They gave us a champagne bureaucracy on a beer income
Engagement or Disenchantment

Women writers in Brisbane: expansive, informed & entertaining

The book signing (Stefan Armbruster)
Tania, Vanessa, Rasmmii & Elvina at the book signing - a marvellous group of women (photo Stefan Armbruster)


BRISBANE – The presentation by Papua New Guinean women writers’ to a packed auditorium at the Brisbane Writers Festival yesterday was a great success on the back of a great achievement.

Even after the session had begun, a queue of 20 people – including well known PNG Attitude personalities Murray Bladwell, Ed Brumby and Lindsay Bond – were being shunted back and forth by bemused attendants until finally the doors were flung open again.

As the event got into full stride, with Rashmii Bell expertly chairing the session, her three colleagues illustrator and photographer Tania Basiou, lawyer Elvina Ogil and poet and film-maker Vanessa Gordon provided an engaged audience with a brisk and candid walk through some of the big issues facing PNG women today.

A large part of this audience was new to PNG affairs and an audible gasp ran around the room when people learned that, at the recent national poll, the people of PNG had managed not to elect even one woman to sit in the 111-member parliament.

It seems that this is a statistic that will hang over the parliament for its five-year term and I am confident that will be the case because I will be among those people who will not let it be forgotten.

Unlike some people in PNG who should know better, I do not downplay the humiliation that the 0/111 confers upon this great country.

Meanwhile back in Brisbane, we heard a fascinating discussion on the cultural misappropriation (including into the realm of foreign swimwear) of the iconic PNG string bag, the bilum.

As Elvina Ogil pointed out, the bilum is more than a utilitarian accessory, it is a symbol both of the womb and of the strength of much put-upon Melanesian women.

As the panel moved deeper into the issues, it became clear that Papua New Guineans have some trouble accommodating modern women – professional, ambitious, assertive – into the Melanesian cultural mindset.

In traditional Melanesian society, women often had considerable influence and tended to be well-regarded for that.

But, as things have turned out, these days there can be great pushback against women achievers.

Part of the remedy, Elvina Ogil said, is for women themselves to take responsibility for driving towards gender equality.

At the national political level, though, this task has been made more complex by that total lack of female representation in parliament.

“These elections were unsuccessful,” Ms Ogil said. “And in many ways they were untoward.

“We have lost our way.

“Men say they’ll vote for a woman if she’s ‘quality’.

“But when the time comes, it’s never enough. And it’s made particularly hard because there’s no level playing field.

"PNG is not a meritocracy. Winning on merit is virtually unknown.”

“When we’re brave enough to find our voice,” said colleague Vanessa Gordon, “there’s often an effort by men, and women too, to shout us down.

“They may allow that we are good, but there is often a reluctance to enable us to be great.

“When I started writing, and found I couldn’t stop, I thought to myself, ‘wow, I’ll be making some enemies’," Ms Gordon said.

“One of the challenges women face is to show, no matter what, that we are determined to have a voice.

I hope the publication of My Walk to Equality lights a fire and evokes a feeling in PNG that ‘we don’t want to be ashamed’. I hope it will help PNG women get over their sense of shame,” she said.

Yesterday's discussion was expansive, informed and entertaining and the audience departed for lunch well satisfied with their hour of engagement with four articulate PNG women.

And, when I repaired to the State Library of Queensland bookshop not long after to buy another copy of My Walk to Equality (having given away my own stockpile some time ago), I found myself purchasing the last one in the shop.

Now that too is a sign of success.

The panel ready to go (Stefan Armbruster)
The 'My Walk to Equality' panel ready to present (photo Stefan Armbruster)

Rashmii Bell will again be presenting at the festival tomorrow as part of a panel on domestic violence.

In a session entitled 'Staying Power', the panellists will explore the deeper psychological aspects of domestic violence and ask what happens before the violence and why people stay.

Co-presenters will be authors Kerrie Davies and Michael Sala and the discussion will be chaired by Emily Sexton.

This event is sold out.


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Rashmii Bell

Amazing to read back on this to realise that the MWTE team and PNG Attitude family have had contact with a Longlist finalist in the 2018 Australian Book Industrsy Awards: Michael Sala for 'The Restorer'.

Even more, that Michael has a copy, read and provided input to our discussion panel's reflections on the topics covered in the MWTE anthology.

The PNG Attitude family, with minimal support, doing great things to promote PNG writers & publications in Australia has been truly remarkable so far.

Bernard Corden

Dear Rashmii et al - You were rubbing shoulders with several influential writers including Dennis Glover and Jane Hutcheon.

It inspired me to pick up my signed copy of MWTE and read Vanessa's 'Drumbeat' over breakfast this morning.

Keep up the great work.

'Without equality, I say there cannot be liberty' - Harold Laski

Rashmii Bell

I''ve just completed my second and final MWTE event at BWF17. A terrific panel discussion in which I had the opportunity to sit and contribute alongside authors Kerrie Davies and Michael Sala, chaired by the lovely Emily Sexton. Thank you to Bob Cleland and Maibry Ashton for being the kind, familiar faces in what was once again an inspiring audience.

Robin - you are absolutely right! Had you asked me a year ago if I ever thought I'd be in such a position, I'd have said 'No'. But with the constant support of Keith, Phil and the PNG Attitude family, MWTE has gone on to do great things and spread its message wide since publication. Very proud of the MWTE team and all our supporters!

Daniel Kumbon

Last Friday, while the four women – Rashmii, Elvina, Vanessa and Tania - were doing PNG proud at the fabulous Brisbane Writers Festival, I went over to our second hand bookshop here in Wabag town for the first time since it opened last week after all the election violence.

I came across an important book which features five influential Australian women - Pauline Hanson, Julia Gillard, Dame Nellie Melba, Miles Franklin and Dame Enid Lyons.

Their remarkable work is presented in this book ‘Great Australian Speeches’ published in 2009 and edited by Pamela Robson. It contains over 40 landmark speeches from colonial times to the present which have helped to define and shape Australia.

But once upon a time, Australian politics was a man’s game and the women like in PNG were the homemakers, the hostesses.

But one inspirational woman, Dame Enid Lyons, a mother of 12 children broke the ranks, stood for election and won. She was the first female to be given a ministerial position and her maiden speech is featured in the book I bought from the second hand shop.

Let me first say that it is unfortunate all three serving women MPs in the last PNG parliament - Julie Soso, Delilah Gore and Louza Kouza lost their seats after serving only one term in office.

I firmly believe, they lost as did other good credible candidates from throughout the country due to the worst ever corruption-fuelled elections PNG has ever seen dished out by the electoral commission.

In the past however, PNG did see strong women emerge, the likes of Dame Carol Kidu and Dame Josephine Abaijah who served more terms in parliament than the aforementioned three women.

I remain optimistic PNG will see more women stand for election and some will definitely be elected to parliament when credible leaders take control in the future as the country progresses.

While the current debate for the 22 reserved seats rages on, I would like to introduce Dame Enid Lyons who was encouraged by her politician husband to get actively involved in politics to gradually become one of Australia’s most well-loved and well-known mother.

‘I know that many honourable members have viewed the advent of women to the legislative halls with something approaching alarm….

‘…any woman entering the public arena must be prepared to work as men work...’’

Dame Enid Lyons said during her maiden speech to the Australian Parliament as the first woman to win a seat in the House of Representatives.

Dame Lyons talked of brooms and sweeping and of feeding bottles and baby shawls, yet she covered issues like taxation, decentralisation and the need to populate Australia. She was eminently well qualified on all counts.

Not only had she borne twelve children, but as the widow of former Tasmanian State Premier and Australian Prime Minister Joseph ‘Joe’ Lyons, she’d shared a very public life in politics for more than twenty years. She knew what she was talking about as a seasoned political player.

Dame Enid understood decentralisation at first hand. She had come a long way from the bush sawmill at Duck River in remote north-western Tasmania where she was born in 1897.

When she was 15, she went to train as a teacher in Hobart where she met Joe, a 32 year old school teacher. They were attending Labour discussion meetings. By the time of their marriage two years later, Joe had entered politics and was already State Treasurer and Minister for Education and Railways. Enid spent her honeymoon at a Premiers Conference dinning with other state leaders and their wives.

Catapult into public life at seventeen, she had to hold her own with people twice her age and from backgrounds very different to hers. At a time when politician’s wives were meant to know their places as house homemakers and hostesses and stay benignly in the background, Enid took to public life with gusto, and with encouragement and support from Joe, played an active part in his career.

Enid helped Joe make decisions in affairs of state and her combination of brilliant intellect and feminine common sense was a rare asset.

When Joe became Premier of Tasmania a Bill was passed allowing women to sit in Parliament and Enid and her mother stood for election but narrowly lost. That was her first taste of defeat at the polls but never gave up and continued to support her husband who later became Prime Minister.

But in 1939 Joe died suddenly of a heart attack, the first Australian Prime Minister to die in office. Four years later with her 12 children grown, Enid stood for election and won the seat of Darwin, Tasmania in 1943. At 46, she found herself embarking on a new stage in her life.

She stood for maternity care, child allowances, widow’s pensions, sex discrimination in employment and women’s citizen rights when marrying foreigners. Most of all, she cared about families and their problems and this resonated strongly with middle Australia.

Despite their celebrity status, with such a large family, the Lyons struggled financially for most of their lives and Enid ran multiple jobs while an MP, using her communication skills as a newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster. In 1949 she became the first woman appointed to a cabinet position. After eight years, she was forced out of politics by ill health, but she carried on quietly for almost a quarter of a century.

Enid Lyons nee Burnell was born in 1897 to a poor timber worker and his family at Duck River in Tasmania. She moved to Hobart to train as a teacher. At fifteen she meet Joseph Lyons a school teacher who soon became a politician.

They married and with help from her mother and sisters to look after her 12 children, Enid shared her husband’s public life often campaigning in his place when he was not available. After his death, she stood for and won a federal seat for the Liberal Party.
She was made a Dame of the Order of Australia in 1980 – only the second person to receive it. In 1981 she died at her beloved home of 60 years, Home Hill. She was 84.

But the words of her maiden speech will continue to resonate through the ages:

‘Now, honourable members will forgive me, I know, when I say that I bear the name of one of whom it was said in this chamber that to him the problems of government were not problems of blue books, not problems of statistics but problems of human values and human hearts and human feelings. That to me, is a concept of government that we might well cherish.

It is certainly one that I hold dear. I hope that I shall never forget that everything that takes place in this chamber goes out somewhere to strike a human heart, to influence the life of some fellow being, and I believe this, too, with my heart, that the duty of every government, whether in this country or any other, is to see that no man, because of the condition of his life, shall ever need lose his vision of the city of God.’

I believe a politician’s wife in PNG or elsewhere understands the workings of politics more than any other woman.

If a former Australian Prime Minister had encouraged his young wife to help him in his political work which led to her own success after his death, is it not possible for our own 111 members of parliament to do likewise or should their wife or wives be still relegated to the kitchen?

Congratulations Rashmii, Tania, Vanessa & Elvina for your efforts to lift the profile of PNG women and literature in general at such an international event.

I certainly enjoyed my attendance at last year’s event - a rare opportunity which enabled me to meet people I previously knew only by their names.

How I wish PNG writers could expose themselves to such fabulous events like the Brisbane Writers Festival and International Readers and Writers Festival on the Sunshine Coast which happen every year right at our doorstep.

If church groups can organise themselves, raise funds and travel to the Holy Land for pilgrimages PNG authors could consider attending the Brisbane Writers festival or the International Readers and Writers festival at Coolum on the Sunshine Coast.

PNG authors certainly need the exposure.

Libby Nankivell

I sat next to you at the session! This session was so inspiring but I am so disappointed that the shop ran out of copies of the book.

I would like to buy two copies as gifts! Please contact me direct.

I've advised Libby that Amazon Books online is probably the most convenient source to buy My Walk to Equality - KJ

Robin Lillicrapp

This event reinforces the values inherent in its conduct as a vehicle of development and progress in PNG affairs likely to benefit participants and observers - exponentially.

It says a lot to also observe PNG Attitude to be at the forefront of providing a stable platform of representation and promotion of this seminal event.

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