Women’s leadership is essential to Labor’s renewal

What follows is ALP National President Jenny McAllister’s speech to the  National Labor Women’s Conference in Canberra on 2 November 2014.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. It’s an incredible honour.

I’d like to acknowledge that we meet on the land of the Ngunnawal people. I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I’d like to acknowledge the many senior women from unions, the party and parliaments all round Australia – there are too many of you to name you all individually.

I’d also like to congratulate the organisers on a fantastic conference, and all of you for coming. It says something about women’s politics and about Labor politics that so many of us gather here today.


Jenny McAllister addressing the Progressive Australia conference in 2013.

Well friends, as others have observed, its twenty years since Labor took the decision to introduce affirmative action.

Many people doubted the wisdom of this strategy. We were pilloried by conservative critics who argued this was tokenism, and would lead to no meaningful benefit.

This weekend’s speakers list is a most concrete demonstration of affirmative action’s success. Already today we’ve heard from two women occupying some of the most senior offices in Australian politics.

Our performance contrasts starkly with Tony Abbott’s cabinet – testimony to the failure of the Liberal National Party to take the cause of women seriously.

The decision in 1994 was significant.

However there is still more work to do for women. At the same time, we face the challenge of once again renewing Labor for new times.

I want to use today to talk about the context for Labor renewal in Australian politics.

I want to make the case that success depends not simply on reforming our rules, but on identifying a new generation of leaders at all levels of our party to renew Labor’s purpose and institutions.

I then want to identify the possibilities and challenges for women in stepping up to this leadership challenge.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Instead I’m trying to further define the questions about what’s next for Labor women. I hope this might provide some additional shape to your discussions over this weekend.


Australian democracy

I want to start by making a few observations about Australian politics – because it provides the context for Labor’s challenge.

The Australian election study shows that the percentage of people who are not at all or not much interested in politics has been tracking upwards steadily over the last 7-8 years.

More alarmingly, the Lowy Insitute 2014 poll finds only 60% of Australian adults, and just 42% of 18-29 year-olds, say ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.  For those who do not see democracy as the preferable form of government, the strongest reasons are that democracy is not working because there is no real difference between the policies of the major parties (45% citing this as a major reason) and democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority of society (42%).[1]

In that context, it’s unsurprising that the Palmer United Party has drawn significant support. Essentially, this is a party that deliberately positions itself as a party of and for outsiders.

This dynamic isn’t constrained to Australia. The recent elections for the European Parliament saw voters flock to insurgent parties ranging from former communists to the far right.

The New Statesman has commented that … the insurgent parties are recasting politics as a dispute between the elite and the people[2]

Many of us are uncomfortable with popularism that is not underpinned by serious policy analysis, nor tied to the responsibilities of government.

However in part, it is the technocratic nature of public decision making that creates the space for these new forces which speak to the heart rather than the head.

And for me it points to some characteristics of a renewed Labor Party.


The Labor reform task

I think everyone in this room understands the moral purpose which drives Labor.

It’s why we joined. And it’s why we stay.

For me, as a young person in regional NSW, Labor’s local commitments to protecting coastal communities from the intensive development championed by National Party councillors shaped up my earliest understanding of the ideological differences between the parties.

Our purpose was, and remains, our best asset – and the best antidote to the cynicism in the surveys I mentioned earlier.

However over time, for a range of reasons – sometimes very good reasons – we have elected to brush over the moral or ethical nature of our program. We’ve made a virtue of our pragmatism. We’ve had some who’ve championed a culture of ‘whatever it takes’. In internal party matters, we’ve enabled transactions which seem to clash with our public commitment to democracy and egalitarianism.

It’s not to say that our purpose has not been present in all of our work. No one can examine the Gillard-Rudd or the Hawke-Keating periods and deny their legacies of social, environmental and economic justice.

No-one can listen to Tanya Plibersek’s advocacy for women and girls or Bill Shorten’s defence of climate action without recognising the moral force of their claims.

If we are to re-engage with those lost voters, we need to place this moral purpose at the centre of our party, and build an organisational model that can help us deliver on it.

This latter point requires some additional thinking.

Labor is proud of its history. Much of the history that anchors us makes reference to our great leaders – the Prime Ministers and Premiers that led reforming Labor governments.

I do worry that this focus on these great men overlooks the other great enabler of change – social movements. We are perfectly right to lionise Whitlam for his towering legislative achievements. We ought also remember that they occur at a time of great social change, with hundreds of thousands of Australians taking to the streets in the periods leading to the election of the government, and a flourishing cultural and intellectual progressive movement.

Parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political activities are both essential for progressive change. And both struggle without a clearly voiced purpose.

This view of the world has some implications for how I see the renewal task.

Firstly, if we value movement politics, we should not fall into the trap of walking away from our unions. In fact, we urgently need a conversation about how to re-engage with the millions of Australians who choose to participate in trade unions. We also need a clear strategy to engage with the other political movements that are broadly aligned with our goals, including the environment movement.

Secondly, when we consider rebuilding, democratic reform is necessary but not sufficient.

To be clear, I strongly support greater democracy – in particular direct democracy that involves our members – but this cannot be where we finish. We also need a concrete discussion about our culture.

I love this quote from Iain McNichol, General Secretary of the British Labour Party:

We are reshaping the culture of the party so that it is true to our traditions and our ethical purpose. We have to remember that relationships matter. If we use people, they feel used- and we forgot that.[3]

It’s a compelling reminder that culture matters as much as rules. There are no rules that will make people more thoughtful. There are no rules that will make people more creative. There are no rules that will make people more politically agile and nimble.

What is fundamentally required for cultural renewal is leadership:  intellectual leadership, political and organisational leadership, and of course, electoral leadership from our candidates.


I’d like to spend the remainder of my time reflecting a little on these three areas, and the role women might play, starting with intellectual leadership.

Intellectual leadership

At our best, Labor is a party of ideas. Our most important achievements arise from our determination to fight and win on contested territory rather than seeking the safe middle ground. Its easy to forget how bitterly contested were our big reforms like superannuation and Medicare, or to overlook the effort that went into establishing the NDIS.

Success in the war of ideas means understanding where our resources lie, and using them effectively to build the long term case for change. It means valuing, recognising and resourcing our thinkers – even when they stray from current Labor positions.

For some time, I’ve been concerned we were falling behind the conservatives. But I do think there are green shoots emerging – with established think tanks like the Fabians gearing up again, and new voices emerging like The McKell Institute in NSW and TJ Ryan Foundation in Queensland.

I’m particularly proud of the work being done by the Chifley Research Centre – Labor’s national thinktank.

Michael Cooney and Jane Austen are running terrific events, but more important, they’re developing a thriving online culture of blogging and writing about progressive ideas.

Like most similar sites, the vast majority – over 90 percent – of unsolicited contributions for the Chifley blog site are from men. And you’ll see that reflected in the published material.

I know there are reasons that women choose not to write. But the movement cannot afford for women to remain silent.

Many of the key issues we need to tackle emerge directly from women’s experience in balancing paid and unpaid work, and managing increased economic risk.  The key constituencies we need to reach include women. It’s incredibly important that women’s voices are heard and cultivated.

Equally, if women are to be equal partners, it’s critical that women are recognised for their intellectual leadership.

Chifley’s blog focuses on the big economic and social questions for Australia. I know there are many, many women in this room capable of contributing excellent, thoughtful, well researched and argued material. I strongly encourage you to contact Chifley direct, and start the discussion about your writing.

Equally, Chifley is organising the Fringe Festival next year to coincide with Labor’s National Conference in Melbourne. I know they are planning to raise the bar once again to deliver a first class ‘festival of ideas’ – with creative formats, challenging ideas, and terrific speakers. One very concrete outcome for this conference could be a plan to ensure that ALP women’s ideas are canvassed in this festival – and that our leading women thinkers and writers are highly visible in this prominent event. Again – I know Chifley would welcome this.

More broadly, the online environment is generating more opportunities than ever before for progressive publishing and collaboration. Even if you are not someone who wants to publish – you can certainly support the many wonderful progressive women who do. This is a huge opportunity for Labor, and a huge opportunity for women. There is literally nothing stopping us from leading in this area.


Organisational and political leadership

I want to move now to Labor’s organisational and political leadership – where again I see green shoots as well as opportunities for women.

Inevitably, as a party that contests elections, much of Labor’s organisational infrastructure is focused on that task.

For a period, in fact most of my time as a member, television was king. Labor developed a highly specialised model of campaigning that relied heavily on paid television advertising and decreasingly on our members.

One of the very positive developments in the last decade has been the return of local campaigning. Your Rights at Work cemented the model; when trusted friends, family and neighbours speak about politics it carries far more weight than any other possible endorsement. It’s a model that is strengthened by social media – but its success fundamentally rests of the significance of trusted relationships.

We’re only just scratching the surface of this shift and its implications for Labor.

We’re not alone.

British Labour has invested heavily in training for members to support community organising models. They’ve prepared a terrific handbook – which I encourage you to download – which describes the approach:

In these communities, Labour is a campaigning movement which has secured the trust of local people; a campaigning movement that involves and empowers people to deliver change for themselves.[4]

It’s a model that places our members, affiliates and activists at the heart of our operation.  It can only work when we can call on skilled and motivated leaders in local communities. It can only work when those leaders have the authority to work with communities on shared concerns.

I would also argue that it is a model that provides significant opportunity for women’s leadership.

We know that women already invest heavily in local communities. In schools, in childcare centres, in aged care facilities, in community gardens, in union workplaces – we see women delivering strong, empathetic leadership built on genuine personal relationships. Most of this is transacted in person – but increasingly much is transacted online.

I know Joan Kirner has spoken about these types of experiences providing the foundation for her and other women to build the skills they took into politics.

There is some international research evidence that for women, community participation provides a more common pathway into parliamentary politics than it does for men.

It seems to me that a decision to value this kind of organising opens opportunities to recognise women’s leadership, not just locally, but ultimately in our parliaments as well.

However, I will sound a word of caution. Anecdotally, it seems that women remain underrepresented in active branch membership.

On occasions, our local political culture finds it difficult to recognise leadership styles that do not conform to traditional models. In 2014, we should not have to point out that strength is not the same as aggression. Nor should we have to point out that listening is a virtue, not a weakness.

This is one of many occasions when women’s interests are strongly aligned with the party’s interest. We need new members, we need new leaders, and we need a new model of local campaigning.

Specifically, as we plan to reach Bill Shorten’s target for 100,000 new members, we should ensure that 50% of the new members we recruit are women.

We’ll need to train differently and more frequently, and our training should focus on effective leadership, recognising that women’s experiences and styles bring great value to our organisation. In this, there is much we can learn from the work done by the unions that work in female-dominated industries – and I know the women leaders from those amazing organisations are speaking at the conference in the coming days.

As we migrate towards this new model of campaigning, we’d be fools not to harness and nurture women’s local leadership.


Parliamentary leadership

I want to finish by talking about parliamentary leadership. Although I’ve emphasised culture today – the rules which govern our selection processes are now very much in the spotlight, and this is critical for women’s representation.

Twenty years ago, affirmative action changed all the incentives. For the first time, there were clear, rules based incentives to promote talented women.

And it’s had an impact.

Labor’s female parliamentary representation massively outstrips the conservative parties, and has become a significant differentiator in the eyes of the community.

The impact is not just in the proportion of women parliamentarians. It’s also in the progress our women have made into the most senior roles of Labor governments.

However we still have work to do.

In a recent ranking of 50 countries, Australia ranked 43rd for women’s parliamentary representation, behind many European parliaments, but also Cameroon, Burundi and Trinidad and Tobago.

Even when we forget about the dismal contribution from Australian conservatives, Labor’s performance, with women comprising just 38 percent of our House of Representatives members, sits below the whole of nation performance for countries like Rwanda, Mozambique and South Africa. [5]

With this in mind, we need to keep our eye on affirmative action, even as we move to larger scale, direct ballots of members, supporters and perhaps affiliates.

My view is that women in large ballots can do well. My own experience in the ballot for National Present, and that of recent participants in NSW Community Pre-selections, suggests that a strong campaign team and a clear values-based message are key factors for success. All things being equal, these are equally available to both women and men.

However, in each of these ballots, the affirmative action weighting has applied. It may not have been invoked – but it provides an ongoing incentive for women to be actively considered for public roles.

In my own state of NSW, women from both factions fought actively to retain affirmative action in community preselections. As these and other reforms are considered – we need to be vigilant that women’s representation does not drop off the agenda. We’ve come too far in changing the culture of our parliamentary leadership to stop now.



In concluding, I want to emphasise the significance of Labor’s renewal to the democratic project overall.

In his last published book before his death, Tony Judt wrote that

Republics and democracies exist only by virtue of the engagement of their citizens in the management of public affairs. If active or concerned citizens forfeit politics, they thereby abandon their society to its most mediocre and venal public servants.[6]

People in this room have fought for many years to ensure that women are enabled as as active and concerned citizens.

This agenda is now inescapably intertwined with Labor’s renewal.

We need leaders. We need intellectual leadership, we need political and organisational leadership and we need parliamentary leadership.

In this context, women’s leadership is not only right and just and fair – it is essential.

Thank you.


[1] Lowy Institute, 2014,   Lowy Institute Poll 2014, Accessed 1 August 2014.

[2] Leonard, M, 2014, Rage against the machine: the rise of anti-politics across Europe. New Statesman Website. Accessed 1 August 2014.

[3] McNicholl, I, 2013, Labours faith in community organising will lead it to victory. New Statesman website. Accessed 1 August 2014.

[4] UK Labour Party, Real Change to win: community organising, a Labour Party Guide. p5. Accessed 1 August 2014.

[5] McCann, J, 2013, Electoral quotas for women: an international overview. Australian Parliamentary Library website. Accessed 1 August, 2014.

[6] Judt, T, 2010, Ill Fares the Land. 


About Jenny McAllister

Jenny McAllister

Senator Jenny McAllister has served as a Senator for New South Wales since 2015. She is currently the Shadow Cabinet Secretary and Shadow Assistant Minister to the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Senator McAllister is also a former National President of the ALP and a member of the ALP National Policy Committee.

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