Australian politicians call out sexism in Canberra on International Women's Day

As Canberra navigates a crisis, SBS News asked politicians from across the parties about their own experiences and what needs to change.

Helen Haines, Tanya Plibersek, Jane Hume and Lydia Thorpe.

Helen Haines, Tanya Plibersek, Jane Hume and Lidia Thorpe. Source: SBS News

Australian politics is under the spotlight after  have forced leaders to confront what many have described as a toxic culture for women in Canberra. 

Currently, there are 86 women in the lower and upper houses and 141 men. 

SBS News asked Liberal Senator Jane Hume, Labor MP Tanya Plibersek, Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe and independent MP Helen Haines about their experiences and whether they would still encourage other women to pursue a career in politics.


Have you ever seen sexism in 'the Canberra bubble'? What did you see and what did you do about it?

Jane Hume: “You would be hard-pressed to find a woman that hasn’t experienced sexism in the Canberra bubble - but I’ve experienced it everywhere. I think it's endemic, but it is something that everybody is working towards [improving]. International Women’s Day is an opportunity for everybody - whether they be male or female - to reflect on their own attitudes and behaviours.” 

Tanya Plibersek: “I’ve seen plenty of sexism in Canberra. I think there’s still plenty of sexism in most workplaces and I try to call it out whenever I see it. I'd say probably the best thing for me is now that we're at almost 50 per cent female representation in the Labor Party. I'm not the only one calling it out. There's a bunch of us who can look out for each other and create a different environment for new people as they come into our workplace. When you get a critical mass of women in a workplace it changes everything.”

Lidia Thorpe: “In the light of the toxic culture that unfortunately exists in parliament, it’s about standing together in solidarity and continuing to fight against that and call it out. If we stand silent it will continue and it’s not just up to women to call this out, it’s up to every Australian in this country to call out bad behaviours. Everyone deserves to work in a safe place.”

Helen Haines: “In my experience, this is a very blokey place. It's a very patriarchal place. I've experienced sexism here usually in the guise of men not necessarily speaking directly to me, speaking to other men around me. The way that I handle that is to step forward and to make my voice heard and to call them out.”

What needs to change in parliament?

Jane Hume: “Parliament needs to reflect on its culture, on its behaviour and on its attitudes particularly towards women. But we are doing that. And the changes that I've seen, even in just the four years that I've been here, have been quite extraordinary, and I hope to see that change continue.” 

Tanya Plibersek: “It would be a better parliament if it was more representative of our Australian community and that means it should be half women. It means there should be different ages, different professional backgrounds. The parliament makes better decisions when it better represents our whole Australian community.” 

Helen Haines: We need to concentrate more on the evidence. We need to have much less of this win at all costs mentality. We need to have a bigger crossbench. If we had more independence in the parliament, we wouldn't see so much tribalism. I think we'd see much more collaboration. That's what should change.”  

In light of the current crisis, why should young women still consider a career in Australian politics?

Jane Hume: “If I was speaking to a young woman that wanted to enter politics, I'd say, go at it with your ears back. It's a really tough job, and you'll have to work really hard. No one's going to give it to you on a platter. But the ability to make genuine change in people's lives, to make people's lives better, is an extraordinary privilege, and one you shouldn't shy away from.” 

Tanya Plibersek: “If a girl came to me tomorrow and said, 'I'm thinking about a career in politics', I would say go for it. Despite the terrible stories that have been in the media lately about [allegations of] sexual assault and sexual harassment in Canberra, it is such an incredibly rewarding job. It's difficult. It's high conflict, it can be frustrating at times. But when you can look back on the things that you've achieved, when you've actually helped a person who's been, you know, really struggling, there's no better feeling than that - it's the best job in the world."

Lidia Thorpe: “For those women who are aspiring to be in these leadership positions, it's about ensuring that you've got good supports around you. In our communities, it’s our aunties and our sisters and our old people that give us that strength and that resilience to continue so don't let that put you off. We will fight it until the end and we will we will pave the way for you." 

Helen Haines: “Young women should not be put off entering politics, we need more young women. We need to be seen in places of power and in doing that I think we’ll make our places of power much safer and much better places.”

It’s been more than a decade since Australia got its first and only woman prime minister. Who is going to be the next one and why?

Jane Hume: "I can name about a dozen of my female colleagues who could be prime minister, whether it's now or five years' time, there is some real talent in our army."

Tanya Plibersek: "I don't know who the next female prime minister will be, but given we've had 29 men and only one woman, I think we've got some catching up to do."

Lidia Thorpe: “We're well overdue to have a black woman prime minister in this country. There are many other First Nations young people and women that are more than capable and ready to step up to a position like that.”

Helen Haines: “Right now there are 46 women in the House of Representatives. Any one of those women could or should be the next Prime Minister of Australia and I'd be delighted [with] any one of them.”

International Women's Day is marked on 8 March.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit .  

6 min read
Published 8 March 2021 at 5:33am
By Ben Patrick, Pablo Vinales, Tom Stayner, Shuba Krishnan