As a 15-year-old, in advance of the federal election held on October 18, 1980, my wonderful teacher, Mrs Pat Smith, taught us about our democratic system by running an election within our school, with each year 10 class forming an electorate.
I became the leader of one of the parties, and as it was an all-girl school, each of the parties were led by women. We developed policies, delivered campaign speeches and voted.
I have reflected on this more as I plan and work towards standing as an independent to represent the ACT in the Senate at the next federal election.
Over the years, at each of the successive elections since 1980, I have been aware of how different a style of politics and engagement is on display, compared to our own standards set as 15-year-olds. This has come into even sharper focus in recent times, as insults and retorts fly towards independent candidates from their incumbent targets, with harmful rhetoric being used to demean, used to degrade, used to personally attack.
People have become numb to the blokey performances displayed on the Parliament floor, as ad hominem epithets are hurled from each side of the chamber, with shots taken to injure the opposition, all in the interests of winning the day for their side. When issues are being debated, policies fall by the wayside as the person representing the "other" view becomes the main target. An attack on their credibility becomes synonymous with a hit on their policies.
And the floor of Parliament is not where the toxicity stops. As the harrowing events of 2021 have shown, this culture has seeped into the roots and foundations of the building on Capital Hill. Kate Jenkins' report, as distressing as it is unsurprising, scrupulously outlines the extent to which this malignant culture has spread, and the devastating effects for women.
This toxic culture within Parliament House is part of the reason for the stagnation and regression on the pressing issues of our time. As the government seeks to cater to the few marginal seats, rather than focus on the interests of the whole community, we have seen troubling inaction on climate change. Successive governments have eroded existing integrity measures, with the effects laid bare for all to see. The threat to women's safety, in the very houses of Parliament, exemplifies the need to improve equality across the country. In 2017, we as a country were given a golden opportunity, to walk with First Nations Australians and enshrine a First Nations Voice into the constitution. We still are awaiting this reality.
While these individual issues are all key priorities to my Senate campaign, and each needs considerable attention to progressing them, it speaks to a broader pattern of inertia. Rather than polarise and fight each other to see which view will be the last one standing, we must collaboratively work towards the best outcomes for all. This was my approach as a 15-year-old, and has been my approach for almost 30 years as an academic, a mum, a community volunteer and a pro bono lawyer.
After the next election, neither of the major parties - Labor or the Coalition - will achieve a majority in the Senate. This means the crossbench in the Senate will be crucial to the passage of every piece of legislation. At the moment, One Nation looks set to fill that role. Unfortunately, the approach of One Nation and their policies represent the extremes of the culture I have just outlined. If this is the case, and One Nation holds the balance of power, I fear this culture will only sink deeper.
Voters in the ACT have the capacity to break from the two-party duopoly, and choose an independent senator "above the line" for the first time. One who will not only nullify One Nation's power on the crossbench, but set the standard when it comes to balanced and deliberative policy outcomes.
I learnt an important lesson back in 1980 - my "party" won the school election, but I lost my seat! I was a Prime Minister without an electorate. There is no danger of that in a Senate run, but if successful, I will commit to exercising the influential role I would play in the Senate with engaged and collaborative leadership, based on years of public policy activity, listening to all constituents, engaged with the expert evidence and designing policy and law to benefit the whole nation.
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