Helen Haines, Zali Steggall & Kerryn Phelps on getting elected and making a difference

Helen Haines, Zali Steggall & Kerryn Phelps on getting elected and making a difference

Something that independent members of federal parliament, Helen Haines and Zali Steggall, as well as former independent MP Dr Kerry Phelps all agree on, is that getting elected to parliament isn’t a miracle.

It’s only something that happens with a lot of hard work, the right set of circumstances, and with the backing of a community that’s willing to engage in the democratic process.

On Wednesday night, Dr Kerryn Phelps, Helen Haines and Zali Steggall joined Professor Kim Rubenstein for an online discussion about improving Australia’s democracy. Professor Rubenstein, an expert in citizenship law, has just announced her campaign to run as independent candidate to represent the ACT in the federal senate.

Professor Kim Rubenstein is running for the Senate. She was joined on Wednesday night by Helen Haines, Zali Steggall and Kerryn Phelps.

During their time in parliament, Haines, Steggall and Phelps have each contributed to Australia’s political conversation by putting forward legislation that matters to their electorates. And all agree that having a strong crossbench is vital to holding the government of the day to account.

Helen Haines, federal MP for Indi, was elected to parliament in 2019, following in the footsteps of previous Independent member for Indi, Cathy McGowan. In this term of parliament, she has put forward legislation to establish a federal integrity commission, and a code of conduct in parliament.

She says she works very closely with the people of her electorate to build her policy positions.

“For me, I work very closely with the people of Indi, they engage with me. Every time, the community works with me,” Haines said.

Speaking about her bill for a federal integrity commission, she says “it’s an important piece of work. I won’t give it up. I’m very determined.”

Zali Steggall, federal MP for Warringah, was also elected to parliament at the 2019 election, and has put climate change action on the parliamentary agenda with her climate change bills that seek to legislate net zero emissions by 2050.

She said it was a top priority for her electorate, and that Australia’s conversation around climate action has been “weaponised” by the current and previous governments.

“Climate was highly weaponised by the previous member for Warringah,” Steggall said. “We only ever debate climate and emissions reductions every three years at elections. And the major parties are caught with their donations.”

But Steggall said it doesn’t have to be this way, and the parliamentary inquiry into her bills showed this.

“It’s important to show that you can bring consensus to the conversation,” she said. “My goal was to put forward something sensible. It’s a sensible framework that gives us the building blocks to be more ambitious. It has broad support in the community and industry.”

Dr Kerryn Phelps, who was the member for Wentworth between 2018 and 2019, said one of the most important functions of independents is that they can speak on behalf of their community on the issues that matter to them.

At the time of her election, Phelps said that Australia’s treatment of refugees was important to her constituents, and it led to her drafting the legislation for what became known as Medevac. It made sure that refugees in Australia’s care on Manus Island and Nauru could receive the medical treatment they needed.

“We came together with a beautiful piece of legislation that did exactly as it was intended to do. We saved possibly hundreds of lives,” Phelps said.

“Without independents, it wouldn’t have been drafted, it wouldn’t have been passed.”

Speaking about the state of the current parliament, especially in light about recent revelations about the treatment of women who work there, all three women agreed that getting more women elected is essential to improving the culture.

“There is a lot of chest puffing and feather flapping. And alpha male behaviour,” Haines said. “It’s actually quite boring and it doesn’t progress decent debate.”

Haines said while there is a power imbalance when it comes to gender in parliament, it’s also about more than that.

“We do not have enough people of colour. People of diverse professional backgrounds. It’s a loss to all Australians.”

Steggall agreed, and said she felt an incredible level of privilege to be able to sit in the parliament at a time when there’s a real chance to make a difference for women.

“For all the women out there. This is your house. This is your government. It cannot represent you if you don’t form part of it,” she said. “We have big challenges in our time, and it will require participatory democracy. People need to get involved.”

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