Janine Freeman: Upon reflection
“Gender equality is a commitment to a thriving society through valuing women’s contribution”
Almost 100 years ago, Edith Cowan became the first woman elected to an Australian parliament, in March 1921.
In Her Seat is asking as many currently serving female politicians as we can how they view gender equality, politics and their impact.
This is a non-partisan project that is soliciting contributions from women in all parties, or none at all, in every parliament.
Janine Freeman is the Member for Mirrabooka in the Western Australian Parliament. First elected in 2008, she is retiring at the March 2021 election.
Starting her working life in the hospitality industry, Janine saw the power and impact of politics there, as she says below. She then moved into government and the union movement.
In the union movement, Janine was a senior organiser and decision-maker advocating for workers rights across a range of issues, like pay equity, employment security and workplace health and safety.
With retirement looming, Janine’s impact in parliament is easier to see in hindsight. She has been keenly aware of issues with unemployment, access to education and training, challenges facing the FIFO workforce and opportunities for the newest Australians. You can read her valedictory speech to parliament here.
What does gender equality mean to you?
Gender equality is an active response to sexism, both personal and systemic. Gender equality accepts women’s human rights, countering discrimination and empowering women.
It is unjust when a woman’s status is diminished by socially constructed views which serve to gain wealth and deliver power to one section of society, making us all poorer.
Gender equality is a commitment to a thriving society through valuing women’s contribution, not driven by a neoliberal cost/benefit analysis, but to the wellbeing of all.
Which female politicians have inspired or encouraged you?
Senator Pat Giles was a central influence. She illustrated the power of working in community, agitating for change and giving opportunities to women. It is fitting that WA women organise an annual Pat Giles Lunch and award a deserving woman the Pat Giles Award.
There are so many good women in the Labor movement. In 1990 I was the assistant to the Parliamentary Whip, Ms Jackie Watkins, during Premier Carmen Lawrence’s term. Both were inspirational. Jackie, like the former MP for Stirling Jann MacFarlane, was generous and encouraging. Both women provided career opportunities that promoted my skill and capacity. The capacity to mentor other women is widespread throughout the Labor movement and is a major inspiration for me in roles I have undertaken, such as EMILY’s list WA convenor, in promoting women’s participation in politics.
What inspired you to serve your community?
When I was working as a bar attendant in 1986 the Hon Pam Beggs, as the Labor Minister for Racing and Gaming, banned topless barmaids.
At the time, as a hospitality worker I had been forced to work alongside naked women who made the workplace unsavoury and unsafe.
Pam Beggs’ tenacity and dedication to make my workplace safer despite calls of “nanny state” cemented in me a commitment to feminism, the fight against discrimination and a belief in collective workplace action through union membership.
My mother was forced to quit her government job when she married my father in 1961. That and other prejudices wrought on women gave me a fire in my belly for justice. My belief in fairness and access to justice has been at the core of my commitment to the people in Mirrabooka, who often experience periods of unemployment and work in unskilled or semi-skilled employment.
This, in addition to the indignity of prejudice and intolerance for our First Nations people and on the basis of birthplace or religion, inspires me to advocate that a “fair go” in Australia is only a reality if it applies to all Australians.
What are the most important contributions you are making in Parliament?
While Mirrabooka has the greatest cultural, religious and social diversity of any seat in the WA Parliament, it also has the highest unemployment rate and socio-economic disadvantage in the metropolitan area.
My focus over the last 12 years has been on employment opportunities in the area.
I was instrumental in establishing the award-winning Kaleidoscope programme which mentors new arrivals into employment. Further, a skills and jobs centre along with $32 million in upgrades at Balga TAFE have been delivered to assist those seeking work.
As the chair of the multicultural policy framework subcommittee for the Minister for Multicultural Interests’ Multicultural Advisory Group I was proud to launch in early 2020, with the Minister, the Western Australian Multicultural Policy Framework. The Framework establishes a pathway for the public sector to service diverse needs and include diverse stories and voices in policy making, employment and delivery of services.
As the Chair of the Parliamentary Education and Health Committee I was proud of our work on community responses to youth and FIFO suicides.
The report calling for immediate action to address the cost, both personally and to the health system, of the epidemic that is Type 2 diabetes was a particular highlight.
What is next for gender equality in politics?
Since Edith Cowan was elected in 1921, the participation of women in the WA Parliament has grown at an average of 1.1% each election and will not reach parity at this rate until near the end of this century.
This is despite the increase of Labor women as WA parliamentary members, as a result of structural reform through affirmative action targets.
To achieve 50/50 Parliamentary representation, it is now imperative that other parliamentary parties dismantle the inherent bias against women in their preselection process.
Equal representation also needs to be reflected in other Parliament and Cabinet positions. In 2017 two Labor women were elected as President and Leader of WA Legislative Council, an anomaly that is yet to be addressed in the Legislative Assembly. In this the 100th year of Edith Cowan’s election it is surely time that the Speaker and Leader of the Legislative Assembly be women.
However, it is not just enough to have more women; equality is only delivered where there are various voices heard and ensuring that women who get elected are from culturally and linguistically diverse communities is a challenge that needs addressing.