100 women

Perhaps it was naive to think Malcolm Roberts, that swivel-eyed climate sceptic, who rose to the Senate with just 77 votes, was the high-water mark for the chamber’s lunacy. This week the man who took his seat, Fraser Anning, himself elected to the Senate with just 19 votes, used his maiden speech to call for an end to Muslim immigration. He deployed the term “final solution” – a “malapropism” according to his party leader Bob Katter, who came out in support of Anning, trying to reframe him as a man who never went to university, who hasn’t read the history books, who never claimed to be anything more than what he was. “Are we racist?” Katter asked, defending the “solid gold” speech. “We’re Australians. I don’t know if that’s racist or not.”

The next day, Mehreen Faruqi was elected as the first female Muslim senator in Australian history. Born in Pakistan, she immigrated to Australia in 1992, got her doctorate in engineering and, later, became a member of the Greens. In joining the Senate, Faruqi gained another title, as the 100th woman to hold a seat in the upper house – a milestone that took 75 years to reach from the election of Australia’s first female senator, Dorothy Tangney, in 1943. “It is not as a woman that I have been elected to this chamber,” Tangney avowed in her own maiden speech. “It is as a citizen of the Commonwealth.” And yet, the former teacher spent her many decades in politics advocating both for women – including their rights within divorce proceedings – and for policies that improve their lives – such as the expansion of education and social security.

Our 57th female senator, Penny Wong, the first openly queer female member of parliament and the first Asian-born member of any Australian cabinet, moved a motion after Anning’s speech for the Senate to recommit to a racially non-discriminatory immigration policy. “Those of us who’ve been on the receiving end of racism know what it feels like,” she said, “and know that what leaders say matters.”

There is a tendency in Australia to look at our history as a measured march towards some inevitable, fairer ideal. To point out that every year since Dorothy Tangney’s election, on average, another woman or two has joined the Senate. That marriage equality was bound to happen. That new migrant groups will eventually find their place in the great project of Australian multiculturalism. To indulge in the magical thinking that things just get better.

The reality is that every step of progress in this country has been fought for, tooth and nail, and despite history’s affinity for rendering their leadership invisible, it has been disadvantaged minority communities that have started these movements for change. Often, they are inspired by a figure who was the first, by someone who could hear and understand the concerns of a community, because they themselves had lived them.

Heading into its midterm elections in November, the United States is predicting a “pink wave” as a record number of women run for office. Some time before mid-May next year, Australia will go to the polls to elect its next federal government. On June 30, 2019, the terms of 36 senators, including Anning’s, will expire.

If one thing has become clear in these past weeks of race-baiting politics, it’s that our leadership structures are in need of drastic change. The atrophied status quo needs to be swept out. For too long, it has enabled bipartisan support for indefinite offshore detention, held back Treaty negotiations and rewarded the use of racialised fear as a political tool. We need our own wave.

Candidates for the next election, it would be wise to seriously consider whether your preselection pushed out a person of colour who was just as qualified. Or someone who could have become Australia’s first openly trans member of parliament. Or someone who is committed, truly committed, to reversing Australia’s steady slide into the backwoods of the world.

On Twitter, Faruqi celebrated her election with a simple message: “See you soon, Fraser Anning.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "100 women". Subscribe here.