In the male-dominated world of Australian politics, a new party, What Women Want Australia Party (WWWP), is aiming at engaging women and propelling them into the federal legislature so that they can be a catalyst for social policy change. The WWWP, like other political parties, is gearing up for the forthcoming elections to Australia's Parliament, most likely to be held in late November or early December this year.
Says WWWP founder and national convenor Justine Caines, 34, "I had been mulling over the idea for two years. After deliberations with family, friends and the larger community, I felt we were on the cusp of change and this federal election year, the time was ripe to launch a new party that would re-establish an Australian society with a central purpose to provide for its people."
The party focuses on vital issues that women want addressed by politicians. It supports a fair workplace, paid maternity leave, access to quality and affordable childcare, choices in childbirth, support for caregivers of disabled children and elderly parents, a strong education system with access to universities based on merit rather than money, and a sustainable environment for children's future.
Caines, a mother of six children - all under eight years, with her youngest being 21-month-old twins - understands what women want in politics. "There's need for major reform across a broad social policy agenda. We believe if we engage women in decision-making, we will get better and family-friendly policies."
As many as 700 women of all ages and cultures - and 40 men - have joined the party that is fielding candidates for 10 Senate seats. The Senate is the upper of the two houses of the federal legislative Australian Parliament. It consists of 76 members: 12 for each state, and two for each mainland territory. Caines is standing as a Senate candidate in the most populous state of New South Wales (NSW). She says, "The two major parties, Liberal Party of Australia and the Australian Labour Party are totally male-dominated. Women have wanted to have a voice and WWWP will provide a vehicle for it."
"Like me, our members understand how hard it is to juggle work and family and how good it is when, as a woman, you are supported. WWWP policies would have the 'stamp of practicality' from women who are 'walking the talk'," says Caines, who lives in Scone in rural NSW, a drought prone region where women have been the linchpin of communities in crisis situations.
Australian women make up half the voters and less than a quarter of the federal politicians. In the current 41st Australian Federal Parliament, there are 64 women, bringing women's participation in Parliament to 28.3 per cent - rising from 14 per cent following the 1993 election.
WWWP's Queensland Senate candidate, Anne Bousfield, grew up on a sheep station and has worked as a midwife for 21 years. She says, "Having assisted women and their families to meet the physical and psychological challenges of pregnancy, birth and parenting, I understand the difficulties and challenges women face within the maternity care system."
With soaring Caesarean rates; closure of rural maternity units forcing women to travel long distances; surgical interventions; and absolutely no choice for women to access midwifery services, one of the main policy issues WWWP wants to focus on is improving maternity care access and informed choices in maternity health.
South Australia led the world in not only enfranchising women in 1894 but also making them eligible to sit in Parliament. The Commonwealth Franchise Act, 1902 gave women the right to vote in federal elections and the right to sit in Parliament. By 1909, all Australian states and the Commonwealth had enfranchised most women. In 1943, the first women entered the Commonwealth Parliament: Dame Enid Lyons was elected to the House of Representatives and Dorothy Tangney was elected to the Senate.
WWWP's Senate candidate from South Australia, Emma Neumann, had to endure hardships from childhood as her father, a Scottish immigrant was sick and her mother had to work to support the family. She got married early, became a mother at 20 and suffered post-natal depression in silence. "Without a phone, a car or a public transport route, I was stuck at home while my husband worked, and was unable to access any community services," says Neumann, whose second child was born with a disability and she campaigned tediously for a disability allowance.
It was when her husband was retrenched from his job along with 200 of his co- workers that they decided to set up a family business and she went back to night school to do business studies. Neumann has developed a course called `Women in Business' through a local community college and, among other issues, is campaigning to cut the red tape and bureaucracy for small business.
Another candidate from South Australia, Pauline Edmunds, says, "We're being asked to have children and to contribute to growing the economy yet, in reality, women get little help to do this, let alone achieve a balanced family/work life."
"Economic prosperity should not come at the cost of social policy. The recent Work Choices legislation is already having a negative impact on many workers' wages, especially women," she adds. (Work Choices legislation is a labour law that came into effect in March 2006.)
The party has also put environment as an important issue on the agenda. The WWWP supports solar energy as a safer option over nuclear energy and feels Australia has the opportunity to be a world leader in developing renewable energy technologies.
"Most women in Australia don't want nuclear power for all the obvious reasons. I saw that the capacity of women to support new life declined markedly with proximity to nuclear power production regions, beginning hundreds of kilometres away from the plants. Higher abortion, lower live-birth fertility, and exceptionally poor breastfeeding are outcomes," says Senate candidate from Victoria, Madeleine Love.
"The voice of the people is being quashed. The controversial pulp mill project (said to destroy old-growth forests in Tasmania) is one example where the major percentage of the population does not agree with the pulp mill or the process the government has gone through to vote it into Parliament," says WWWP's Senate candidate from Tasmania, Debra Lea Cashion.
For the fledgling party, the big task is raising funds, as winning elections has become a lot about money. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of parliaments of sovereign states, women comprise 17.4 per cent of total members of parliament around the world. The Nordic countries have the highest women's representation with 41.6 per cent followed by the Americas with 19.9 per cent, Europe with 18.2 per cent, Sub-Saharan Africa with 17.3 per cent, Asia has 16.6 per cent, the Pacific 15.3 per cent and the Arab states 9 per cent.