A day of firsts for women in politics, and one in particular

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and her deputy, Jackie Trad, head up a new cabinet with eight female and six male ministers, including the state’s first Indigenous woman MP. Dan Peled/AAP

It’s a historic day for politics and women in Australia – and even more remarkable for one woman minister, who is also Queensland’s first ever Indigenous woman MP.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s cabinet marks an Australian first, with a majority of women ministers: eight women (including the premier, who is also arts minister) and six men. And the leadership team of Palaszczuk and her deputy, Jackie Trad, is only the second time two women have led a state government.

One of the new faces in that historic cabinet is Leeanne Enoch, a proud Nunukul/Nughi woman, who is minister for housing and public works, as well as minister for science and innovation.

Enoch was elected at the January 31 election as the member for Algester, representing outer south-western suburbs of Brisbane and part of Logan city.

While it wasn’t a quick or easy decision for her to become a politician, Enoch’s story is a textbook case for others – particularly women – to learn from about the power of networking and mentoring. It’s also a textbook case of how people with initiative can create their own success.

New Indigenous Queensland parliamentarians Leeanne Enoch and Billy Gordon, with a portrait of their predecessor, National Party MP Eric Deeral. @LeeanneEnoch/Twitter

A fateful meeting and a bag of money

About a decade ago, I recall a confident woman introducing herself to me at meeting with a few blunt questions.

“I think I might be interested in this politics thing: what do I do? Can you help me?”

At the time, I was the Labor member for Algester in the Beattie state government. I had just spoken at an EMILY’s List meeting, aimed at electing more Labor women. And that was my introduction to Leeanne Enoch.

Her timing was spot on. I’d recently chaired a state parliamentary committee aimed at increasing the parliamentary representation of Indigenous people in Queensland. But our 2002 report, Hands on Parliament, and the recommended actions in it, were going nowhere.

As we talked, I discovered that Enoch had had a successful career as a secondary teacher in Queensland and overseas, and was by then in a policy role in government.

She would go on to work as a state and national executive for the Australian Red Cross. More recently, Enoch had been working with the Queensland Council of Unions, seeking justice for generations of Indigenous Queenslanders who were underpaid or not paid at all by successive state governments.

In the week before the election, an Indigenous female elder who was part of that wage justice campaign handed over a small bag of money to support Enoch’s election. It contained A$8.25.

This exchange – a gift from the heart and all the elder could afford – represented her desire for a new era in which the voices of Indigenous women would be heard in Parliament.

Women and Indigenous Australians in politics

Only one in five parliamentarians globally are women. On a world ranking, Australia sits at 48th, with only 26% female representation in the lower house of our national parliament. Rwanda has the highest share, at nearly 64%, but many others are well ahead of us, including Sweden, South Africa, East Timor and Germany.

Women’s representation across all Australian parliaments has increased by less than 10% over the last 17 years, from 20.7% in 1997 to 29% in 2014.

Indigenous women – and men – are still badly under-represented in all state and territory parliaments.

Before this election, the Queensland Parliament had only ever had one Indigenous parliamentarian: National Party MP Eric Deeral (1972-75). Now it has two: along with Enoch, there’s Billy Gordon, representing the far North Queensland seat of Cook.

Enoch joins a small group of trailblazers in Australian politics. The door was opened by Carol Martin, a Western Australian state Labor MP, who was the first Indigenous woman elected to any Australian parliament back in 2001.

Greater diversity means smarter politics

When people complain about bland, “white bread” politicians, who’ve never had a “real job” outside politics, they’re certainly not describing the newest member for Algester.

But getting into politics is clearly far easier for some people than for others, even in states like Victoria that like to think of themselves as more progressive. Take John Brumby, a former Melbourne Grammar boy and Labor premier from 2007 to 2010. When he lost the election, who replaced him? Another old boy from the same year at the same grammar school, but the opposite side of politics, Ted Baillieu.

That’s not to say there’s no place for men in ties; there always will be. Men typically have the networks, the resources and can generally ease back from their family responsibilities, as political journalist Annabel Crabb has written about in The Wife Drought.

But the decisions made in government affect all Australians, not just some, which is why all Australians should be represented around the cabinet table and across the parliamentary chambers.

One of the hard lessons I learnt in government is that it is unrealistic to expect people to accept and take responsibility for decisions that they have had little input into.

With so few Indigenous people in parliamentary roles, for example, few high-level decisions are made by Indigenous people. The result? Government policies and programs are consistently criticised and rejected by Indigenous people.

In the past week we had yet another poor national report card on the Closing the Gap targets. If we want to break out of that cycle of failure and disappointment from all sides, we need more strong Indigenous voices like Leeanne Enoch and Billy Gordon in politics.

But it’s one thing to say that; achieving that takes more work.

Years of work and a Bolt from the blue

All political candidates have to build support in their local ALP branch, meet party officials and the people who will support them. Enoch’s plan was to be patient, but be ready. She knew it would take at least five years.

My experience of Enoch – first as a stranger and then as a friend – was that as soon as you meet her, you like her. She hooks you in with her enthusiasm, then you find yourself drawn in to her eagerness to get things done.

Enoch has created her own opportunities. She won over a group of supporters, who helped her harden her up to the harsh realities of political processes. Later came a small network of Indigenous women who were interested in politics, who provided moral support to achieve her mission.

Enoch wobbled a bit along the way, questioning whether politics was for her. At one point, I thought she’d vanished. She explained recently:

I didn’t have other Aboriginal women or men as role models. I couldn’t see myself in it … I felt odd and different.

But she re-appeared to be thrust into the deep end at short notice to run in the 2009 state election. She impressed people with her capable, compassionate approach to politics. She was well on her way.

Enoch’s resolve to enter politics was cemented in 2009 when commentator Andrew Bolt questioned her Aboriginality, as well as that of other prominent Australians including NSW Australian of the Year Larissa Behrendt and author Anita Heiss. Bolt wrote:

Exactly how Aboriginal is Enoch? By what superior right can she welcome me to ‘her’ country? Why is she insisting on a racial difference the eye cannot even detect? Doesn’t her ancestry make her more an oppressor than a victim?

The incensed group of nine Indigenous women and men took their challenge to the Federal Court, and won.

The sister of playwright and theatre director Wesley Enoch, Leeanne Enoch has drawn great strength from her family. On election night, relatives travelled from North Stradbroke Island to join in the cheers and tears of her celebrations.

She may be new to politics, but her professional experience stands her in good stead to sit in cabinet.

Today’s swearing in of the new cabinet is a day of firsts for Queensland and Australia. But as Enoch herself has said, “when you are the first, you have a responsibility to open the door as wide as possible, to as many people as possible”.

For Leeanne Enoch, and for the rest of us, the real day to look forward to is when that door is wide open – and there is nothing remarkable about women and Indigenous Australians being elected to parliament.

* Correction: The original article stated that Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and her deputy, Jackie Trad, were Australia’s first female political leadership team. Thanks to reader Chris O'Regan, who pointed out that was incorrect: the first was Kenneally/Tebbutt in New South Wales.