by Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor, for The Australian
February 11, 2013
Fifty women parliamentarians met over the weekend in Sydney, from federal and state parliaments in Australia, New Zealand, and countries across the Pacific - from Papua New Guinea to Samoa, from the Marshall Islands to Vanuatu. Countries without women MPs were represented by other women leaders, such as Solomon Islands, by Ms Taeasi Sanga, Clerk of the National Parliament.
The Pacific Women's Parliamentary Partnerships Forum is part of the $320 million AusAID program launched at last year's Pacific Islands Forum by Julia Gillard to improve the lives of Pacific women.
Hon. Selina Napa is an opposition MP in the Cook Islands, where the Speaker is also a woman, Niki Rattle, and whose parliament has more female members than any other island country, with four out of 24. MP Napa won a by-election last July, as did another woman last week. Ms Napa, whose father had been a politician, had to beat her brother to win.
"Time will heal" the resulting awkwardness, she said.
"Women have brought in a new style of campaigning, of politics, which people like. It's less hostile, there's less animosity."
Ms Napa said village life used always to be male-dominated.
"So people asked: 'What can a woman possibly do for us in parliament?' Now they're starting to find out.
"And it's great to be here in Australia alongside women from your parliaments, too. We can all learn a lot from each other."
Hon. Lisa Baker, a West Australian Labor MP who chairs the Australian Committee of Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians, which hosted the Sydney meeting, said the Australians, in planning their program for the next three years, wished to become involved in the wider region.
"We know Australia is not all that flash" in its female representation, she said - about 20 per cent of all parliamentarians are women, 30 per cent federally - "but some Pacific states are just starting on that journey".
Ms Baker, now campaigning to retain her own seat, said 11 federal MPs attended the weekend meeting, from every party, including Greens senator Lee Rhiannon and Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop. Ms Burke said: "Everyone agreed that this is a wonderful thing, that we should be championing together forming partnerships with women around the Pacific, so they can overcome barriers to get elected to parliament, develop their abilities, and stay there a while.
"Otherwise, with just 4 per cent women members, countries don't truly get government of the people, by the people. Some are pretty patriarchal societies."
She said some of the island women MPs she had met were "truly amazing". Some had to overcome considerable intimidation to reach parliament.
Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, Anna Burke has just devoted a precious spare weekend to yet another meeting, squeezed between two full sitting weeks. This was for a cause about which she feels especially passionate: working to get more women elected in the Pacific Islands, where just 4 per cent of MPs are female, and helping them develop their skills.
She said: "It's about delivering more wonderful women in parliaments - people who lead by example, who by their compassion and intelligence transform lives in our region, and increase its whole economic prosperity."