Speech to Public Sector Women In Leadership Conference

28 June 2017

I realise there’s a limit to how many times you need to be told to be empowered and be leaders.

So I thought I’d encourage you instead to be trouble makers... activists.

The idea of activism – like feminism – sits uncomfortably with some people.

But it shouldn’t.

I consider myself an activist. I think I need to be.

It won’t surprise any of you that becoming Deputy Chief Minister – like becoming a supervisor or an executive – doesn’t make you all-powerful overnight.

I’ve been able to achieve some things for women that I’m incredibly proud of, and I’ll come to a few examples.

But it rarely comes easy as I’m sure everyone here knows.

And sometimes women face obstacles to their achievement and their development which men do not.

But not even POTUS – the former President, not the current President - has the power to make change without the work of a willing community.

And here’s the proof. This was President Obama in his valedictory speech in January. You might have heard it.

He talks about what a good democracy demands. I think it’s exactly the same for what progress for women demands:

He says:

It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.

If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organising.

If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.

Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose...

...hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.

I wondered how this might apply in a public sector context here in Canberra.

Maybe something like this:

If there’s discrimination in your workplace, if you’re held back because of your gender, if you see policy driving inequality, if you feel injustice or witness it against the people around you...

Then speak up, organise, join your union, be a feminist, be an activist.

 Hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.

In so far as I’m a leader I’m here a bit by chance.

I’ve found my way to this position not by seeking it out, but by fighting for causes I believe in.

I’ll try summarise the journey in a couple of minutes.

I grew up in the suburbs of West Belconnen and have lived there all my life. I still live there now, it’s where I’m raising my family.

One of my earliest memories of proper organised activism is when my school friends and I protested to save our school bull.

At my school that went to a Ginninderra High, we had an agricultural plot and our teacher had brought a new bull into the agricultural area, and his name was Max.

Max was one of those cows that had a white stripe around his waist – he was adorable, he was cute and tame and we all thought he was amazing, and he was entered into the Canberra show. We thought, he’ll just smash it because he’s adorable, and he did. He went well, but then so did his carcass, and so did his hide.

We didn’t realise that he was going to be slaughtered and is carcass and hide was going to be part of the show. Of course we were all devastated.

So a bunch of girls got together and made some hand written flyers, and I think I was about in year 8 or year 9 at the time, during our school assembly, in the quadrangle, after the assembly when we were all asked to go back to class, we staged a sit-in, until we could get a guarantee from the school, that if we got another Max, that that wouldn’t happen to him.

So that was my first experience, and I’m sure you’ve all got experiences of your own, not the same, but where you’ve had to take action of something that you’ve believed in.

My parents and others around me taught me to understand the value of community activism and in bringing people together around that common goal.

My father who is also no stranger to activism. Some of you may have heard of him, Wayne Berry.

He campaigned for many years to make women’s lives better, and in 2002 he was successful in removing abortion from the crimes act so that women no longer faced a 10 year jail sentence for getting an abortion in the ACT.

He is a feminist and a communitarian and he made it so the ACT was, and still is, one of the most progressive cities when it comes to women’s reproductive health.

My Mum was the first person in my family to get a higher qualification than a year 12 certicate. She did that while working full time, raising three children, with my father who was about to enter a political career, in a sector that was not always a field of choice for women, around Occupational Health and safety.

After school I found my way into hospitality, which is not an unusual workplace for many people when they leave school.  I didn’t really know what to do with myself when I left school, so I thought I be there for a couple of years while I worked that out. Eight years later I was still there.

And it was from there that I got a job with United Voice, the trade union which represents some of the lowest paid members in our community – cleaners, security guards, early childhood educators, hospitality workers and aged care workers.

These people can be some of the most isolated, disconnected and excluded workers in our community, despite the fact that we couldn’t imagine life without them – cleaning offices while we’re home in bed, starting their shift as we finish ours.

Who makes up the majority of cleaners? Women.

Who makes up the great majority of early childhood educators? Women.

97% of people who work in the early childhood space, are women.

In all of these professions, particularly those in early childhood education and in cleaning, many are migrants and refugees with limited English.

It’s insecure work and these people had to be very brave to take on activism.

But they built campaigns from the workforce up and promoted awareness about the importance of better, more liveable wages, particularly in the early childhood education sector.

The message to the community is simple: if you demand quality childcare and early childhood education (as we should) then respect the workers who provide it.

It seems so unjust that the women who educate our children through infancy often have little hope of having their own children attend formal early childhood education because of the cost.

This remains a cause I’m particularly passionate about and I continue to support these women from my position in government.

It’s this kind of experience that shows what activism meant in peoples’ lives.

Sometimes it’s about giving an individual a fair go and a fair crack at happiness.

Sometimes it’s about taking stand for a feminist movement that still has such a long way to go.

It’s not something to shy away from but something to embrace and just like President Obama I think it still needs to be alive in our community.

I’m sure you have women in your own lives who inspire you with their courage and their work.

I’d encourage you to seek them out for a chat about some of the harder parts of being a woman striving for equity or for change.

Even if it’s someone senior to you, I dare say they’d appreciate the recognition and support which comes from someone acknowledging their leadership.

Some of the people who inspire me also cause me the most stress and the most sleepness nights as they demand support from our government for those they represent:

  • Julie Tongs, the long time CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service
  • Mirjana Wilson, CEO of the Domestic Violence Crisis Service
  • Chrystina Stanford, CEO of the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre

All of these women do amazing stuff.

Just on domestic and family violence and sexual assault, I’m actually the first ACT Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence.

We are responding on a local scale which, if replicated by the Commonwealth, would see tens of billions of dollars flow nationally:

  • in crisis services
  • prevention and early intervention
  • legal support
  • broader training and awareness
  • about 15 clear areas of action.

Everyday I’m pushed by women who’ve advocated for action in this space for years.

It’s fair to say many of them were conscripts to activism.

Some of you would be aware that the success of domestic violence crisis services relies heavily on them keeping a low profile and keeping their clients protected.

Yet they found their way to a much bigger community profile and the level of awareness we now have around this issue is thanks mainly to these women.

There is also strong progress and a growing list of achievements with the ACT Government itself.

The majority of ACT departmental heads are now women and 42% of senior executive positions are held by women.

We press on towards parity on government boards and are currently sitting on about 48% of positions occupied by women.

Not that I should have to convince anyone here on the arguments for equity on boards.

They are the same for executive teams, governments and cabinets: high performers have more women and a greater understaning of diversity.

And the community gets a better outcome.

For the first time the ACT Labor caucus has a majority of women.

I’d just say on this that we got here through quotas.

And we got quotas after decades of activism.

So don’t ever apologise for quotas.

As Minister for Sport and Recreation I have also set the requirement on peak sporting organisations funded by the ACT Government, to reach at least 40% women’s representation over the next three years.

Some are already there or are well on the way.

Others are coming around...

Occasionally you’ll come across someone with a deep opposition to the very idea of setting these requirements.

I’m sure you’ve probably had these moments.

I’d suggest the occasional awkward meeting or awkward moment is a sure sign you’re testing the status quo, as you should be.

Just on this issue I want to take the chance to put a call out for any women here interested in putting their hand up for a spot with an ACT Government board or committee.

I could give you a long URL but it’s easiest to Google ‘ACT Women’s Register’ and you’ll find your way.

The website isn’t perfect and we are looking at ways to grow the register beyond government, but please have a look and i you’re interested in being part of the register, please get in touch. And if you have any ideas about how to expand or change the register, please also let us know.

If there’s one single message I’d ask you to hold onto it’s to think of your work and your career as connected to broader social change.

Any of us can be a leader.

I’ve been lucky to see it in people from public housing tenants through to cleaners, early childhood educators, public servants and even other politicians.

People not just acting out of self interest but thinking about the community they want for themselves, other women and girls and indeed for everyone.

When you step up for women’s progress in your lives and spheres of influence you’re making your own contribution.

Please keep doing it. Stick together.

Hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.