Speech by The Hon Julie Bishop MP

Address to an International Women’s Day function

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to welcome you to the Great Hall here in Parliament House in our national capital on International Women’s Day. It is a significant event, not only for women across Australia but internationally, and I am pleased that this is the first event that I’m undertaking in my role as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues – a role that I take very seriously and a role that I believe will enable me to bring to the national debate issues of concern to women across Australia.

I’m also delighted to share the stage with three very impressive Australian women – the very beautiful Natasha, an Australian born journalist obviously with a great career ahead of her; the Lebanese born Joumana who is such an inspiration to women across Australia, but particularly because of her passionate conviction to improve the lives of Muslim women; and Carla Zampatti, Italian born, an icon in Australia – a successful fashion designer and one of our most successful business women.

I was brought up in the Adelaide Hills. I lived on a property that had been in our family for six generations and here I am today, as I’m told, the first female member of the Coalition to be appointed to Cabinet from the House of Representatives. I guess like most of you my values and outlook in life were instilled in me at a very early age by my parents. Their ethic was hard work, pure and simple. In fact I remember my earliest job. I was aged about 7 and we used to have to help out in the orchard, and I recall sitting on a stool up in the cherry packing shed putting cherries into boxes, helping Mum and Dad late into the night for early morning market. As I would nod off to sleep, my older sister (who is sitting over there) used to prod me awake. That was our life. When I turned about 15 I got quite an independent streak and I decided that I was going to get a job off the property, and so I got a job as a waitress in a local restaurant for the summer. Well, when I say waitressing I was actually clearing the plates. I recall working very hard and coming home each night very proud of what I’ve done, and after about three weeks the owner of the restaurant came to me and said, “Julie, you’re doing quite a good job. I’m thinking I might put you on the payroll soon.” I was dumbfounded. On the payroll? I learnt about negotiating terms and conditions pretty early on.

My mother was a fabulous role model. She died last year and I miss her constantly, but she brought all of us up to believe in ourselves, to strive harder, higher, and to trust our instincts. There have been a number of women in my life, and I’m sure that you can think of women, who have influenced you in one way or another. I think of Miss Frost, my English teacher in Years 11 and 12. Frost by name – Frost by nature, we used to say. She was a very austere woman but she still managed to instil in me a passion for the classics – the Bronte sisters, Austen, Hardy, Dickens. When I was a fledgling young female lawyer trying to find my feet in the very male dominated profession of the law in Adelaide in the late 70s my inspiration was Dame Roma Mitchell. She was the first female QC in Australia, the first female Supreme Court Judge. She went on to become the first female chancellor of a university, the first female state governor.

Then in about 1995 I had the most extraordinary opportunity to meet a woman who made a profound impression on me. I was in Burma and I had the opportunity to meet Aung San Suu Kyi. She was still effectively under house arrest but I had an hour with her at her home. She was possibly one of the most beautiful women I have met in every sense of the word, and her conviction – her passion to struggle for freedom and democracy for the people of Burma – was simply inspirational.

The point is though, you don’t have to be high profile to be a leader. In fact I think many women would be surprised to find that they are considered inspirational – they are considered to be leaders in their own neighbourhoods, their own communities, in their own workplaces. And I think there’s a common thread that all these women demonstrate – strength and resilience, creativity, compassion, but most of all courage. Now these aren’t qualities that are unique to Australian women. Across the world women face and overcome similar challenges that we see in Australia, whether it be balancing work and family, whether it be safety and security, health and education concerns. Sadly though there are many women around the world that don’t even have the basic rights that we just take for granted, particularly in developing countries. I believe that that’s where we have more of a role to play. I believe that Australian women have the skills and the capacity to help their sisters, particularly in developing countries particularly in our region.

A couple of years ago, probably about 2002, I went on a parliamentary delegation to the Solomon Islands and it was at a time of civil unrest. There were allegations of massive corruption in the parliament, there was a lot of racial tension and violence. And the women on the delegation – De-Anne Kelly of the National Party and Sharon Grierson of the Labor Party and I, met with a group of Solomon Islander women and they said essentially: “Give us the power. Give us the resources. Help us get into parliament. Educate us and we’ll fix this. Educate us.” Now that resonated with me. I happen to believe the old saying that if you educate a man you educate one person. You educate a woman and you educate an entire family. So this is where I think Australian female parliamentarians could assist in the efforts that are being made in places like the Solomon Islands and it is a project that I would like to take up with Minister Downer.

We should be proud of what we’ve achieved in Australia in terms of promoting the status of women. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we were the first country in the world to simultaneously grant women the right to vote and the right to stand for an election. What an enlightened beginning we had for this country!

And in recognising the changing face of Australian society the Australian government continues to promote women and women’s interests. Essentially our approach is to give women greater choice and create more opportunities for them. Now underpinning that approach, the fundamental, the essential ingredient, must be a strong economy. If you’ve got a strong economy, low interest rates, low unemployment, that’s when women have the opportunities, that’s when women have choices. So the major reforms you hear about, whether it be tax or industrial relations or welfare reform, that kind of reform gives women opportunities and choice. And some of our specific programs – the maternity payments, increasing the family benefits payment and the new childcare rebate – all of these are designed to assist women balance the responsibilities of family and other responsibilities with work.

The statistics always tell a good story. Currently we find that in areas like education the Year 12 retention rate for females is over 80 per cent. In terms of university students over 55, nearly 56 per cent of students at university are women, and this is at a time when the number of people attending university in this country is at an all time high. There are almost 1 million students at university and 55 per cent are women.

In the area of employment the proportion of women who are working with dependent children is at an all time high of 60 per cent, and the nature of the employment has changed so much. Women are now in areas that we would have once thought was just so novel that you couldn’t even imagine it – in law, in medicine, in engineering, the defence forces, police, emergency services and the like. I do recognise that those numbers are not replicated in the upper echelons of senior management in this country, neither in the public sector nor the corporate sector although I must say that the two heads of department that I have worked with in my two ministerial roles are both women – Jane Halton, the head of the Department of Health and Ageing, and Lisa Paul, the head of the Department of Education, Science and Training. I’m delighted that both Jane and Lisa are here today. We also have appointed a record number of female ambassadors and high commissioners – I think 40 since we came to office in 1996. So there are positive signs.

I think one issue that is being raised with me more often and an issue of great concern, raised with me not only by women but also by men, and that is the fear that our very society is under threat – the fabric of our society is under threat, that people aren’t respecting each other and not respecting each other’s perspectives. People cite the Cronulla riots, the response to the Danish cartoons as examples of our society being under threat. I make a side observation. If you watch the film footage of the riots – Cronulla and across the world – just what proportion of women did you see in those violent mobs?

I think that women have an unprecedented opportunity to influence change such as never before, but women must be given a voice. They must be given a voice in the home, in the neighbourhood, in the community, in the parliaments of Australia. We need women to take up the national issues in the national debates. As Carla mentioned we have three Cabinet Ministers who are women, and I should mention that last Monday Amanda Vanstone became the longest serving female Cabinet Minister in the history of this country, followed by Margaret Guilfoyle and Jocelyn Newman. Another aside – it’s interesting that the three longest serving Cabinet women are from the Liberal Party, a party that does not believe in quotas to get women into parliament.

We also have five female ministers and parliamentary secretaries and one third of our Senate are female and one quarter of the House of Representatives are female. Well, so what? Do numbers matter? You bet they matter. Would we have ever heard of RU486? Would there ever have been a debate in the national parliament on the issue of RU486 had it not been for four female senators, one from the Democrats – Lyn Alison; the Labor Party – Claire Moore; the National Party’s Fiona Nash; and Judith Troeth from the Liberal Party.

Leadership is not confined to those in parliament. Leadership is something that all women can aspire to, but you need the support of others. Particularly you need the support of other women. So often we do ourselves no favours. The first to criticise another woman’s achievements is often another woman. We don’t need to do that. Believe me, there are plenty of blokes out there who will take that role. And I believe that we should nurture talented, courageous women to become leaders. I’ve always believed that leadership isn’t about creating more leaders; it’s about ensuring more followers become leaders.

So while we focus on leadership, we also should remember that there are many women who would consider leadership the furthest thing from their mind. They are worried about day-to-day survival, and they need our support. Take the area of domestic violence. The prevalence of domestic violence in this country is unacceptable. In 2004 the Commonwealth commenced a media campaign, an education campaign, with the very powerful message that violence against women in all its forms is unacceptable. This campaign was evaluated as being very successful. The message was getting through. And I’m delighted that I can announce today that the government has recommitted to that campaign against domestic violence and $14 million has been invested to run those very powerful ads again this year with the message that violence in any form against women in Australia will not be tolerated.

We have another challenge. You hear so much about the ageing of the population. We know that our population is ageing because we have a decreasing birth rate and an increasing life expectancy. You will have heard many people, including the Treasurer, talking about the economic impact of an ageing population. There’s another aspect to this. Women are living longer. They are living longer than men. They have an increasing life expectancy. We face a scenario where there will be a generation of Australian women who are living longer, who are probably living alone, who have possibly been financially dependent on someone else all their lives. These women need to be equipped with the skills to cope. The Office for Women is focusing on financial literacy and financial independence, but we need to rethink how women will live as they age and provide them with support.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have achieved a great deal in promoting the status of women in this country, but the journey is not over. In some countries the journey has only just begun. By your presence here today you are reflecting your commitment to enriching the lives of women across the world. I wish you well in your journey.