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Public Forum on Women's Transformational Leadership

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"Building Bridges Between Women in Politics in the Caribbean and Australia" – keynote address


Speaker: Penny Williams, Australia's Global Ambassador for Women, E&OE

Trinidad and Tobago

The Hon Senator Marlene Coudray, Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development

The Hon Dr Surujrattan Rambachan, Minister of Local Government

Distinguished guests

Members of the media

Ladies and gentlemen

I am so delighted to be in Trinidad and Tobago and to participate in this important conference on Women's Transformational Leadership. Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today – it's an honour to be able to share a little about Australia's experience.

I understand that local government elections are due to be held in Tobago in January next year and in Trinidad in July 2013. On Saturday – just two days ago – Canberra too was at the polls with legislative assembly elections for the government of the Australian Capital Territory, the equivalent of state elections in our system.

It's undoubtedly timely for us to come together here to share experiences about women's participation and leadership in governance processes, and to consider ways that we can support our common endeavour to pursue the equal participation of women in democratic processes.

For this is not just an issue of political and civil rights; rather, women's equal participation in all aspects of political, economic and social life is essential to the prosperity of our communities, our countries and the world.

The catchcry of leaders around the world on this topic will be familiar to many of you: gender equality is not just the right thing to do, it's smart economics.

Australia's strong commitment to gender equality is well-established and pursued at the highest levels of our government.

Our Prime Minister, our Head of State, the Deputy Leader of our Federal Opposition, just over 30 per cent of our Federal Parliamentary Ministry and almost 30 per cent of our parliamentarians are women, many working actively to promote the role of women.

At home, our government and civil society operate in a close partnership to empower women to participate in all aspects of political, economic and social life.

And globally, Australia is a determined international advocate on these issues with our partners, including across the Commonwealth.

Specifically, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth last year, our important partnership with Trinidad and Tobago was underscored in a very public way.

Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar, then the outgoing Chair of the Office of the Commonwealth, and Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard as the new Chair, agreed to work together to encourage Commonwealth leaders to sign a Joint Statement on Advancing Women's Political Participation.

Our Prime Ministers agreed to promote women in political leadership as a priority issue in the Pacific and the Caribbean and they announced that I would visit Trinidad and Tobago in support of this Pacific-Caribbean cooperation.

Almost a year to the day – for that announcement was made on the 25th of October 2011 – it is such a pleasure to be with you on the occasion of this conference, giving substance to those commitments made in Perth last year.

Australia's gender history and credentials

The rights that Australian women enjoy today represent more than a century of activism by Australian women of matchless courage and resolve.

Catherine Helen Spence, for example, was a journalist, social reformer, novelist, and the leading woman in public affairs in the early 1900s in Australia. She was in the vanguard of first-wave feminism seeking equality of opportunity for women and was Australia's first ever woman political candidate. From the pulpit to the platform, she championed the rights of women, lobbied for greater child welfare provision, and argued for a more democratic electoral system.

The opportunities my peers and I now enjoy for participation in education, in the workforce, in the media, in public life, and in high office are a gift from those women who through countless acts of defiance, across many decades, affirmed the right of every woman to a life of opportunity, freedom and choice.

I know the same could be said of the forebears of the feminist movement in the Caribbean.

Women such as Audrey Jeffers, social worker, women's activist and the first female member of the Legislative Council of Trinidad and Tobago, appointed in 1946.

Or, earlier, Catherine McKenzie who spoke on the subject of women's rights at the People's Convention Congress in Jamaica in 1901.

She attacked laws which discriminated against women and urged women to join the fight to change them. Catherine said "...the rights accorded to women have left much to be desired. Just why woman has been denied all the rights which are accorded to man is one of the unexplained relations of life, except that it is man who has made laws denying her such rights."

Women like the Caribbean's Audrey Jeffers and Catherine McKenzie, and Australia's Catherine too - Catherine Helen Spence - these trailblazers lived their lives inspired by faith in women they would never know and a future they would never see.

We are those women. We are that future.

We owe them a debt of gratitude, and we owe to them a responsibility: a responsibility to build on their foundations; to do more, to be more, and to make life better for the women who will come after us; to say and do in our own time the things that were once held to be unthinkable and unachievable.

April the 25th, 1896, was a milestone in Australia's feminist movement and also the world's. That day state elections were held in South Australia.

It was the first Australian parliamentary election in which women could vote, and it was the first in the world where women were permitted to run for office.

The state's newspaper, the Adelaide Advertiser, expressed its faith that women would not, and I quote, "leave their electoral privileges unexercised for fear of losing the bloom of their delicate and retiring femininity."

Another paper, the Adelaide Observer, pointed out the "air of responsibility" on the faces of the newly enfranchised voters.

So began women's journey in Australian political life.

But whether those first women voters knew it or not, they were doing more than just casting a ballot.

They were taking the remarkable and rendering it unremarkable, opening the way to a transformative century that would forever change the way human beings live, govern and think.

The 20th century was a century of big political movements and ideologies such as fascism, socialism and modernism.

And yet the movement that outlasted them all, and surpassed them all in what it has achieved for humanity, is feminism – the struggle for women's emancipation and equality.

It was the key that unlocked the door to everything else:

The right to learn, to work and demand a fair day's pay;

To choose our partners and our family structures, and manage our own health;

To strive to live free of coercion and violence;

And to shape the destiny of the nations in which we live.

No longer can girls and young women be told, as our predecessors were, that politics and the other professions are "no fit place for a woman".

The first female Member of Parliament in the Australian state of New South Wales, Millicent Preston-Stanley, had the perfect riposte when she said:

"Parliament clearly is a fit place for a woman provided she is fit for Parliament."

Then and now, women must come to politics with few illusions and with their sleeves rolled up.

Our systems of government must reflect the communities they serve.

Nowhere is the message of women's participation more important than in our political systems, because it is our political systems which embody the way our nations sees themselves, and women have the right to see themselves in the public face of our nations.

A political system without adequate representation of women is profoundly incomplete, and it is this fact that brings us here today.

Gender equality in contemporary Australia

Even though Australia lays claim to being the first country in which women were permitted to run for office, it was not until 2010 that we elected our first female Prime Minister.

Your record in this region is significantly more impressive with a list that includes Dame Eugenia Charles (Prime Minister of Dominica 1980-1995), Claudette Werleigh (Prime Minister Haiti, 1995-6), Janet Jagan (Prime Minister Guyana, 1997, and then President) , Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica (Prime Minister Jamaica 2006-07 and since January 2012), Michele Pierre-Louis (Prime Minister Haiti, 2008-09) and, of course, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar.

In fact, the Caribbean currently provides the Commonwealth with two of its four female Prime Ministers.

The presence of women in the highest of our public offices is not sufficient – in Australia, in the Caribbean, in any part of the world.

It's all well and good to have a woman in the top job, but that is no substitute for widespread and lasting change across our system of government.

We have 15 houses of parliament in Australia across federal, state and territory governments, along with 565 local councils.

The time is overdue for anything less than 50 per cent representation of women in all these bodies.

We aspire to equal representation at all levels of government and on public and private sector boards, and equality in the workforce.

But in my country, the contemporary picture leaves room for improvement.

As at September this year, women held 38.2 per cent of seats in our parliament's upper house, the Senate, and 24.7 per cent in the House of Representatives, down from the record high of 27.3 per cent in the previous parliament.

We have made progress in the workplace. Over the past 50 years, women's workforce participation has risen from 34 per cent to around 60 per cent.

There are 5.2 million women in jobs today, comprising around 46 per cent of the workforce.

But we're still not paid equal wages and we're underrepresented in business.

In 2012, our gender pay gap remains persistently high at 17.5 per cent, showing little change over the last three decades.

And according to Goldman Sachs, closing the gap between male and female participation in the economy would boost Australia's GDP by 13 per cent.

The Government has set a target to achieve a minimum of 40 per cent women on Australian Government boards by 2015.

We are tracking well towards this target, with 35.3 per cent of positions being held by women as at 30 June 2011.

But as of September this year, only 14.6 per cent of board members on the Australian Stock Exchange top 200 companies are women - this is an improvement on previous figures, but there is clearly still a long way to go.

Australia is changing regulations regarding its military service so that women can participate in all aspects of military life, but there have been longstanding, systemic issues affecting the capacity of women to contribute effectively to Australia's defence and security agenda.

This year, the Australian Human Rights Commission tabled its Government-commissioned Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force.

The Review made a number of recommendations aiming to address issues of under-representation of women at decision-making levels, as well as harassment, discrimination, and sexual assault.

More broadly in Australian society, gender-based violence remains an issue of deep concern.

Rates of domestic violence and sexual assault are alarmingly high and in 2011, the Government launched an $86 million National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children

This Plan is being used by the UN as a model for countries around the world.

Australia's reform agenda

Australia is committed to advancing gender equality domestically and internationally.

Over recent years, there has been significant momentum in our domestic agenda.

Women's economic empowerment is a priority.

A new Bill was introduced into our federal parliament earlier this year, proposing significant reform to existing legislation governing employment participation.

Once passed, the new Act – called the Workplace Gender Equality Act - will help increase women's participation in the workforce and their economic empowerment with a new focus on the unequal burden of caring responsibilities.

The new Act will help ensure that both women and men have equal options to balance their paid work and caring obligations.

It will also focus on equal remuneration, recognising that closing the gender pay gap is central to achieving equality.

Another important legislative reform – the Fair Work Act – has resulted in an historic pay equity decision. Social and Community sector workers – the majority of whom are women – will benefit from substantial pay rises based on a finding by Fair Work Australia that their work had been undervalued on gender grounds.

In 2011, the Government introduced a Paid Parental Leave scheme providing up to 18 weeks of Government-funded Parental Leave pay at the National Minimum Wage for eligible parents of newborn or recently adopted children.

And, from next year, Dad and Partner Pay will give eligible fathers and partners two weeks' paid parental leave. This sends another strong signal that taking leave to care for children is part of the normal course of work and family life for both parents.

In 2008, the Government rebate for out-of-pocket child care expenses was increased from 30 to 50 per cent, increasing the take home wages of women returning to work.

And on International Women's Day this year, Australia launched its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, implementing our commitments under UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and related resolutions.

This National Action Plan establishes a clear framework for a coordinated approach across government to integrate a gender perspective into Australia's peace and security efforts, to protect women and girl's human rights, particularly in relation to gender-based violence, and to promote their participation in conflict prevention, management and resolution.

These are important reforms, touching every Australian woman in some way.

But Australia's work to achieve gender equality doesn't stop at our own borders.

Women's rights, being human rights, are universal and indivisible.

The suffering of millions of women diminishes us all and obligates us.

As one of the world's top 20 economies, Australia is keenly aware of its responsibility to contribute to women's equality globally and to be a strong and persistent voice on behalf of the world's women and girls.

It was for precisely this reason that I was appointed as Australia's first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls in September last year. My key focus is high level international advocacy to promote the political, economic and social empowerment of women and girls around the globe.

Australia has demonstrated significant global leadership both as a tenacious international advocate and a provider of practical support to the world's women and girls.

We are a founding supporter of UN Women, the UN entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and one of the primary funders of the agency's work. From January next year we will be a member of UN Women's Executive Board.

We are an active participant in the UN's Commission on the Status of Women and we are signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and its Optional Protocol.

Our proactive role in these bodies, the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, enable the government to contribute to the setting and strengthening of global standards for the protection of women's rights and to speak out against discrimination and violence against women.

We work energetically within our other partnerships too – with the Commonwealth, with ASEAN, with the East Asia Summit, APEC and the Pacific Islands Forum to name an important few.

And we value working with civil society including women's organisations around the world to respond to global challenges.

For example, we have cooperated closely with Trinidad and Tobago towards an Arms Trade Treaty, co-hosting three Arms Trade Treaty negotiation workshops with Trinidad and Tobago's Women's Institute for Alternative Development (WINAD) in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Australia is making new investments to promote the empowerment of women and girls through our aid program which identifies gender equality as a critical and cross-cutting issue.

Most recently, our Prime Minister announced a new ten year, $320 million program in the Pacific to promote women's political and economic empowerment.

Where approximately 19.5 per cent of the world's parliamentarians are women, in the Pacific the figure is less than five per cent.


In the Pacific, in Australia, in the Caribbean, around the world, the journey of securing women's rights is far from done.

The equal representation of women in the world's allegedly representative bodies is an unfinished matter of simple justice and also a matter of improving the quality of democratic representation.

By having more women as legislators, more concerns – different concerns - will be brought to the public arena to respond to the diverse needs of society, including those of women themselves.

And, as the head of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, observed at the 30th anniversary of CEDAW in July this year, the role model effect of women leaders is important because it paves a path for equality for future generations.

She referred to a 2007 study in India which found that the increased presence and visibility of female politicians in local government raised the academic performance and career aspirations of young women and also changed for the better the attitudes and expectations of boys and parents.

In villages that had never had female political leaders, researchers found parents were 45 percent less likely to expect their daughters to continue beyond secondary school. The girls themselves were 32 per cent less likely to have those aspirations.

Clearly, when we refer to women's transformational leadership we are also talking of women's generational leadership.

This is not the work of one politician, of one party, of one government or even of one country.

Transformational leadership requires a collaboration among all of us, across political and geographic divides.

This recognition was at the heart of the shared commitment announced by our Prime Ministers in Perth last October and it is what has brought me here today – to share Australia's experiences, to learn from yours and to explore opportunities for our future cooperation.

In conclusion, I'd like to recount a brief anecdote told by an Australian state member of parliament, Virginia Chadwick, who died in 2009 after a distinguished political career spanning 21 years, from 1978 to 1999.

Virginia described how early on she had mentioned her political aspirations to a senior male MP and was promptly told that she was "the wrong age, the wrong sex and from the wrong place."

She proved him wrong in the only possible way – by entering politics and becoming a successful and eminent state Cabinet Minister.

To all the aspiring leaders attending today's conference, let me finish by saying, you are the right age, the right sex and from the right place.

Enter politics, be successful. It's the best and the only response to those who might wish to discourage you.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 10 December 2012
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