Standing up for Canberra

Mornings with Adam Shirley: Women in Parliament

ADAM SHIRLEY, PRESENTER: Gai Brodtmann is the current Member for Canberra. She won’t be contesting the next election, as she announced some weeks ago. But she's been a participant, an observer, for the past two and a half weeks which I think, Ms Brodtmann, we can all agree have been somewhat unusual, at least to the public's eye. Good morning to you and thanks for coming by.

GAI BRODTMANN, MEMBER FOR CANBERRA: Thanks for having me, Adam. It's lovely to be here and I'm looking forward to having this conversation because I've been reflecting on this issue since my first term. In 2013 I wrote a piece for the Canberra Times on uncivil discourse and the fact that the pitch and the tone of parliament, the bile filled nature of the debate, was unbecoming for a Parliament but also was having an impact on the community in that fact that it was filtering out into the community. Some members of the community felt it was okay to abuse women. The emails that we received were appalling. The trolls and the conversations on Twitter were appalling and even when I was out at mobile offices quite often the conversations with some members of the community were pretty willing.

Shirley: Is that right? What sort of things was said to you, for example, at mobile offices?

Brodtmann: I remember one incident, it was at a pre-polling booth and I had this bloke screaming at me. He was in the queue waiting to vote. He was talking about how I was a disgrace, and how I was should get back to community work and how everyone knew my business was unsuccessful. My business had been running very successfully for 10 years and he's standing there amongst these voters and they're all looking at each other wondering what the hell was going on. My mother was there and I had to hold her back because she was going to basically go over and say a few words to him. That was the tone and the pitch of that time which is why I felt compelled to write that piece.

Shirley: Do you think that was because, or at least in part, that abuse came at you because you're a woman?

Brodtmann: Definitely. People were modelling the behaviours that they saw in parliament. There seemed to be a feeling that it was okay to treat women in a really misogynistic and sexist way. So we saw those behaviour filter out and reflected in the broader community. And then in 2015, I made a speech in parliament, which if you don’t mind I would love to read a bit out, it was in response to a Plan International survey that they had done on one thousand young women and girls. The survey showed that less than 1 percent of those young women and girls wanted to take part in the political process.

That concerned me, because I want women involved in shaping public policy, influencing public policy, serving their community, advocating for their community. In a way, what we do as MP’s is one of the highest callings to serve our nation and to try and make a difference to improve people’s lives.

So, in this speech I said that “the responsibility to improve the pitch and tone of debate rests with all of us. We, as leaders, must behave decently and respectfully to each other. We need to call out unacceptable behaviour when we see it and put an end to personal attacks. Ultimately we need to change the culture of public discourse in this country. I acknowledge that this will be hard and it will be confronting. But politicians, the media and the community have been the first to call for cultural change in our schools, in the corporate world, in our boardrooms, in our cultural sporting, and in our academic and religious institutions, in the public service and in the Australian Defence Force. There has been a call for an end of bullying and harassment; for an end to sexism; for an end to discrimination; for an end to the boy’s club and instead, a call for greater diversity. Each of these institutions is responding, yet curiously, we politicians are particularly quiet when it comes to the need for cultural change here in this institution in parliament.”

Shirley: So you said this in parliament several years ago, Gai Brodtmann. When you look back on the last three weeks, how much empathy do you feel for people such as Julia Banks, Lucy Gichuhi and Julie Bishop, as well?

Brodtmann: I feel a great deal of empathy for them. And I tried ringing Julia last week, but I imagine she would have inundated with calls. I tried ringing her just to see if she was okay and I feel a great deal of empathy for her. Because I know that, I mean I personally haven’t had any instances directed at me of bullying and intimidation, but I do know of other friends, who are some of them across the aisle, who have experienced it and they’ve taken it up

Shirley: Person to person.

 Brodtmann: Person to person and I applaud them for that.

Shirley: How much validity is there to the former Foreign Minister’s comments through this week on the behaviour in parliament? Her comments about question time as well which you have sat in on countless times?

Brodtmann: A great deal. I have been reflecting on this for nearly three terms now and I do think that yes, we definitely need more women in the place. Labor is doing a lot in that space in terms of 48 percent in the House of Representatives and we’ve got targets by 2025 in winnable seats. So we definitely need more women in the place, we need more diversity in place in terms of people from a broad range of backgrounds and also a broad range of race, religious and ethnic backgrounds. I heard the comments before about women from multicultural backgrounds; we need more diversity in that space. We also, however, we need more women in this space. My concern is that we are increasingly getting women, but it’s not just the case of getting more women in parliament who are going to emulate or mimic the current behaviours.

Shirley: I was going to ask you about that.

Brodtmann: We need behavioural change and we need cultural change. Yes, it’s a contest of ideas. Yes it gets willing. Yes it’s rigorous. Yes it’s robust. Yes it’s passionate. But it does not need to be personal and it does not need to be a blood sport.

Shirley: Let’s square up at this directly. What would you like to see men do? Be they Labor, Coalition, Greens or Independent members?

Brodtmann: Well, I think it’s all of us. I think is all of us in the place, the men and the women. We do need to change the behaviours and we need to change the culture. Again, reflecting and preparing for today Adam I think we need to look at what’s rewarded in Parliament. I think about the fact that I had someone come to me and say that I wasn’t a team player because I had never been thrown out of Question Time.

Shirley: This was someone in the Labor party?

Brodtmann: Yes, someone on my side.

Shirley: An MP?

Brodtmann: Yes, and I’m not going to name names. I am not doing any names. But I had someone on my side saying that.

Shirley: What was your response to that?

Brodtmann: Do you know what I said? I said “Since when did getting thrown out of Question Time become a key performance indicator?” So that’s what we need to look at. We need to look at what behaviours are being rewarded in this system. We all need to look at this not just in terms of us in parliament but also the community and the media. Because you look at Question Time - think about it. Being in that Chamber is like being in the Colosseum. You look up and you feel like you’re in the pit at the bottom of the Colosseum. The whole notion of Question Time, the preparation for Question Time - it’s all about performance.

Shirley: An adversarial politics?

Brodtmann:  It’s show time.

Shirley: Trying to take the other side down rather than promote your positive ideas or policies?

Brodtmann: It’s about spectacle. Think about it - you’ve got us in the Colosseum looking up. You’ve got the Press Gallery who all turn up at 2 o’clock. You’ve got the members of the community all turning up in the public galleries.

Shirley:  Cameras are on from 5 different angles.

Brodtmann: It’s broadcast. People are queuing up to get in to Question Time, some people get tickets for Question Time. It is in a way, a spectacle. It’s show time.

Shirley: Does that whole dynamic need to be reviewed?

Brodtmann: In terms of reflecting on this and what’s been happening over the last three weeks, and as I said preparing for today, and having reflecting on it since the first term, I do wonder if we do need to think about how this all goes. When I was thinking about the whole notion of Question Time, it is very much a spectacle. It’s seen as entertainment.

Shirley:  Some would argue a metaphorical blood sport intact.

Brodtmann: Yes, some would argue that. And you wonder if there is an expectation of the media that that is what it will be. An expectation of the community that is what it should be.

Shirley:  Is that manifested in the kind of behaviour subjected to you at that polling booth I wonder? Is that what normalises shouting and yelling at people, at politicians standing at a public place.

Brodtmann: In a way. That was a very unique set of circumstances, in terms of whole misogyny issues around Julia Gillard. The tone and the pitch have quietened down now. It has definitely has quietened down. But it was as a fever pitch from 2010 to 2013. What is concerning too, is the fact we have got spectacle. We have got a show time that is Question Time that has all the hallmarks of entertainment. When you go and visit the students when they do the role playing through the Parliamentary Education Office, there is a little mini parliament there. They go in and they mimic the behaviour they see in Question Time. So it’s just continuing. It’s just continuing.

Shirley: I know that you explained the reason’s that you are not recontesting for another term. Did some of all this play a role in your decision?

Brodtmann:  No, it was purely personal. It was mum. It was my family. It was wanting to spend more time with them. It was driven by purely personal reasons.

Shirley: I know that we speak before the next election comes around, it’s many months away, but would your message to your colleagues and your opponents political to be, just behave better, behave more positively?

Brodtmann:  Absolutely! Focus on the policy and not the personal. I can’t bare the personal attacks. I can’t bare it. And these comments people are making of “toughing up, princess” or “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”. Well I will say turn down the temperature.

Shirley: Gai Brodtmann, its food for thoughts at the end of what is been fairly tumultuous period of time in Australian politics. Aas I said we’ll speak again, I’m sure, before the end of the year. But I appreciate your time today.

Brodtmann:  Thanks so much Adam, and thanks for the opportunity.