The appointment of Kristina Keneally as the Premier of NSW is a historic moment for women in Australian politics.
With Carmel Tebbutt as her deputy, and Marie Bashir as the state’s Governor, NSW has Australia’s first all female leadership team at a state or federal level.
Keneally was elected on Thursday night at a special meeting of state Labor MPs who dumped Nathan Rees after 15 months in the job.
Keneally, who says she’s been a feminist since she was eight-years-old, says she’ll lead with her own style.
“I am my own person. Every since I was a little girl, I’ve been able to make up my own mind.
When I was 8 years old, I rang the local bishop, the local Catholic bishop, on talkback radio station and demanded to know why girls couldn’t be also so good. I’ve always been a person whose had her own mind and made her own decision. That’s the approach I’ve taken in planning, that’s the approach I’m going to take as premier.”
But Keneally is far from the first woman to reach the top political job in an Australian state or territory.
So far, all have been from the Labor Party.
The pioneer was Rosemary Follett in 1989, when she became the Chief Minister of the ACT.
In 1990, Carmen Lawrence became the country’s first female state Premier – in Western Australia – and Joan Kirner was appointed Premier in Victoria soon after.
In December 2007, Julia Gillard became the first woman to lead the country, when Prime Minister Rudd temporarily handed over his duties while he was overseas.
And in March this year, Anna Bligh became the first female to be Queensland Premier.
Carmen Lawrence says the representation of women in Australian politics has improved greatly since the 1980s – and she attributes this largely to a Labor policy of reserving a proportion of “winnable” seats for female candidates.
“It’s like all establishments and institutions: members of that institution tend to clone themselves. So when they’re looking for a new candidate, they look for someone like themselves. And if the existing constitution of it is largely male, then that tends to be what happens. We sat down at one stage, we being some of the women in the party, and figured out that at the rate we were going, it would take another 200 years to reach parity, you know, 50-50 in the parliament.”
Eva Cox is the Chair of the Australian Women’s Lobby.
She says the appointment of Keneally as the Premier of NSW is not a victory for feminism.
“Well, if it wasn’t for the fact they appointed her because they were desperate, and because they’re trying to get the mess cleaned-up, which is exactly the same reason some years ago they appointed Joan Kirner and they also did with Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia, I’d be much more impressed. And in both cases they lost the next election because they were quite unwinnable, because they’d made such a stuff-up before they got there that they couldn’t fix it. I mean if they appoint a woman Premier when the state’s going well I’ll really believe we’ve got equality.”
Cox says women politicians are frequently subjected to judgement on matters not related to leadership – such as their appearance, dress sense or marital status.
“Kristina Keneally stands up and says, “I’m a working mother”. Did Morris Iemma ever stand-up and say, “I’m a working father”?
Moira Rayner is the former Victorian Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, and co-wrote the book “The Women’s Power Handbook” with Joan Kirner
She’s happy that NSW has appointed a female Premier, but shares Cox’sviews about the circumstances.
“I believe that until we get women who have lots of actual power in business and government, in relatively similar ratios at the decision making level, things haven’t improved enough. But just you wait, one of these days, probably before I drop off the perch, I will see a headline which simply comments upon the appointment of a political leader without actually making a remark about their gender, their dress, their age or their looks. And that’s the day when I think we really have made a major advance.”