Equality and representation should be a defining issue for this federal election

Thousands gathered on the lawns of Parliament House for the March 4 Justice protests in March last year. Picture: Karleen Minney
Thousands gathered on the lawns of Parliament House for the March 4 Justice protests in March last year. Picture: Karleen Minney

In February of this year, I sat in an audience at the National Press Club to witness two incredible people deliver one of the most powerful and courageous speeches I've ever witnessed. Nestled in the heart of Canberra's parliamentary hub, this was the nation's most iconic forum for discussion and debate. The atmosphere was electric. I watched as Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins took to the stage - two young women, two survivors. It finally felt like the power of young women was being recognised in this country.

But that day, I also looked around me and realised that the room did not look like the diverse society that Australia is. From journalists, to politicians, to feminist advocates and supporters, the room had very few women of colour, First Nations women, women living with a disability, gender diverse people and other marginalised groups.

As a university student, the clear lack of diversity was jarring compared to the vibrant and multicultural campus I was used to being in. It was a reminder that spaces of power reflect who is born with power, where some can easily rise to the top while others may never have access.

Parliament is one example of who holds power and who does not. Federal Parliament was entirely controlled by men for four decades until the first women were elected in 1943. First Nations women were only able to vote in 1962. These unhealthy foundations created an unhealthy system, and the legacy of this exclusion continues to this day. Women - and especially women and gender diverse people experiencing multiple intersections - are not adequately represented in parliament. And for those that have worked so hard to get there, to take that seat - it's not even safe.

Young women have plenty of examples of the price of speaking up, from the backlash Grace and Brittany have experienced to the exclusion of Dhanya Mani in the national coverage of sexual assault in politics. We've also seen what happens to women in the political system. Former Liberal MP Julia Banks' experience of sexual harassment and bullying reveals the ongoing culture of silencing women who dare to say "no". Brittany Higgins' alleged rape in Parliament House exposed politician after politician who could have done something but turned away.

Our democracy pays the price. Just one in 10 young women, most of whom will be voting for the first time in a few weeks, felt parliament was a safe place for them to work when Plan International Australia surveyed them in 2021, right after Brittany Higgins bravely came forward. And despite a number of reviews into the culture of parliament and promises to fix things - 60 per cent of young women surveyed again this month by the charity for girls' equality said they do not believe parliament has become any more safe or equal in the last year. An unsafe political culture means we lose out on the bright and powerful voices of young women who should be in politics and could change this country for the better.

On an intersectional level, the perceptions of safety and equality in politics is even bleaker. Almost three quarters of young women in Australia do not believe politics is an equal space for those of diverse cultural backgrounds. One third of culturally and linguistically diverse young women said they would not ever consider politics because of their cultural or ethnic background and because our parliament is not diverse enough.

Almost half of those who identified as LGBTIQ+ said that their reluctance to seek a political job stems from perceived homophobia and transphobia in parliament. The same amount of young women with a disability said the lack of inclusive practices for people living with a disability is a reason they would not pursue a career in politics.

Yet despite these problems, our system is not set in stone. Whatever the election result, the new government that forms after May 21 can and must take clear and tangible steps to fix it all. Together with Plan International Australia, I am calling for all parties to commit to implementing the transformative suite of recommendations in the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's "Set the Standard" report in six to 18 months. All political parties must also set targets for the representation of women and people of different ethnicities as a first step towards ensuring our parliament represents all people across the diversity of our country. All parties must also commit to introducing mechanisms to report back to survivors on the implementation of the "Set the Standard" recommendations.

I refuse to turn away from democracy and politics despite seeing inequality and violence play out. As a young woman of colour, I see how doing this would only reward those who want us to remain silent. That does not mean I will pretend this systemic injustice does not exist. It does. Women across Australia recognise this too. At the March4Justice rallies around the country, women across generations screamed for justice at Parliament House until our lungs hurt. In Melbourne's protest, girls as young as 12 took to the stage in their school uniforms sharing their experiences of sexual assault. We listened, we cried, and we demanded change.

I see how my generation is willing to resist formalities to speak truth to power. Now, more than ever, we need young people in all their diversity to give a voice to our experiences in a way that other generations could not capture.

The burden weighs heavy on our shoulders. We need you to make equality and representation a defining issue for this federal election in the name of safety and respect.

Our demands are clear. It is time that we reimagine and create a better, fairer, and inclusive parliament. Our representatives should represent us.

  • Yasmin Poole is a Plan International Australia ambassador, Martin Luther King youth influencer of the year and Rhodes Scholarship winner.
This story Equality and representation should be a defining issue for this federal election first appeared on The Canberra Times.