More work needs to be done to achieve a more culturally diverse political representation, one Senator says.
Visiting the region on Saturday, Labor Senator Penny Wong was part of an event conversing with Ballarat federal MP Catherine King about the importance of female voices being heard, and listened to.
Born in Malaysia and migrating to Adelaide with her family as an eight-year-old, Senator Wong experienced a difficult childhood as she was frequently subjected to bullying and racism.
Studying law and arts before working as a lawyer and then for a union, Senator Wong was elected to the Senate in 2001. Along with Ms King, the two women took up their seats in July 2002.
It was a time when few women walked the halls of the nation's Parliament - presenting a range of challenges.
Though in her almost 20 years as a politician, Senator Wong has broken down barriers and claimed a number of political 'firsts'.
Soon after being elected, Senator Wong 'came out' as gay. Appointed to the Shadow Ministry in 2004, she was later appointed as the Minister for Climate Change and Water following the successful election of the Labor government in 2007. This made her the first Asian-born and openly gay person to serve as a Cabinet Minister.
Following an appointment to Minister for Finance, she was made the Leader of the Government in the Senate in 2013. After a change in government she was appointed the Leader of the Opposition - she was the first woman to work in both of these roles.
Speaking with The Courier, Senator Wong said being a member of Parliament was a "great privilege" as it was a position where one can "speak for the people on issues that you really care about".
Senator Wong is one of Australia's most prominent federal politicians, with a sharp resolve to speak out against prejudice and campaign for a fairer society.
She has spoken passionately for LGBTIQA+ rights, equality for women and an inclusive and multicultural society. Though her journey has not always been easy.
"I used to really push back on the idea that I was a role model when I was first in politics because it just felt so much about me."
Though her mindset changed after giving a lecture to a group of young people in Melbourne one day.
"Afterwards a whole group of young women, and many women from Asian backgrounds, came up to talk to me to tell me how excited they were," she recalled.
It was then she realised that it wasn't about her, but about changing how others viewed their opportunities.
"That's when I understood that, 'you can't be what you can't see' thing a lot more.
"It does matter because the most important thing about being a first is that there is a second, a third and then one day a hundredth."
While the Labor Party has taken steps for women's equality, it still has a way to go in terms of being more culturally diverse, Senator Wong said.
"Being a woman in any career, whether it's politics or journalism, you face a different set of challenges," she said.
Though she acknowledged that "a lot had changed" since she first took her seat in Parliament.
"There weren't as many women then and our party was still in the process of change," she explained.
Labor is now in a position of having nearly equal numbers of female and male members of federal parliament, she said, which had contributed to a cultural shift.
"We've taken a particular view as a party that we had to prioritise changing our make up. Every time more women are elected it gets easier. All the women who have been senior in the Labor party have made a contribution to changing that culture."
But political parties still have some way to go in terms of diversity, Senator Wong added.
"Fourteen years after being the first person with an Asian background in Federal Cabinet and I'm still the only person. So we've got a lot more work to do."
While recalling being dubbed the 'quota girls' by members of the Coalition, Senator Wong said she supported affirmative action targets for women because there were "such an obvious set of barriers" for women to enter Parliament.
Democracy is better served when the Parliament reflects the communitySenator Penny Wong
"Democracy is better served when the Parliament reflects the community.
"We had to do something to remedy that and affirmative action was the way we did."
While there have been some big changes in a short period of time - including Labor's First Nation's Caucus Committee - she said the most recent challenge on the table was continuing to increase cultural representation.
"I think the next set of diversity challenges are around cultural background, and we've got to do better around that."
While there are changing and increasingly progressive attitudes towards a number of social issues in Australia, the fact remains: Australia has been governed by a conservative government for 19 of the last 25 years.
About how this reflects on modern Australia, Senator Wong encouraged the community to hold those in power to account.
"Hold Scott Morrison to account too because if I may say so, I don't think he understands the reasons for diversity which are fundamentally about democracy, representation and opportunity.
"I think we should all be held to account for trying to improve the resilience and responsiveness of democracy."
Senator Wong said younger generations "would not accept anything less", for example as shown by the number of brave women who have shared their stories of sexual assault, including Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins.
To any aspiring young politicians, Senator Wong encouraged having a go.
"Do it because ultimately, as imperfect as it is - and it's pretty flawed - it is about the sort of world, nation and community you live in. If you want to change things, it's one of the principle ways in which you can make the change that you aspire to."
The event followed another hosted by Wendouree MP Juliana Addison with Jill Hennessy.
Ms King said the weekend's event was successful and the feedback was "really positive".
"People are interested in hearing women's voices and I thought this was a good way to talk about these issues."
She said everyone left the event with "positivity and hope" for what progressive women could achieve in politics.
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