Chief Minister Katy Gallagher says Australia has gone backwards on female participation at the highest levels of politics and decried the perception that leadership is a man’s game.
Addressing the annual YWCA breakfast on Tuesday, Ms Gallagher said the lack of senior women in politics around the country was unsatisfactory and that a period in 2011 when Australia had four female leaders now felt “like an interruption to the normal programming”.
“Just three short years ago when I became Chief Minister, I joined two other state leaders who were women. [Queensland’s] Anna Bligh and [Tasmania’s] Lara Giddings,” Ms Gallagher told the breakfast at The Lobby restaurant.
“Kristina Keneally had recently lost the 2011 state election in NSW. The Prime Minister of Australia was also a woman – and for a brief period of time just some eight months or so – four out of nine of Australia’s first ministers were women.”
Following Ms Giddings loss at last month’s Tasmanian election, Ms Gallagher is the only female head of government in Australia.
She will meet Prime Minister Tony Abbott and other state leaders for the Council of Australian Governments on Friday.
“This dramatic decline in female political leaders has happened incrementally and almost without comment,” Ms Gallagher said.
“Whilst the changes to individual positions have attracted attention –this loss of female representation at this level has been largely accepted as reverting back to the normal state of play.”
She said it was dreadful the proportion of female first ministers had declined from that high of 44 per cent to just 11 per cent in the space of 18 months.
Ms Gallagher urged guests at the breakfast not to allow women’s participation in politics to decline further and called for female MPs to have influence, to be leaders and be “the first amongst equals”.
“We cannot and will not be pushed aside and marginalised. If anything the forces which seek to push us aside should instead inspire us to fight even harder to be in the main arena,” she said.
During the event, she awarded five women grants as part of the YCWA Great Ydeas fund.
“Women of my generation – who have benefitted greatly from the feminist campaigns of previous generations – must inspire and support the next generation of women leaders to step up and take the baton for the next leg of the ongoing equality relay race,” she said.
The wide ranging speech also included how the ACT’s eighth leader came to political life. Ms Gallagher said she had sometimes questioned her loyalty to the Labor Party and did not expect to stand for the ACT Assembly when working in the community sector.
When she was 26 and mourning the death of her father, Ms Gallagher’s partner was killed in a road accident while she was pregnant with her first child.
She said the experience forced her to reshape her life. She was surprised to be approached by a group of “faceless women” encouraging her to contest the 2001 ACT election.
Ms Gallagher told the breakfast that leadership does not always bring popularity and that leaders should be honest, polite and consultative.