Samoa can increase women M.P.s, says touring politicians

In March this year the Australian state of Tasmania made history when 13 women and 12 men were elected to Parliament, making it the first in Australia to have a female majority.

But that change did not happen overnight and the journey and its challenges – in the lead-up to the March 2018 state elections and its subsequent result – was part of the story that some members of Tasmania’s Parliament where sharing in their tour of Samoa this week. 

Members of Parliament, Rene Hidding, Kerry Finch and Craig Farrell, accompanied by the Deputy Clerk Catherine Vickers, have been meeting organisations across the country. They are not travelling as delegates of the nation, but instead as peers of the Commonwealth, sharing with and learning from Samoa.

Mr. Hidding, the member for Lyons in Tasmania, said the small Australian State’s success rests to some extent on the affirmative action policies passed in 1986.

“It’s a matter of universal suffrage, which means no barriers for anyone – if you can vote, you can stand,” he said.

Mr. Hidding said important first steps were taken when in 2013, when a quota of five women parliamentarians was introduced by Samoa, which “bore fruit” in electing female representatives.

“I am confident it will bear fruit at the next election in 2021, if there is strong leadership and action now to get candidates up,” he said.

Mr. Hidding said for Samoa to improve the number of women in the House by the 2021 election, talent need to be identified now as potential candidates.

In conversations with male parliamentarians here in Samoa, he said he’s found them to be “unrelentingly positive” about increasing women representation in the House.

“We’re not hearing any pushback, so it would be a tragedy if the opportunity were not used between now and 2021 to increase women in Parliament.”

The parliamentarians said education is a means to breaking down barriers for women, who may want to stand for Parliament, but do not necessarily know how.

Mr. Finch suggested there could be more public awareness about the work required of a parliament member.

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“Maybe if Parliament held an open day to show people around and explain a bit about the place, and what life looks like after the election,” he said.

The most important thing to know is that parliamentarians are servants, not rulers, added Mr. Hidding.

“Your speaker, Leaupepe Toleafoa Fa’afisi has been serving in Parliament a long time. He is a gracious man, a humble man, and he could look these women in the eye and tell them - you can do this.”

Women add a great deal to the governing of a nation, said Mr. Hidding.

“When it comes to understanding the cost of living, and the impact of big budget projects on the everyday person, who understands that best? Mamma knows best, because she runs the home,” he said.

It has taken several decades and milestones to reach the majority female parliament in Tasmania, said Mr. Finch.

“1948 saw our first female parliamentarian in Tasmania, we’ve had our first female prime minister, our first female Leader of the Opposition, our first female premier, first president of the legislative council recently is a female.

“Those exemplars of leadership set the tone and they inspire other women to say I can do that,” he said.

Craig Farrell said Samoa’s challenge is in replicating that.

Pioneering women inspire others, leading to an organic process of increasing the number of women in Parliament, but practical matters need to be tended to as well.

In Tasmania, the rules were that one could only stand in the Parliament if they were elected – such as the babies of elected women, who were unable to care for their child while at work.

“That is nonsense – you have to knock that out. In Australian parliaments, that has all been fixed,” said Mr. Hidding.

“It’s a problem if women think having a family means they can’t stand for Parliament.”

Samoa and Tasmania also share the unique relationship of having a “twinned” parliament programme that is close to a decade old. The relationship can add value to Samoa’s Legislative Assembly as it brings benefits like knowledge sharing trips between researchers, policy experts, and community relations experts, which will be happening later this year.

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