That feminine feeling grows stronger

Sydney Morning Herald
May 9 2005

The arrival of more women in Parliament won't quite be what the feminists envisaged in the 1970s, writes Paul Sheehan.

Permettemi d'introdurre la vostra nuovissima senatrice per il New South Wales, Concetta Anna Fierravanti-Wells. Allow me to introduce your new senator for New South Wales, Concetta Anna Fierravanti-Wells. At 4.11 last Thursday afternoon, during an unusual joint session of the two houses of State Parliament, Concetta (Connie) Fierravanti-Wells was voted into Federal Parliament by the NSW Parliament. By acclamation. No formal count was necessary. No party divisions. No debate.

The special joint session was marked by convivial banter across party lines. When the session's chairwoman asked if there were any other nominations to fill the Senate vacancy, a chorus of wits on the Government benches called out "David Clark!".

Clark, a Liberal member of the Legislative Council, is notorious on Macquarie Street as the Liberals' chief vote-cruncher and factional kneecapper. The interjections implied that the tall, dark, handsome Italian woman in the chamber was Clark's protege, and that he had engineered the defeat of an incumbent Liberal senator, John Tierney, a member of a rival faction known variously as "the group" "the professionals", "the left" or "the lavender mafia". Clark's faction is known unambiguously as "the right".

But Connie Fierravanti-Wells - the youngest Australian to become a cavaliere, to receive a knighthood from the Italian government - got into Federal Parliament by a more transparent route, though there is no doubt the right will become much stronger in Federal Parliament after July 1. On that day, Senator Fierravanti-Wells will be joined by the other Liberal senators elected in John Howard's fourth federal election victory last year, a victory that is about to deliver control of the Senate to the Government, something it has never had before.

Connie Fierravanti-Wells, however, is part of something even bigger. She will be among 64 women in the new Parliament from July 1, the most ever, more than in the previous Parliament, which itself had a record number of women, according to figures compiled by the parliamentary library. The historical momentum is inevitable. From July 1, almost one in three federal politicians will be women.

Not nearly enough, you might say, but a single generation ago how many women do you think were in the House of Representatives? None. Not one. And in the Senate? Six. That's six women out of 188 members of the two houses of Federal Parliament. Three per cent. And that was at the height of the feminist revolution.

There has been a tenfold increase in the number and the percentage of women in Federal Parliament since the 1977 election that gave Malcolm Fraser's government firm control over both houses. A similar evolution has taken place in the federal public service, where women now hold more than 30 per cent of positions in the senior executive service, another tenfold increase since the '70s.

The numbers, and thus the power, of women in federal politics will increase again in the next federal election, and in the election after that, until women constitute at least 40 per cent of the Parliament and the cabinet and the senior bureaucracy (and, god forbid, even the High Court, though that will probably take 30 years). The feminisation of Parliament, however, will not be what the middle-class, white-bread feminists envisaged in the 1970s: it will not create a governance of People Like Us.

Rather, the inevitable ascendance of women will reflect the complexity of women. The next wave into federal politics will be more ethnically diverse, with more women who do not subscribe to the views of the ideologues who wash everything through the filter of gender politics, and who are marbled through the power structures of universities, government departments and non-government organisations.

Some things are more important than gender. On March 20 last year, in a speech to the 109 Liberal Party delegates who decided the party's Senate preselection in 2004, Connie Fierravanti-Wells began: "Fifty-one years ago, my father came to Australia from Italy. He left … everything that was dear to him. My father didn't speak a word of English. He arrived with an old suitcase and the debt of his journey. He was only 24 years of age.

"At first, he lived in single quarters at Port Kembla near the old steelworks … After a while, he went cane-cutting in North Queensland. This enabled him to save enough money for a deposit for a house. He returned to Port Kembla and bought a small cottage in Shellharbour Road. Mum waited seven years before she joined my father. Seven years. By then, they had been engaged for 13 years. They married and I was born in 1960, followed by my brother five years later."

When she got to the policy meat of her speech, it was all about social cohesion: "It is crucial to the future of our country that the values we share, and which are part of the fabric of our society, continue to prevail. It is vital that our Liberal representation has the strength and conviction to uphold these values - to ensure that they are not trampled by the agenda of Labor and the elites…

"My priority for the next election would be to promote the Howard agenda across different networks and turn it into support for the Liberal Party and, most importantly, to promote our values as the basis of social cohesion across the diversity of contemporary Australian society."

That same day, Senator Bill Heffernan, portrayed by sections of the media as a pariah, disgrace and marginalised figure, easily retained top spot on the Liberal Senate ticket, brushing aside John Tierney by 61 votes to 38. He went on to win a resounding victory in the Senate election and remains a key consigliere in the Government.

On the second ballot for preselection that day, for second spot on the ticket, the overwhelming majority of those who had voted for Heffernan then decided to depose a sitting senator. Fierravanti-Wells, a government lawyer who had grown up in Wollongong, rolled Tierney by 57 votes to 51. It was not an overnight success. It was the fourth time in 10 years she had sought party preselection, a decade in which she had built a large number of contacts in the party.

When Tierney decided recently to resign from Parliament six weeks early, his replacement got an early elevation to the Senate - hence the special sitting of State Parliament. On Thursday, Fierravanti-Wells walked into the Legislative Council a citizen and walked out a senator. Yet another woman had replaced yet another man in Canberra.

Media articles are posted for the purpose of criticism, comment, scholarship and research under "fair use" provisions and may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owners, except for "fair use."