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Rosemary Follett and Kate Carnell reunite to fight sexism in politics

When Kate Carnell ascended the stage on election night, February 1995, to the cheers of supporters and the glow of television cameras, Canberrans didn't realise they had just witnessed history.

The 1995 ACT election was the first and, to this day, only contest between two female leaders in Australian history.

The vote on February 18 ended with a minority Liberal ACT government when the two independents, Michael Moore and Paul Osborne, agreed to support Kate Carnell as chief minister, ending Rosemary Follet's minority Labor government.

Twenty years later, former chief ministers Carnell and Follett have come together to remember the election that changed both of their careers and to call for more female leaders in Australian politics.

"Any way you look at it there are many, many women who are capable of that job of leadership and making an impact at every level of government and I think we should see more," Ms Follet said.

"The times have changed. It's high time that, particularly federally, we saw many more women in charge."


Ms Follett became the first female leader of a state or territory anywhere in Australia when she was elected chief minister of the ACT in 1989.

She lost government on her second innings leading the territory in 1995, losing to Ms Carnell's Liberal party seven seats to six.

Ms Carnell said she believed an election between two female leaders had a different tone. "There was quite a significant level of respect between the two of us," she said.

"I like Rosemary. So that doesn't mean we weren't capable of playing hard ball – we were – but it wasn't nearly as personal as other elections have been."

Two decades later, Ms Carnell laughs about how she had never expected to win in 1995. "I had no idea what I was doing," she said.

"Quite seriously, I was really new, I'd only been in politics a few years and in some ways that was a good thing because I went into politics because I really wanted to make a difference ... I had a pretty clear view along with my team of the things we wanted to do for Canberra."

"The times have changed. It's high time that, particularly federally, we saw many more women in charge."

Former ACT chief minister Rosemary Follett

Ms Carnell said the 1995 campaign was a grassroots movement and it was during those few weeks the ACT branch of the Australian Liberals became the Canberra Liberals.

"I had a good support base, not the party as such but within the business community and the community more broadly," she said.

"We didn't have any money [because] I don't think anyone thought we could win, including me!"

Reflecting on her time in government, Ms Follett said she felt she had accomplished a lot, although it had been disappointing to lose.

"[Putting] the territory's budget on a firm footing was incredibly difficult," she said. "It really set the territory up, we've done well since then and I'm quite proud of that, getting us a good credit rating and seeing the territory thrive since.

"Obviously, though, there were things I wanted to do and wasn't able to do."

There have been three female chief ministers in the ACT since the start of self-government in 1989, including Katy Gallagher who recently left the assembly to become a federal senator.

Until the election of Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland this year, no other state or territory in Australia had had more than one female leader. Since 1995 there has not been another election between two female party leaders.

Emily's List co-convenor Tanja Kovac said there was a lack of all-female contests  because there was a lack of women in the Coalition parties.

According to the Composition of Australian Parliaments report, nationally women make up 42.2 per cent of all Labor party parliamentarians and just 18.8 per cent of Coalition parliamentarians.

"The Coalition is not electing and not putting women forward to be members in Parliament," she said. "We have been talking about the need for quotas and the effectiveness of quotas and targets for 20 years and the success [in Labor] speaks for itself."

Ms Kovac said of the nine female leaders Australia has had, eight have been from the Labor party. The only Liberal leader was Ms Carnell.

"Now there are very senior, very well respected [Coalition] women whose voices have joined the conversation that was started by former senators Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce," she said.

"They have to do more in their sphere to address women's representation in the Coalition and they know that and I encourage them on their journey. The stats speak for themselves.

"It's been disproven now after 20 years that merit alone won't overcome systemic disadvantage."

Ms Carnell said there was a disconcerting trend of women leaders being set up to face massive election defeats. "Women only get a guernsey when no one reckons we've got a show," she said. 

"Even when we have been elected it hasn't been because the party structure perceived we were the best chance of winning, shall we say. But I think Annastacia and me and a few others have actually shown that you can win elections and we can win elections from really difficult positions."

Ms Follett said it was time for the rest of the country to join the ACT.

"We've always welcomed women in leadership roles and been quite progressive in our views on who should be in parliament and what it takes to lead," she said.

"It's not always a job for a man. It's not always a job for aggression or one-upmanship. I think that is a tick for the ACT."