Changing the Tongan Parliament, one woman at a time

Sulia MakasiniAs Australian women prepare to vote in this year’s federal election, many are acutely aware that the numbers of female politicians in our parliaments is far too low.

Equal representation is still a long way off, with women filling less than a third of the seats in the House of Representatives. As a researcher with the House of Representatives Committee Office, I know I’d love to see more women representing seats in both the House and Senate.

But as we lament our situation, it’s worth comparing our experience to that of some of our Pacific neighbours.  I recently had the privilege of speaking with Sulia Makasini, a committee clerk with the Tongan Legislative Assembly, about the work she is doing to help boost the number of women in Parliament in Tonga.

When you ask Sulia why there should be more women in the Tongan Legislative Assembly, Sulia’s response is, ‘Why not?’

But in its history spanning over a century, there have been a total of six women MPs (four elected, two appointed) in Tonga’s Parliament. Dr Ana Taufe’ulungaki is the only woman in this Parliament, having been appointed directly by the Prime minister, rather than elected.  None of the 11 female candidates who stood in the previous election, including a previous minister, managed to secure a seat.

Sulia believes so strongly in the need for more women in Tonga’s Parliament, that she’s in Canberra to explore the concept of introducing a temporary quota system to increase the number of women sitting in Parliament. Sulia has been based in the Parliamentary Library on a scholarship which is part of the Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Partnerships. The five-year program has been funded by AusAID and is being run by the Department of the House of Representatives (I am not connected with the program). As part of her scholarship, Sulia is finalising a research paper on a possible interim quota system in Tonga.

Sulia says one of the barriers to getting more women into the Tongan Legislative Assembly is that Tonga is traditionally a patriarchal society. Many people, including educated women, still believe that a woman’s place is in the home, not in Parliament.

Sulia respectfully disagrees.

‘I believe that women are just as capable as men, not only in getting in to Parliament but also performing as MPs in Parliament. They are a valuable and untapped resource,’ she said.

‘However, there are factors within our social system and within our culture that disadvantage women. Women just need to see that they can perform in Parliament. They need a practical demonstration. We need to put women in there so that both women and the general public can see that women are capable of performing.’

With the parliament’s history being male dominated, Sulia says that bringing more women into politics will bring something fresh and new to the table. But she is cautious when asked what women can bring to parliament that men cannot.

‘I try to avoid the argument that women can only represent women’s issues. I feel that women can contribute in any area regardless of what it is, even if it’s an area that people would usually see as male dominated, like business.’

Sulia says that women must take some of the blame that there aren’t more women in parliament too.

‘Women should be more open-minded to the issue. We have to believe in ourselves. Women are part of the reason there are not more women represented – we can’t just blame the men altogether.’

It occurs to me throughout our chat and by looking at Sulia’s résumé (which includes a Fulbright Scholarship and university degrees from the United States and New Zealand), that Sulia would make an excellent candidate for Parliament herself.

When I tell her as much, she tells me she is ‘not entirely closed to the idea’. But there’s a ‘but’. While she says she’s found her niche working at the Tongan Legislative Assembly (currently as a Committee Clerk), she feels she needs more experience before she considers running.

I told her she will probably need to take her own advice one day…

By Renee Toy
hercanberra.com.au

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