Joan Kirner discusses affirmative action for ALP women, 2008

Transcript of the recording

When I left the parliament, there were only about four women left in the [Victorian Legislative] Assembly, four Labor women, and as I left of course Carmen [Lawrence] left too, quite close to the same time, and we decided along with some others who'd lost power, because most women were in marginal seats, because we're so good at winning them, that we'd better do something about that. It just wasn't good enough to, on swings and roundabouts, have almost no women in state parliament.

So that's when we set about, with Paul Keating's support fortunately, getting an affirmative action policy in the Labor Party. We knew we had to change the rules, and we did change the rules, and it took a hell of an effort to do it, but we did it with Paul's support. And we were doing it for this band of very bright young women that we could see were being kept out of parliament by the blokes. And then of course, we thought, well that's terrific, we've changed the rules, but we hadn't changed the culture. So that's when we set up Emily's List.

I think if we hadn't done that we would not have the enormous change that we've had. I mean, in the early 1980s we had about 68 Labor women in parliaments across Australia. We now have 155. The conservatives have half of that, so don't tell me that affirmative action doesn't work. It does work, and what's more the talent that we now have in the federal parliament and state parliaments, we've demonstrated that we've lifted the quality. You give women the opportunity and you lift the quality and the breadth of advice and I think conservatives are yet to do that. It doesn't just happen.

And what we we're aiming with, particularly with setting up Emily's List, was not simply to repeat the past, but to get women in who were progressive and committed to the principles of equity and participation and decent child care, and work-family balance and diversity etc. And we now are starting to get what we were aiming for, which is women running in safe seats which gives women the chance not to worry so much about winning their electorates, holding onto their electorates as swinging seats, but to serve their electorate, but at the same time serve the broader nation, and that's essential.

And we're starting to get the critical mass. You only get women believing that they are seriously wanted in parliament if you start getting the critical mass, because if you're one-off or one of a few, it's too easy to be pinpointed. So Australia has been slow, in comparison with some other northern European countries, and some Third World countries in fact, in having equal numbers of men and women, but it's a damn sight better than it was 12 years ago, and I think it will continue to improve. And we're well ahead of the United States, even though that's where we got the idea of Emily's List. I think we're down on the list as about 15th or something, but it's got to be continued, and one of the things that I think the [Labor] Party has to guard against is that people don't get the view that, 'Oh, well, the girls have had their turn, and now it's the boys' turn.' No, the best parliaments are those where the population in its diversity and gender is represented, and so you get democracy and you also get the breadth of views that a parliament needs to represent its community.