How women collaborated to bring a ‘Charter for Change’ to Parliament House
“We women of the Women’s Climate Congress and others despair that Earth is hurtling towards catastrophic climate change that humanity is failing to mitigate. We grieve the unfolding and potentially irreversible impacts on all current and future life unless immediate, united and effective action is taken.” – Opening lines of the Charter For Change.
The Charter for Change from the Women’s Climate Congress calls for gender-balanced, inclusive governance with equal representation of women (including as co-chairs) in all forums for environmental decision making, among other things. Founder of the Women’s Climate Congress, Dr Janet Salisbury, shares below how the Charter came together with collaboration from hundreds of women, and was received in Parliament House by eight women senators and MPs representing all parties as well as independents.
In the last sitting week of the parliamentary year, a group of Canberra women slipped quietly into the Members’ Hall to gather around the Pool of Reflection. They were members of the Women’s Climate Congress (WCC), a nonpartisan national organisation formed during the Black Summer fires, and the Canberra-based A Chorus of Women.
They entered the non-public space with permission from the Office for Women and were escorted by Senator Janet Rice and staff from the offices of Alicia Payne MP and Senator Fatima Payman.
They had come to fulfil a 30-year-old political prophecy about women bringing harmony to Parliament House, and to launch the Women’s Climate Congress Charter for Change.
This action was inspired by the Canberra women who met around the Pool with former senator Jo Vallentine in the early 1990s when she was struggling with the male-dominated culture in parliament. The women hummed and meditated in a quest to bring harmony to Australian democracy, and between people and Earth. The gatherings inspired Canberra poet and prehistorian Dorothy Cameron to write a prophetic poem, ‘The Singing Hill’, which Jo read in her valedictory speech to the Senate in December 1991.
At the Pool last week, A Chorus of Women presented ‘The Singing Hill’. The poem refers to a time before white settlement when City Hill (formerly ‘Kurrajong Hill’) was ‘sacred and magic was there …’ and ‘the song of the Earth was the women’s song’. It foretells the return of women:
Unknown to the dark suits
The women are returning
To the Centre of the Circling
Reclaiming their own songs.
In the 47th Parliament, women are reclaiming their own ‘songs’ in greater numbers than ever before and the culture is changing, as Angela Priestley wrote last week on the integrity, accountability and power of women in Parliament.
It is happening in the community too. The WCC Charter is a call to action from the hearts of women, in all diversity, to urgently secure the climate and build ongoing human and planetary wellbeing. The Opening Statements respond to the existential threat of climate change:
“We women of the Women’s Climate Congress and others despair that Earth is hurtling towards catastrophic climate change that humanity is failing to mitigate.
We grieve the unfolding and potentially irreversible impacts on all current and future life unless immediate, united and effective action is taken.”
The calls to action draw inspiration from the resolutions of the 1915 International Congress of Women, which included an innovative proposal to end the war through mediation by neutral countries, and a set of farsighted measures to create the conditions for sustainable peace. When women come together on their own terms, they can shape a policy agenda unlike anything seen under the patriarchal grip of the past 4000 years.
Like the 1915 resolution, the WCC Charter seeks actions on two time-scales. To immediately secure the climate, the Charter calls for gender-balanced, inclusive governance with equal representation of women (including as co-chairs) in all forums for environmental decision making; and united collaborative action, with mediation across difference, to create a unified plan for action.
To build systemic and cultural changes for long-term wellbeing, the proposed pathways include deeply connecting with First Nations knowledge and upholding the rights of future generations and of all Earth life. There are also calls for greater compassion and kindness in government and support for artistic imagination and creative thinking across society. The Charter foregrounds pathways for tolerance, nonviolence and peace ahead of keeping the world on a war footing; and supports new life-sustaining economic models and values. The Charter also supports citizen participation in governance, and education to equip new generations of citizens with analytical skills, the truth of our history and reverence for our place in the natural world.
Hundreds of women have contributed to the Charter through small group conversations, webinars, and other initiatives of the WCC. First Nations women, Pacific women, artists, younger and older women and parliamentarians from across the political spectrum have taken part in WCC events, including our National Congress of Women initiative culminating in a 2-day Congress in Canberra in September.
The Charter is aimed at government, business, non-government organisations, communities and individuals. While it comes from a predominantly non-Indigenous perspective, the WCC has respectfully encouraged and embraced the participation of First Nations women, honouring their wisdoms and taking guidance from them.
Prominent women from different disciplines are coalescing around Congress and the Charter.
Dr Mary Picard is an international consultant in disaster and climate risk law, policy and practice, and a specialist on women’s resilience to disasters and climate change. After attending the National Congress in September, she said “I didn’t miss a minute because it filled me with hope and excitement that this group of women can lead real change with a holistic, visionary, feminist approach.” Speaking of the Charter she said “the Charter captures the women’s values we need to stop global warming and live sustainably on our planet. It is the most inspiring thing I have read for a very long time.”
Cheryl Durrant has over 30 years’ of experience in the national security sector, including Army intelligence and Defence capability and preparedness roles. She is drawn to the WCC concept of ‘climate security’ and the integration of artistic expression. “I had my socks knocked off by the Charter — it is a fabulous document,” she said.
In the Members’ Hall last week, the WCC presented the Charter to eight women MPs and senators from each of the major parties and independents. We hope it will inspire these and other parliamentary women to reclaim more ‘women’s songs’ — to secure the climate and bring harmony, collaboration, compassion and kindness towards each other, all life and the living Earth.
Pictured above: L-R: Sen Janet Rice (Vic). Alicia Payne MP (Canberra), Helen Haines MP (Indi), Bridget Archer MP (Bass), Zali Steggall MP (Warringah), Janet Salisbury (Founder, WCC), Louise Foster-Miller MP (Boothby); not shown — Allegra Spender MP (Wentworth) and Senator Dorinda Cox (WA), who also attended the event