoke earlier today about Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development. Australia's first female Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, who some of you have met, is sorry she cannot be here, but knows how excited I was to be a part of this program. She gets it. She is a Foreign Minister who understands that empowering women is one of the best ways to improve economic, social, political and civic life. It is a no brainer. She understands that in this region gender inequality is imposing a high personal, social and economic cost on the Pacific people and Pacific cultures. She has committed to this initiative, Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development, $320 million over ten years. I love the fact that it is tailored to countries so you tell us what partnership you want to be in – what works and what are the opportunities that are the most benefit for you. This program funds the Pacific Women Parliamentary Partnerships program, which many of us here are participating in tomorrow. The program is designed to enable women to have a stronger sense of agency and have more opportunities to participate fully and safely in political, economic and social life.

I know some of you will be familiar with the projects underway, as I have met with you in various countries and talked about it. We are supporting the PNG Family and Sexual Violence Case Management Centre in Lae, to ensure women and children experiencing violence receive critical services including medical, shelter and legal support. It was an absolute privilege to visit the Women and Children's Crisis Centre here in Tonga yesterday. The Centre takes a human rights based approach and provides a "one stop shop" for women–counselling, medical, legal, police–those kinds of important services. I like the fact that Australia assists in some way in that regard.

In PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands we are improving infrastructure and management of produce markets so that women have a safer place to work and a safe place to visit. We are supporting women's equal participation in local economies. What a great honour it was to be in PNG not so long ago, to look at a hospital site and make sure we have services, quality services, for women who experience some form of sexual assault and violence.

In Solomon Islands we are working with church leaders, for example, to work across 30 communities to change attitudes and behaviours around gender violence. You know the statistics. You know the issues. You are working in this space. You are totem of what we need to do and how we can change these issues.

I would like to, for one minute, dwell on the issue of gender based violence. I wear another hat in Australia. I chair The Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and their Children. The first national, independent body created in Australia with an emphasis on primary prevention, so stopping the violence before it occurs. We would love to share some of the work that we are doing. We have been learning from different Pacific nations as well as other countries around the world–what do we do to prevent the violence before it occurs?

In terms of women achieving equal opportunity, whether it is earning an income, having an education, running for parliament, or working in the public sector, we know women cannot do that unless they live free of the fear of violence and abuse, in whatever form it may come. So that is one of the key priorities, not only in the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development program, but in my role as Ambassador for Women and Girls.

So today was a very positive environment. 'Alisi Taumoepeau used the word "vibrancy" to describe the feel, and as I said in my closing brief remarks, it was valuable to focus on practical solutions, while at the same time being honest with each other about the differences and the obstacles. I am a great believer in my country or anywhere else, in talking honestly with other women: political life is tough. Parliamentary life can be brutal. As 'Alisi said today, it can be fun. Yes, I loved the fact that you could change the world for the better with the stroke of a pen. We can change women's lives for the better. And children's and men's too.

But in order to get there, there are some hoops that we need to jump through. And after that, we need to ensure we are trained and supported while in that role. I love the idea of women networking together in that context.

I will end off with wishing my sisters all success. All power to you. Enjoy tomorrow's forum. To the secretariat and organisers, thank you for your efforts. Today was the inaugural dialogue of policy makers – the first in a series. There will be business and other ones as well. Tomorrow will be the second Parliamentary Partnerships Forum and I wish you well with that. I again thank you for putting up with me for the third time today, I thank the Waterfront for its hospitality, our Tongan hosts and, on that note, malo 'aupito.

Last Updated: 18 July 2014
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