2019 election: Why politics is toxic for Australia’s women

A slew of allegations of sexist bullying and misogyny have emerged in recent years, while at the same time the country has steadily tumbled down the global rankings for female political representation.

Australia has tended to favour “larrikin” and “aggressor” MPs who thrive in the “rough-and-tumble” atmosphere of Canberra. But women MPs are increasingly saying that’s a culture in dire need of change.

As the country prepares to go to the polls on Saturday, the BBC looks at what’s come to be known as the “women problem” in Australian politics.

Sarah Hanson-Young was 25 when she won a seat in Australia’s Senate in 2007, the youngest woman ever to do so.

The Greens member has always been a forthright voice on progressive issues and women’s rights, but she has spoken extensively about how this was against a backdrop of mutterings from male opponents “about my dress, my body, and my supposed sex life”.

She had largely ignored them, choosing the well-trodden path of rising above it all. But an exchange in parliament last year proved the final straw.

It happened during a debate on women’s safety following a murder which shocked the nation. A young comedian walking home late at night had been killed by a stranger.

Ms Hanson-Young said women wouldn’t need extra protection if men didn’t rape them.

In response, an older male senator called out: “You should stop shagging men, Sarah.”

Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm – known for revelling in his controversial remarks – refused to apologise when confronted by Ms Hanson-Young, who is divorced with a child. He instead repeated his comments and other explicit claims in TV and radio interviews.

He accused her of hypocrisy. She accused him of “slut-shaming” – where slurs about a women’s alleged sexual activities are used to demean or silence her.

Ms Hanson-Young said her 11-year-old daughter was asked at school whether her mum had “lots of boyfriends”.

“I decided at that moment I’d had enough of men in that place using sexism and sexist slurs, sexual innuendo as part of their intimidation and bullying on the floor of the parliament,” the senator said in a later interview.

She is suing Mr Leyonhjelm for defamation, on the grounds that he had attacked her character by suggesting she was a hypocrite and a misandrist (man-hater), and by repeatedly accusing her of making the claim that all men were rapists. Mr Leyonhjelm has consistently denied defaming her.

Ms Hanson-Young says took the action because she is in a powerful enough position to do so whereas many women who encounter such comments at work are not.

“If we can’t clean it up in our nation’s parliament, well, where can we do it?”

Australian politics is known to be rambunctious, with plain speaking considered a national trait.

But female lawmakers say the comments and treatment they receive can often be explicitly gendered in nature, can border on abuse or intimidation and do not happen to their male counterparts.

When one woman sensationally quit the ruling Liberal-led government last year, she sparked something of a groundswell revolt.

Australia, a hotspot of political coups, had just witnessed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s ousting by party rivals. Julia Banks felt she had to act after experiencing the vicious infighting.

Some have also pointed out double standards in the treatment of Emma Husar, a Labor MP forced to resign last year after a news story made a salacious sexual harassment claim.

The report broke mistreatment claims, but focused on the MP’s sex life.

Ms Husar, a single mother, later said the “slut-shaming smears” ended her career. Her party asked her to step down less than two days after the report, she said.

A subsequent Labor investigation found no evidence of sexual harassment, but said “complaints that staff were subjected to unreasonable management… have merit”.

Dr Sheppard says both major parties are held back by traditional assumptions about women.

Party organisers fast-track men to office while “throwing obstacles in the path of women candidates”, she says.

“They’re not doing it deliberately, rather they’re acting on decades of ingrained behaviour and what they’re used to.” Men are just seen as the safer option.

However, her research shows that women are very electable. Her survey of more than 2,000 Australians in 2018 found that when other markers were equal, women candidates were actually more popular than men.

She refers to Scandinavian countries when she suggests that women in politics will become normalised once levels reach 30-40%. This is already the case for Labor, she says, while the Liberal party “has another 20 years to go”.

“We’re not there yet, but what are seeing in Australia is quite rapid generational shift.

“I hope in 15 to 20 years, it won’t even be talked about as an issue.”

Whatever the politics of the events, a photograph of the lavish shoes, amid a sea of brogues and dark suits, became an iconic image of a lone woman cut out of power.

Australia’s Museum of Democracy later exhibited the shoes, along with the photo, which they said were “a bold statement and a symbol of solidarity and empowerment among Australian women”.

Ms Tai says she also took some hope from Ms Bishop’s departure.

She mentions her final parliamentary speech, where the outgoing MP said public office was “one of the highest callings”.

“I really resonated with that because that’s what I believe too,” says Ms Tai.

“Being in parliament is still the best way to represent people and bring about change.”