100 women

The Saturday Paper - - Letters & Editorial -

Per­haps it was naive to think Mal­colm Roberts, that swivel-eyed cli­mate scep­tic, who rose to the Se­nate with just 77 votes, was the high-wa­ter mark for the cham­ber’s lu­nacy. This week the man who took his seat, Fraser An­ning, him­self elected to the Se­nate with just 19 votes, used his maiden speech to call for an end to Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion. He de­ployed the term “fi­nal so­lu­tion” – a “mal­a­prop­ism” ac­cord­ing to his party leader Bob Kat­ter, who came out in sup­port of An­ning, try­ing to re­frame him as a man who never went to univer­sity, who hasn’t read the his­tory books, who never claimed to be any­thing more than what he was. “Are we racist?” Kat­ter asked, de­fend­ing the “solid gold” speech. “We’re Aus­tralians. I don’t know if that’s racist or not.”

The next day, Mehreen Faruqi was elected as the first fe­male Mus­lim se­na­tor in Aus­tralian his­tory. Born in Pakistan, she im­mi­grated to Aus­tralia in 1992, got her doc­tor­ate in en­gi­neer­ing and, later, be­came a mem­ber of the Greens. In join­ing the Se­nate, Faruqi gained an­other ti­tle, as the 100th woman to hold a seat in the up­per house – a mile­stone that took 75 years to reach from the elec­tion of Aus­tralia’s first fe­male se­na­tor, Dorothy Tangney, in 1943. “It is not as a woman that I have been elected to this cham­ber,” Tangney avowed in her own maiden speech. “It is as a cit­i­zen of the Com­mon­wealth.” And yet, the for­mer teacher spent her many decades in pol­i­tics ad­vo­cat­ing both for women – in­clud­ing their rights within divorce pro­ceed­ings – and for poli­cies that im­prove their lives – such as the ex­pan­sion of ed­u­ca­tion and so­cial se­cu­rity.

Our 57th fe­male se­na­tor, Penny Wong, the first openly queer fe­male mem­ber of par­lia­ment and the first Asian-born mem­ber of any Aus­tralian cabi­net, moved a mo­tion af­ter An­ning’s speech for the Se­nate to recom­mit to a racially non-dis­crim­i­na­tory im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy. “Those of us who’ve been on the re­ceiv­ing end of racism know what it feels like,” she said, “and know that what lead­ers say mat­ters.”

There is a ten­dency in Aus­tralia to look at our his­tory as a mea­sured march to­wards some in­evitable, fairer ideal. To point out that ev­ery year since Dorothy Tangney’s elec­tion, on av­er­age, an­other woman or two has joined the Se­nate. That mar­riage equal­ity was bound to hap­pen. That new migrant groups will even­tu­ally find their place in the great project of Aus­tralian mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. To in­dulge in the mag­i­cal think­ing that things just get bet­ter.

The re­al­ity is that ev­ery step of progress in this coun­try has been fought for, tooth and nail, and de­spite his­tory’s affin­ity for ren­der­ing their lead­er­ship in­vis­i­ble, it has been dis­ad­van­taged mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties that have started these move­ments for change. Of­ten, they are in­spired by a fig­ure who was the first, by some­one who could hear and un­der­stand the con­cerns of a com­mu­nity, be­cause they them­selves had lived them.

Head­ing into its midterm elec­tions in Novem­ber, the United States is pre­dict­ing a “pink wave” as a record num­ber of women run for of­fice. Some time be­fore midMay next year, Aus­tralia will go to the polls to elect its next fed­eral govern­ment. On June 30, 2019, the terms of 36 senators, in­clud­ing An­ning’s, will ex­pire.

If one thing has be­come clear in these past weeks of race-bait­ing pol­i­tics, it’s that our lead­er­ship struc­tures are in need of dras­tic change. The at­ro­phied sta­tus quo needs to be swept out. For too long, it has en­abled bi­par­ti­san sup­port for in­def­i­nite off­shore de­ten­tion, held back Treaty ne­go­ti­a­tions and re­warded the use of racialised fear as a po­lit­i­cal tool. We need our own wave.

Can­di­dates for the next elec­tion, it would be wise to se­ri­ously con­sider whether your pre­s­e­lec­tion pushed out a per­son of colour who was just as qual­i­fied. Or some­one who could have be­come Aus­tralia’s first openly trans mem­ber of par­lia­ment. Or some­one who is com­mit­ted, truly com­mit­ted, to rev­ers­ing Aus­tralia’s steady slide into the back­woods of the world.

On Twit­ter, Faruqi cel­e­brated her elec­tion with a

• sim­ple mes­sage: “See you soon, Fraser An­ning.”

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