Paterson Oration 2019: Annette King on the challenges for women in leadership  

Dame Annette King
  • Published Date: 29 March 2019

New Zealand High Commissioner to Australia, Dame Annette King highlighted the rise of women to power in her home country as part of an inspirational 2019 ANZSOG Paterson Oration. 

Dame Annette’s speech, ‘Women in Leadership’, touched on the history of female political leaders in New Zealand, from winning the right to vote in 1893, electing three female Prime Ministers in the last two decades and the leadership exhibited by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the wake of Christchurch terror attack. 

“We were crying out for leadership - a different kind of leadership - and she provided it. There were no calls for recrimination or retribution. The result has been an outpouring of support," Dame Annette said. 

She said the Australian Public Service had provided many significant offers of support in the aftermath of the tragedy, many of which had been accepted with gratitude. 

Dame Annette spent 30 years in the New Zealand Parliament, served under nine leaders and held 15 ministerial portfolios. 

WATCH: Dame Annette King delivers the 2019 Paterson Oration

She said that becoming an MP was “never my life plan”. 

“I thought I would be happy behind the scenes, not up the front. 

“It took the encouragement and mentoring of other women to convince a group of us to put our names forward. I ran for preselection for a safe seat and lost in 1984, I was ready to give up, but I was encouraged again to run for another seat that we had never previously won, and that was the start of my career. 

“Women should take opportunities even if they don’t feel qualified to execute them.” 

While New Zealand women fought for and won the right to vote in 1893, it took another 40 years before a woman was elected to Parliament. By 1970, only 11 had been elected. 

Dame Annette spoke about the barriers and explicit bias she faced as a female politician in New Zealand. 

“Using gender as a political weapon is not new. I was on the receiving end of it from my very first days of campaigning. In 1983-84, I was told by male voters they would not vote for me because I was a woman," she said. 

Dame Annette told of the lack of women's bathrooms in New Zealand’s Parliament when she entered in 1984, and how she and other MPs used screwdrivers to remove the ‘Gentlemen’ signs and replace them with hand-written ‘Unisex’ signs. 

“As late as 1984, male guests were allowed on the floor of Parliament, but female guests were not. 

“It was a building with a lot of bars but no childcare.” 

She said that once women in politics had reached a critical mass, they could shape the issues looked at by Parliament. 

“There is a need for women to work together across party lines, for the issues they agree on,” she said. 

“The more women are involved in setting the agenda, the more effort there will be to address the concerns of women - certainly that was my experience. 

“The big human rights reforms in New Zealand: abortion, gay rights, the current dying with dignity debate and many others have all been led by female MPs.” 

She said that New Zealand’s Labour Party had achieved 50 per cent female representation after instituting an affirmative action policy. 

“I disagree with those who say that 50 per cent is too hard, or that the target should be less.” 

She said the introduction of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting in New Zealand elections, and the creation of party lists, had led to more diversityand a Parliament that was closer to being representative of the country as a whole. 

‘We need to see female heroes’ 

City of Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp formally opened Paterson Oration proceedings, taking the opportunity to call for more women to put themselves forward for political and public life. 

“My story and other stories are about encouraging women to really stand up. To put themselves out front and have a go. We do that because so often many of us feel we have to be faultless, we set the bar way too high,” she said. 

The Lord Mayor said more discussion about and celebration of women in leadership was required to progress change. 

"If we don’t have a go, we will not see change. We need to see female heroes. And we won’t have them if we don’t talk about them." 

This year’s Paterson Oration was co-hosted by the City of Melbourne at Federation Square. 

About the Paterson Oration 

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Professor Ken Smith said the Paterson Oration was an ANZSOG initiative which commemorated the distinctive contribution of DrJohn Paterson AO to public administration and public sector reform in Australia.  

“Dr Paterson was a public servant who brought not only his ferocious intellect and wicked sense of humour but also his great store of moral courage to the task of public management,” he said.  

“He was able to articulate a vision for government, and then had the managerial nous to see it carried out.” 

Past Paterson Orations have been delivered by Professor Peter Shergold, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former High Court judge Michael Kirby.  

Last year’s Oration was delivered by New Zealand State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes on the topic of The Spirit of Service.  
 
NB: The Paterson Oration was originally scheduled to be delivered by the Prime Minister of New Zealand, The Rt Hon. Jacinda Ardern, but Ms Ardern was unable to deliver the Oration.