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Canberra women achieving a record political majority

Emma Macdonald

The ACT’s Legislative Assembly has had a gender reassignment of sorts.

When the new and expanded chamber sits next Monday, the majority of MLAs will – for the first time ever – be women.

And this week two women, Yvette Berry (pictured, right) and Nicole Lawder, have been elected deputy leaders of the Labor and Liberal parties respectively, further bolstering women in leadership positions. Canberrans voted for 13 female politicians out of a total of 25 in the new and expanded Assembly – that’s 52 percent, and a new record of gender representation in any Australian Parliament.

Of course, if any Australian Parliament was going to crack this glass ceiling it was sure to be Canberra – we had the first female leader in 1989 with the election of Labor Chief Minister Rosemary Follett.  We also produced the first Liberal head of government in 1995 with Kate Carnell and our voting record has traditionally returned a higher proportion of female politicians than the other states or territories.

For newly announced Liberal deputy leader Nicole Lawder, Canberra’s record-breaking new Assembly composition is not really surprising – even if she welcomes it with open arms.

“Canberra often leads the way on these sorts of things…As an ACT representative on the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, I know this is a goal of theirs to increase female representation across the country, so I will be able to speak in glowing terms of the ACT experience.”

Nicole Lawder. Image: Supplied

Nicole Lawder. Image: Supplied

Nicole – a mother of five and grandmother of 11 – said she believed the majority of women in the Assembly would “definitely be a good thing, bringing a different focus and a different style of debate. Certainly, I would like to see that.”

Similarly, the city’s new deputy chief minister and mother of two Yvette Berry said it was wonderful to see the Canberra community faithfully represented in the Assembly.

“Women make up nearly 51 percent of the community so Canberra has voted to have its community represented equally.”

Like Nicole, Yvette said she expected there would be some shift in the focus of debate within the chamber.

“I think it gives us a chance to focus on the issues women find important, and while most of the issues are no different to what men find important, I do think women tend to prioritise a bit differently, placing more importance on issues such as equality and equal pay, children, and the community.”

Both women agreed that the tone of invective that ratchets up every Question Time, may not reach the same peaks within the new Assembly. Certainly, they hope it doesn’t.

According to Yvette “women argue and debate differently, they do it just as well, but differently. I’d like to see a less confrontational style of debate, as it’s not necessary in getting your point across.”

“I think it’s encouraging for people to be passionate…but you can still make your point without being combative and getting nasty.”

Nicole agrees.

“I’d like to see a different style to debate. And I expect more women may help tone down the combative nature – although I expect that it will still be the case at times. But I hope we can bring a bit more civility. We all have issues that press our buttons. And we all get fired up when we need to. But I strongly believe you play the ball not the man (or the woman!).

Both women will wait for portfolio announcements in the coming days, but Yvette will remain the Minister for Women – and will this week attend the Council of Australian Governments’ National Summit on Reducing Violence against Women and their Children in Brisbane.

Nicole, a former CEO of Homelessness Australia, said she would always maintain her passion for housing affordability and disadvantage and would welcome portfolio responsibility in these areas.

How women rose within the ranks

  • First Assembly 1989-1991 – 4 female MLAs out of 17 (23% of Members)
  • Second Assembly 1992-1994 – 6 female MLAs out of 17 (35% of Members)
  • Third Assembly 1995-1997 – 6 female MLAs out of 17 (35% of Members)
  • Fourth Assembly 1998-2001 – 2 female MLAs out of 17 (12% of Members)
  • Fifth Assembly 2001-2004 – 7 female MLAs out of 17 (41% of Members)
  • Sixth Assembly 2004-2008 – 6 female MLAs out of 17  (35% of Members)
  • Seventh Assembly 2008-2012 – 7 female MLAs out of 17 (41% of Members)
  • Eighth Assembly 2012-2016 – 7 female MLAs out of 17 (41% of Members)
  • Ninth Assembly 2016-2020 – 13 female MLAs out of 25 (52% of Members)

Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author