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Will more women in federal parliament make it different?

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While the Australian Electoral commission is still counting one or two seats in the House of Representatives one thing we do know is that there will be more women.

And isn’t that a good thing.

There were 40 women in the House of Representatives of the last parliament.

That could rise to as many as 43 or 44. If the highest figure of 44 is reached, that would amount to women occupying about 30 per cent of seats in the lower house, up from about 26 per cent. We won’t know the results in the Senate for a few weeks.

The Coalition has reached that magic number 76 – and if they don’t win either of the last two seats to be finalised they will need the support of at least one Independent to pass anything in the lower house.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, both shocked at the result for different reasons, have spoken this week about a different type of politics, a new time for cooperation and “working together”.

And maybe it’s this result that will make all of them, the women and men elected to both chambers, realise that it might be time to approach governing just a little bit differently.

From where I sit, a new sort of politics – you can call it softer, gentler or just more sensible – sounds like the go. Whether the blokes (and the women) who run the two major parties embrace a gentler order we’ll have to wait to see. They’ll be keen to ensure that their brand strength is preserved. And the argy-bargy, the aggressive and the vitriol of politics has been a key part of that brand.

It may be this result, where millions of voters, about 25% of us, made a decision to vote for independents, signals a moment in time where the major parties might, just might, think properly about what’s going wrong and what they need to do to restore the electorate’s faith.

Sometimes, people talk about softer, gentler politics and the arrival of more women as being connected. To me, the word gentle isn’t a women thing, it’s a people thing.

But what I do hope is that rising numbers of women in the federal parliament might also bring a proper, cross-party discussion about flexible work, telecommuting, childcare and paid parental leave. When I co-authored The Working Mother’s Survival Guide a few years ago, flexible work was the biggest hurdle for women returning to work.

It’s hard, but not impossible, to try and make parliament a better place for parents, for both MP’s and their staff.

Just a few years ago, I worked as an advisor to a federal minister and I moved to Canberra with a 2-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son in tow. My Chief of Staff would convene staff meetings at 7am and most of us were required to remain in the office until Parliament rose each night, often after midnight.

After three years in that job my, then 5-year-old daughter commented after I made the decision to leave Parliament and start my own business:

“That’s a good idea mummy, we didn’t get to see much of you for the last few year”. Mummy guilt, oh yep. But women, indeed anyone who wants a life, shouldn’t be penalised because they want to work in politics in some capacity.

In this new Parliament, we have two new Indigenous women, the first female Muslim MP, and a raft of Independent MPs including Pauline Hanson. A lot of people have formed a view about Ms Hanson, but as she said last week upon gaining 1.2 quotas and possibly 3 senators in the new upper house – she is just as entitled to be there as anyone else who gained enough votes. And so she is.

So there will be a bunch of new women with different views, different life experiences and different priorities. But if the parliament is going to work they will all – men and women – need to think about how they might be able to reach some common ground, just occasionally. Because if they don’t, the next election will see even more Australians potentially support new, sometimes transient, sometimes unformed independent voices.

Feature image: Martin Ollman

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