Imperfect women need not apply

The “mudslinging masterclass” of the Dunstan by-election shows why women in politics can never really win, writes Chelsey Potter.

Mar 26, 2024, updated Mar 26, 2024
L-R: Greens candidate Katie McCusker, Labor candidate Cressida O'Hanlon, Liberal candidate Dr Anna Finizio. Photos: David Simmons/InDaily.

L-R: Greens candidate Katie McCusker, Labor candidate Cressida O'Hanlon, Liberal candidate Dr Anna Finizio. Photos: David Simmons/InDaily.

So why would you?

Why would any woman?

In the aftermath of the Dunstan by-election, it’s the question that many South Australian women may be asking themselves.

After what felt like nothing more than a never-ending masterclass in mudslinging, any sensible, clear-thinking woman would be rethinking any political ambitions.

Across six long weeks, the electorate was treated to a very public grinding down of the two major party candidates, the likely victorious Labor candidate Cressida O’Hanlon and the Liberal Party’s pick Anna Finizio.

Leaked emails and accusations in State Parliament, obtained resumes and on-the-hustings ambushes.

Both sides of politics awash with legal opinions.

O’Hanlon faced questions over emails to Labor colleagues relating to her husband’s business, any role within it and whether the Lobbyist Act had a part to play. Finizio’s candidacy raised questions about her local credentials, a previous directorship and an old application for a role in now-Attorney General Kyam Maher’s office.

In the final days of the campaign, Finizio even came under fire for the decision of the Liberal Party’s State Council to put backbencher Alex Antic at the top of the Senate ticket over experienced former minister Anne Ruston.

Through her Open Letter to the Women of Dunstan, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young called upon readers to “tell Peter Dutton and the men of the Liberal Party that we are sick of the blokes calling the shots” by, presumably, voting Greens.

Or, to put it another way, use your vote to deny a progressive Liberal woman – who has proactively worked to address women’s representation in the party – a seat in Parliament based decision made by men and ballots outside of her control.

Got it.

There is no doubt that accountability in politics is crucial. Integrity matters. Sometimes, on the campaign trail, questions emerge that require an answer or explanation.

And, yes, politics can be tough – and, no, women do not need special treatment when it comes to the cut and thrust of it all.

However, in a rare all-woman contest, and against the backdrop of a Teal revolution on the east coast, which has started to shake up what it means to be a woman in politics, this by-election could have been the start of something else.

It could have been the kind of contest that welcomed big ideas and heralded new perspectives.

Instead, it became an unedifying examination of the minutia and a worrying case study in exactly what you may be offering up when you put up your hand.

And, most concerningly, it may have inadvertently sent a strong message to many women considering a career in politics.

When it comes to representing your community, imperfect women need not apply.

For women, it seems like we have to live our lives like we might run for office. Maybe, one day, on the off chance.

You can only ever live inside your chosen electorate, except for all the successful male MPs past and present who have resided outside of their constituency.

Never consider another political party, except if you’re one of the successful male MPs who once chopped and changed political parties.

Be responsible for everyone and everything around you – particularly any husbands and about a hundred State Council delegates.

After 35 years – nearly 20 of those spent in and around politics – I can tell you I’m another imperfect woman.

I’ve fired off tweets in anger. I’m sure there’s some less-than-flattering photos out there, somewhere. I’ve misjudged, misstepped and messed up.

I’ve lived through unbecoming moments and, at times, invoked fallible coping strategies. I have my fair share of scars.

Oh, and I swear. A lot.

But you know what? All the things that I suspect sit on my own personal political shitsheet are not especially groundbreaking – many up-and-coming men in politics may have done similar, or much worse.

I want to see women like me in our Parliament. I want women who have lived and learned. I want women who have experienced and grown – and continue to do so.

After all, I’m no better represented in a parliament of perfect women than in one full of men.

In party politics, candidate autonomy – when it comes to campaign strategy – is about as rare as this all-woman field. It would be easy for many commentators and constituents to blame the candidates for the tone of this campaign.

In reality, it’s the male-dominated party machines that sit behind them that need to change.

The men who compile those less-than-flattering dossiers need to understand the electorate wants better. Male powerbrokers need to evolve beyond their win-no-matter-what negative campaign tactics.

Until they do, as the Dunstan by-election shows, even when you win, right now, women in politics can never really win.

Chelsey Potter is a former Liberal staffer, an advocate for safe political workplaces and a proponent of increased women’s representation in parliaments. She has run campaigns for both independent and Liberal women candidates.

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