The increasing numbers of women in parliament is lifting behavioural standards – but there is still a long way to go, say Zali Steggall and Natalie Ward. Editor in Chief Michelle Giglio reports.

School yard. Old guard. Threatened. Heckled. Double standards. It may be hard to believe, but this is how Warringah MP Zali Steggall describes our Federal Parliament. With women still making up the minority of seats in the House of Representatives, at just 38.4 per cent – up from 30.5 per cent in the last parliament – Ms Steggall says question time in parliament can be a bit like ‘the school yard with a mob mentality’. But times are changing, largely in thanks to the surge in community independents – all women – elected in 2022.

“(We) are all savvy professionals, smart women who don’t take any rubbish, bring an open mind and good work ethic to everything,” Ms Steggall says. “There’s no wallflower in our boxes!” she laughs.

Zali Steggall is leading the charge, along with six other ‘teal’ independents, to change the culture of question time

The environment-focussed independent, who was backed by the influential Climate 200 lobby group in the 2019 election, explains that while shocked at the raucous behaviour of male politicians when she entered parliament, she had ‘become somewhat accustomed’ to it. “When the six new community independents came into parliament in 2022, they were horrified and said, ‘surely this is not acceptable, and we’re going to be able to change this’.”

NSW Liberal deputy leader Natalie Ward is a political veteran, entering State Parliament in the upper house when her party was in power in 2017. The Northern Beaches local is a bit of a pioneer for the Liberals, with the state party changing its rules in 2023 to allow her to run for deputy (previously only those in the lower house were eligible). A sign, Ms Ward says, that the Liberals are responding to community feedback about better representation for women.

“I’m very grateful to my colleagues for taking that step and for giving the opportunity for everyone that’s elected to our parliament to be able to serve as deputy.

“I take that responsibility really seriously because I feel like I’m paving the way for what would in other countries probably be par for the course. In France we see a lot of parity (of men and women in government). It’s not even a discussion in the Scandinavian countries. We see parity on publicly listed company boards.

The prefects corner: Community independents Monique Ryan, Zoe Daniel, Kylea Tink, Allegra Spender and Zali Steggall. Sophie Scamps and Helen Haines are absent

“I think we have a way to go, but that was a huge demonstration by the party that it’s willing to change, it’s willing to embrace parity and equity. And I’m really proud of us as a party for taking that step.”

Party politics can be somewhat of a barrier for women entering parliament, Ms Steggall says, with her desire to avoid the ‘gender-biased pre-selection process’ of the major parties the reason she ran as an independent, tossing out former Prime Minister Tony Abbott from the seat of Warringah in 2019. More often than not, she says, more men than women make up a party membership which then votes in candidate pre-selections.

“Coming in as an independent was a very purposeful choice,” the mother-of-two explains. “I didn’t want to have to deal with any of (the) gender bias issues. And me being a woman was a key factor in defeating Tony (Abbott). My key platforms were climate integrity and equality in the treatment of women.”

In State Parliament, the numbers of women are higher than the federal counterpart – possibly because having to travel to Canberra is in itself a barrier for many women who are often juggling career with family.

In the current NSW Parliament elected in 2023, 58 out of 135 members of both houses are women – 43 per cent. Women make up 44 per cent of the Liberal party room (all its elected members). Shadow state cabinet is almost 50 per cent, which was a conscious decision of NSW Liberal leader Mark Speakman, Ms Ward says. “(It’s) really important to us as a team to make sure that we are speaking to the whole community.”

For Ms Ward, whose two children were in high school when she was elected, having women in parliament also sets an example for them. “Like any mum, I feel ‘mother guilt’ along the way and sometimes when I couldn’t be there (for them) does trouble me.

“But I think it’s important to try and set an example for your children. They’re the people that you come home to. They’re the people that support you, but also you hope that what you’re doing will make our community better for them. And show them that there is a way you can make a real difference to people’s lives.”

As for the behaviour of state politicians, Ms Ward says a lot is ‘tolerated -but we can do better’. “I’ve been talked over, talked around, ignored,” she explains. “I once got called to order by the chair. And I wasn’t actually saying a word!” she laughs. “But he called me to order for rolling my eyes, as many women do (as) sometimes we find fewer words are more effective.”

Ms Ward says that standards have lifted since the ‘Independent review into bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct at NSW Parliament’ was conducted in 2021.

“Do we have a way to go? Absolutely. And I have to say it’s not just men versus women. Sometimes people are disrespectful to younger people. So I think there’s a way to go for respect for diversity of views. And that is something I’d like to encourage.

“(But) I feel like the age-old battleground of question time is perhaps past its day.”

Meanwhile over in Federal Parliament, the seven community independents sitting in the House of Representatives have been labelled by their colleagues ‘the prefects’ corner’. Ms Steggall says the cross-bench is working to improve the standards of question time and the relevance of standing orders.

Natalie Ward chaired the parliamentary committee into coersive control when a minister in the former government

“There’s certainly always a lot of heckling, yelling. You get a bit of mob mentality and mob behaviour by the parties.

“We sit there and up in the gallery, we see school children visiting. And I just am horrified at what they witness. We have a responsibility to be role models. And whilst you can have robust debate, that does not mean disrespectful debate.”

Alcohol can unfortunately sometime be an instigator for bad behaviour, with plenty of long lunches in parliament. Ms Steggall recently caused a stir when she raised the possibility of random breath testing of politicians, following the fall from grace of Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce who was filmed lying on a footpath in Canberra after falling off a planter box. Mr Joyce said ‘mixing alcohol and medication’ was to blame.

“Women bring heart to politics” Natalie Ward

“There’s a double standard in that if a woman had been caught on camera behaving that way, she would’ve been splashed across the front page and just pilloried,” Ms Steggall says. “Generally, men behaving badly gets written up as a ‘bit of a larrikin’ and we need to call that out. It gives permission to that kind of behaviour. We need to stop that.”

Do women actually do politics differently?

“That’s a phenomenal question!” Natalie Ward laughs. “I think women bring heart to politics. And that’s not to say men don’t, but I think women bring community-mindedness and we consider all of the options.

“But I think women do it differently because we know we have an obligation to our children, to our siblings, to our mothers and we know we have a way to go to make it better. So I think we bring that worldview. We bring heart and I hope that we bring a humbleness to us and to our service.”

Zali Steggall says that federally, while there are still plenty of the ‘old guard’ in both the Labor and Liberal parties who ‘like the argy-bargy of politics and don’t really want to see too much change,’ simply having more women in parliament has changed the dynamics of question time. “The more women there are, the more the behaviour changes and (in turn) you can feel more supported. I think that by itself changes the dynamics.”

She agrees with Ms Ward that female politicians focus on being collaborative and finding solutions. “We look at the merits rather than the wedge and the angle. I do feel frequently that men, have a tendency to look at (issues) more in terms of power and a win versus the benefit of the outcome.”

So while there is ‘still a long way to go for the culture and the behaviour in Parliament to change,’ it sounds like the women are calling things to order.