Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ steel-eyed testimony around rape allegations saw spiders crawl from under rocks and spread in all directions last week.
As women from both sides of politics unfurled their fury at the profoundly, deliberately unsafe workplace for women in ‘our House’, the Prime Minister, whether you believe him or not, defined his leadership failure.
He said he found out about an alleged rape in a Cabinet Minister’s office, not from the several ministers and personal staff who already knew, but by reading Samantha Maiden’s story.
There would be no consequences for anyone who kept him in a dark on the alleged crime down the hall from his office.
In the early 1990s, a daring women’s recruitment campaign, led by moderate NSW Liberal Chris McDiven, asked interested women to give her a call.
It saw female Liberal MP numbers treble at the 1996 election.
I wrote at the time, ‘The new government could for the first time, put more than one token woman in Cabinet’.
Howard chose two, and his women’s minister, Jocelyn Newman, predicted the influx would raise the tone.
People on the outside badly wanted a better behaved parliament.
But when Tony Abbott returned the Coalition to power 17 years later, he appointed one woman to Cabinet, and called himself women’s minister.
Howard and Abbott presided over the near collapse of the Party’s liberal wing, which was the outcome of hard right hegemony. Women now comprise 23 per cent of federal Liberal MPs, compared to 47 per cent of Labor.
It was no surprise then that several female Liberal ministers and backbenchers decried bullying and intimidation from the boys when they supported Malcolm Turnbull in the 2018 leadership spill.
The big parties are now tiny tribes run by nasty, ugly numbers men, as the recent Sixty Minutes report in Victoria revealed.
Loyalty is to the tribe, not the voters. Parliament doesn’t debate and finesse policy, because decisions have been made in backrooms. Politics is performance, spin, donor service.
The public interest, the pledge to govern for all of us, has collapsed. Morrison seems bored pretending sports rorts was a fair process, based on need.
No wonder the talent pool is narrow, insular and overstocked with the self-serving, corrupt narcissists and sociopaths. Can anyone seriously imagine women of substance answering a Liberal Party ad for candidates in 2021?
When Turnbull fell for the second time, trying to enact a solid climate change policy, his exit saw Wentworth independent Kerryn Phelps take his seat with a 19 per cent swing.
I was in the public gallery to see Morrison lead a Coalition MP walkout when she stood to give her maiden speech. It was a contemptuous trashing of the civilised Parliamentary full house tradition.
At the last election, Phelps nearly held on, despite Labor being favourite to win the election, and Warringah, the blue ribbon seat the other side of Sydney Harbour, tossed Abbott for Zali Steggall, with another 19 per cent swing, again through a vibrant community alliance of blue, red and green voters.
In 2013, the only bright spot for Labor was Cathy McGowan, a rural feminist, and founder of Women in Agriculture.
She beat Sophie Mirabella in the safe Liberal seat of Indi on the back of a wildly innovative community campaign.
When I spoke to Cathy the day after the 2013 election, she eschewed any suggestion her win had national implications. ‘It’s all local, I have to stick to my knitting’, she insisted.
Things changed after she helped her successor, Helen Haines, become the first independent to succeed as an independent in Indi (1,800 local volunteers!).
She wrote a folksy how-to-win-and-serve book called Cathy goes to Canberra, and last weekend hosted the first #gettingelected conference for community independents. It attracted ‘Voices for’ groups, which are now popping up in safe Liberal city seats, and several regional and rural seats.
Women dominated the event – organisers, facilitators, speakers, participants. Many knew nothing about the practicalities of politics.
It was, as Cathy said, a gathering, a wide-eyed, excited, naive, supremely hopeful launch of a movement, full of ‘be your best self’ and ‘never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world’.
Community before candidate, values before votes, principles before policies, that sort of thing.
It has to be, because for an independent woman to win, she must come second on first preferences and harvest the preferences of the other candidates. That means some Liberal, Labor and Greens voters must vote 1 for her, and that means she must find enough common ground to embody the electorate.
The 300 people at Cathy’s conference last weekend want to seriously, positively disrupt our politics.
They want to attract a class act to represent them, someone they trust to serve their needs, and act in what they believe to be the public interest. Someone who will always vote for her conscience and be accountable to them, directly. No middle man.
My take is that an emerging community independents movement is, in essence, a response to the collapse of the Liberal wing of the Liberal Party.
It was once progressive – Andrew Peacock as leader took Australia’s first emissions trading scheme to the electorate at the 1990 election.
Yet it’s getting organised, folks. Independents CAN is a new political party that will endorse ‘Voices for’ independents to give them the benefits of a party without having to join it. Things like tax deductible donations, access to the electoral roll, and insurance.
Founder Oliver Yates, a former Liberal Party member who stood against Josh Frydenberg as a climate change independent last election, told me ‘we’re trying to create an Uber service to help independents get to Parliament, to remove their competitive disadvantage against the Parties’.
PS: To follow the ‘Voices’ groups popping up around Australia, follow @VoicesforAU on Twitter.