I have a card that takes pride of place in my office in Parliament House. It’s from Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong, she wrote to congratulate me on my first speech in Federal Parliament.
It’s a special card because of what Senator Wong means to me. She showed me there was a place in politics for people like me - that I could play a significant role.
Senator Wong is principled, intelligent and effective, she also happens to be an Asian woman. I was working in Parliament House when she was sworn in as the first-Asian born cabinet minister - to me that moment crystallised an idea that perhaps our country was ready for greater diversity in our parliament.
Now 15 years on from that moment, I now step into our Federal Parliament as a member of the first majority female federal government - the first in Australia’s history. Of the 103 Federal Labor Parliamentarians, 54 are female, and a record 10 cabinet ministers are female.
On this International Women’s Day, I want to celebrate this extraordinary milestone, it comes 12 years after we had Australia’s first female Prime Minister.
This has not come about by accident, it was a deliberate decision by the Labor Party in 1994 to introduce quotas for women in winnable seats. It was an incredibly contentious decision at the time but it was the right one.
We see the fruits of that decision not just in the makeup of our federal government we see it in the important policy decisions Labor governments have made in light of this progress.
It was during the Rudd-Gillard years when the country’s first statutory paid parental leave was introduced and the first National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children.
In the first nine months of this Albanese Labor government, we have expanded paid parental leave, improved the affordability of childcare, made gender equality an object of the Fair Work Act, introduce paid family and domestic violence leave, legislated to implement all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report and introduced legislation to improve transparency and reporting of the gender pay gap.
Taken together, these policies are about driving women’s economic equality by removing barriers and taking steps towards reducing the gender pay gap.
It’s something corporate Australia has long been aware of. A joint 2020 study from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and Curtin University suggests that greater gender diversity in the boardroom delivered greater company performance, profitability and productivity. We are now starting to see the dividends of diverse perspectives in decision making in our parliament.
That is the Labor legacy I get to step into. Labor women have come before me in our Federal Parliament, they pushed through important policy changes that had a direct impact on my life. They inspired me and helped pave the way for my own pathway into politics.
I get to serve alongside Senator Katy Gallagher, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Women. The first time a minister has held both the finance and women’s portfolios and a deliberate decision to put women’s economic equality at the heart of government decision making.
I get to serve alongside the Member for Newcastle Sharon Claydon who has guided the Federal Parliament through the implementation of the Jenkins Review to clean up the work culture in the building.
I get to serve alongside my new Labor colleagues Zaneta Mascarenhas, Fatima Payman, Jana Stewart, Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah and Cassandra Fernando - all extraordinary women from diverse backgrounds.
And while I’m excited to call these women and so many others my colleagues - what excites me most is the knowledge that Labor women will come after me - building on the legacy of the first majority female federal government has laid.
The card Senator Wong sent me will always be special to me, but so will a moment I got to share with a local mum. She was seated at the table over from me at my favourite Korean BBQ restaurant in Strathfield, and she stopped me while I was eating to let me know she’d been following my journey into politics and she was proud of me because I gave her three-year old daughter someone to look up to.
Sally Sitou MP
Federal Member for Reid