Several past and present Australian women MPs are mentoring them, as part of an on going project to assist Pacific women to get more of a foothold in public life.
Labor MP and former parliamentary speaker Anna Burke is in Tonga.
She says that while the numbers of women in Australian politics are low by world standards, it doesn't compare to th situation across the Pacific.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Anna Burke, Labor MP, Australia
BURKE: We can't even compare the obstacles that they have within the Pacific, with the ground, the sort of the cultural issues of chieftains and family units and village issues, but that doesn't stop women aspiring and actually breaking through and getting into parliament. And all the research tells you that if you have a diversity in your parliament and your board, diversity of women and ethnic background, the better outcome it is for both your country and your economy. So these are very determined women who are fighting uphill battles to get there and if we can give them some skills, some mentoring, just some positive reinforcement you can do it, then a lot of them succeed and I think we will see that number of four percent grow over time.
EWART: So there's no lack of enthusiasm then as far as there would be women politicians are concerned and the glass ceiling that they it seems they have to break through?
BURKE: No, I've just met a phenomenal group of Tongan women who are preparing to stand as candidates for the upcoming election in Tonga. I met some inspiring women who are going to take on the what seems the unenviable task of running in the upcoming Fiji election, with the difficulty there because the system they've now put in place. But they are all very determined and they realise the need and so are their communities, a lot of these women have been inspired by their communities coming to them and saying please stand, we actually are looking for other people to be there, people who represent community and that's what a lot of these women represent.
EWART: What about aspects of campaigning for female candidate. I mean are they able to campaign on a level playing field or are obstacles put in their way, have they told you stories of that sort?
BURKE: Oh, they're definitely are obstacles put in their way and the difficulty is around there's predominantly money in the resources to run a successful campaign. A lot of these women are not coming from a base we're they had their own resources to run, they're running against often incumbent men who have the joy of incumbency, so a lot of that is going round that, but they're finding others ways, as opposed to just throwing money at the situation. It's about actual campaigning, listening to people, hearing their story, taking them on board and promising them some better representation when they get into parliament or maybe not better, but in lots of cases different, but the grassroots, one on one campaign as opposed to well, we'll solve all your problems and many of its individuals that they are campaigning understanding that that's a pie in the sky, reality it sometimes. So a lot of it is very much one on one and coming from Australia, you sort of marvel at the lengths that these women have to go to rowing in canoes through crocodile infested waters just to get to voters.
EWART: It is an extraordinary set of circumstances quite obviously that you're describing though. I'm wondering what happens when you and other Australian representatives, Natasha Stott-Despoja there as well, as Australia's to Women's Ambassador. I mean what will happen after this Forum is concluded, will you continue to maintain ties with women in the Pacific and offer them mentoring, as it were, from a distance?
BURKE: Well, this is our second conference and so we've continued on doing that. So at this conference in Tonga, we have representatives who we met in Sydney a couple of years ago and she was a candidate, she's now a Member of Parliament. So the whole idea is to build the relationships one on one, face-to-face here and then to keep them going, so via email, via a Facebook page, the often phone calls, and then we brought some candidates to Australia, to show them various techniques of campaigning in Australia and then some of us from Australia, then individually gone. I went to the Cook Islands. Some of the other senators have been to Palau. So it's about actually creating these relationships and continuing them, just not to meet for two days in Tonga and forget about it. It's actually to build up those relationships and to continue the mentoring, so a lot of it can happen just across the email, and we've found that that's been a very successful part of making the first one among contact, but then maintaining it, through email and other ways.
EWART: What sort of feedback have you been getting from men that you may have been speaking to while you've been in Tonga? I mean how willing are men within a society, like Tonga, to accept female politicians, because that's part of the difficulty isn't it, that it's still a very male-dominated society?
BURKE: Certainly, hearing from some of our other women who are now in parliament and the obstacles they face, even having got in and once you've been there, yeah, it's an uphill battle. But you find the champions in the community, and we've found some great champions in Tonga who are really supportive of women heading into the parliament, because they understand that it not only helps their parliament, but it helps their society and their economy. Research after research shows that the growth in women with your parliament absolutely helps the growth in your economy, helps diversity, helps tackle some of those endemic problems that are around the Pacific, violence against women, issues of getting women into the workforce, women into school. If you have the leadership at the top level, you can deal with a lot of those issues across the way, and there's a lot of men who are championing and that is part of the program to actually say, we're here, we're encouraging women, but not to say at the exclusion of men. It's about the diversity and the representation, the parliament is meant to reflect the people. If you haven't got women in there, you're obviously not reflecting a society, so there's a great deal of champions out there.
EWART: We were hoping that we'd be joined by Nicky Rattle, from the Cook Islands, who was the Speaker there last parliament. We've had a few technical difficulties reaching her unfortunately. But the Cook Islands election results have come out in a rather confused fashion over the last 24 hours and it appears that Henry Puna will be back as Prime Minister and I mean he is on record as saying effectively, that women are not needed in parliament, so that rather illustrates, doesn't it, the scale of the battle that they are facing in that country at least?
BURKE: It does, but they've had three women in their parliament, there were several more standing this time. I think listening to Nicky who has been a bit of a risk getting on the email everyday to find out where it's at. There is an uphill battle and I'm not going to say that every male across Pacific is on board. As I've said, some of the other women who are currently in parliament, the issues they face with their male colleagues is just reprehensible, but unless we have women there and breaking down those barriers and demonstrating, as I think Niki has, although she's obviously not an elected member, but an appointed speaker , and appointed by the males that you've just mentioned bizarrely, that unless you have those voices there demonstrating the ability to do it, then we can't go forward. So we need to demonstrate that women enhance your parliamentary process and no longer can we just say, never should we have said that a woman's place is just in the home and looking after families. It's not how it works.