larissa waters interview

Larissa Waters: “Parliament Is Full Of Pale, Male, And Stale Dudes”

I was not prepared for the Larissa Waters experience. The Leader of the Greens in the Senate sounded off on Albanese’s Sarah Williams blunder (“not his finest hour”) and delighted in “old fogies” ignoring Australia’s young voters (it’ll be “at their own peril”). I loved it. Words by Ky Stewart

By Ky Stewart, 11/6/2024

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At the end of last month, we asked how you were feeling about Australian politics right now. The responses were grim: 89 percent of you didn’t feel inspired by politics; 83 percent had no confidence that the Labor Government would address your issues; 93 percent felt unrepresented. That didn’t sound good, so we decided to take your concerns to the seat of power. That’s right, Junkee went down to Parliament House. During Budget Week, no less. We spoke to Senators and Members of Parliament from the Labor Government, The Australian Greens, and the Independents about the stuff you told us you care about. (We reached out to Liberals too, but no one wanted to talk. Honestly, we tried.) 

Larissa Waters is the opposite of what I’ve long believed politicians to be.

As a Greens Senator from Queensland (the first for the party when she took office in 2011), she wasn’t always on my radar — and maybe that’s why I was so blown away by her. The Leader of the Greens in the Senate and the party’s national spokesperson on women and democracy was a breath of fresh air. I felt like she truly cared about the issues we spoke about like women’s safety and proper representation in Parliament. The experience presented a stark contrast to the polished and professional conversation I had with Minister Chris Bowen beforehand. I even loved seeing the massive Indigenous artwork in her office.

Here’s our chat. 

Ky Stewart, Junkee: We surveyed a large portion of our audience to see how they feel about Australian politics and it was a bit grim. 89 percent said that they didn’t feel inspired and 93 percent said they didn’t feel represented. Why do you think so many people feel like they don’t belong or care about Australian politics?

Senator Larissa Waters: Oh look, I think they do care. But take a look at the Parliament. It’s full of pale, male, and stale dudes and people who are earning more than they should. There’s not enough young people in politics. I’m really proud that the Greens have quite a few young people elected. But I mean even we should have more. We’ve got one of the youngest members of Parliament in the ACT Parliament. Jordon Steele-John and Sarah [Hanson-Young] were real groundbreakers when they were elected in their twenties. But I think young people look at Parliament and they see a bunch of old fogies that don’t look like them or sound like them and don’t understand the concerns of younger people. When I talk to younger people, it’s the climate, it’s affordable housing, and it’s the fact that they just don’t know where they belong in the world because everything’s in flux at the moment.

There’s no funding for mental health programs, there’s no funding for sexual health services, [and] there’s not enough funding going to women fleeing violence, which is an issue that young people really care about. I think younger people actually care about real issues and they’re not seeing Parliament deal with them. So it’s no surprise that young people think that’s not really for me. Unfortunately the Parliament does in fact shape the experience of a lot of young people’s lives. We could be making sure that young people can vote from the age of 16 if they want to, like many young people do. We could be making sure that we actually freeze rents. The Budget was a real opportunity to do that and they did basically nothing. 

We spoke to university students and some said they actually couldn’t afford to run a campaign because they’re too worried about HECS debt, rent, groceries, and everything else. 

We’re in a cost of living crisis and it’s hitting young people really hard. And most students, if they can afford to take on a HECS debt to go to uni or TAFE, most people are juggling three or four jobs to try to just pay the rent, if they’ve been lucky to find somewhere to rent. So I am not surprised that people feel like they can’t afford to run for politics. But what an indictment of our political system that you’ve got to have money in order to put your hand up to run. We are not America. It shouldn’t [be] you’ve got to be rich in order to run for Parliament. We need to change that perception and reality. It’s pretty hard to run as an independent and I think it’s great that we have independents in Parliament, so I think people should still consider that an option. But those barriers are real… So I would say to young people, if you care about the climate crisis, if you want to do something about the cost of living and the price of housing, well the Greens would love to have you… 

It’s dynamite when young people are so pissed off at the system that they mobilise and take action and hit the streets. That gives me hope because I think the old fogies in this place ignore that at their own peril. And I think the student strikes are really powerful and it shows that the decision makers are not reflecting the will of young people if they’ve had to take to the streets to be heard. 

Speaking of the student [climate] strikes, when we spoke to the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, he said they didn’t really impact his or the government’s decision making. What do you make of that statement?

I can’t believe he said the quiet part out loud. I’m embarrassed that any politician would say that they don’t care if people are rioting on the streets — [that] they don’t need that input they’ve already made up their mind. I think that shows that unfortunately the current government is not prepared to listen to young people and not prepared to listen to ordinary people. You know what it says? It says they’re actually listening to the donors from the fossil fuel companies that fund their re-election campaigns. I’m heartbroken that the current government who said they’d be better and who said they’d be different from the last mob, who were atrocious, that they’re not better on climate because it’s what people want. It’s what the earth needs. I cannot believe that donations from coal and gas companies buys them the access and the outcomes that they get. I think that’s revolting. It’s legalised bribery and we’ve been trying to fix that for years. It’s no surprise that the number of non-major parties in the Parliament is growing because people are sick of their politicians being for sale. They want actual representation, they want community members, they want young people. They want people that look like the rest of the community to be in Parliament. I think if the two big parties keep doing the bidding of the coal and gas companies, not only will they stuff up the climate for all of us, but I think their vote will continue to go down and that’s their choice. The climate doesn’t care who’s in charge, it just wants us to stop opening new coal and gas mines. And I really thought we might see that from this government. And I’m deeply disappointed that they’re still opening new coal and gas mines in 2024 when we’re in a fucking climate crisis.

That’s the sentiment we’ve felt from the audience. They felt disappointed in the Albanese Government because it was meant to be so promising. We asked who the audience preferred between Albanese and Dutton, and they said they’re disappointed in Albanese and terrified of Dutton. How do you think we can raise awareness of the fact that there’s more than just two parties — that there are minor parties and independents?

Yeah, that’s such a great question. I think more and more young people are realising they don’t have to choose between the Coles and Woolworths of Australian politics. And it is getting harder to tell the difference between Albanese and Scott Morrison’s Liberals, who are now Peter Dutton’s Liberals. I share their terror that [Dutton] might be our next Prime Minister. But when it’s getting harder and harder to see a policy difference, I don’t understand why the Labor Party doesn’t realise that people voted for something different and they wanted a policy change. They didn’t just want a different coloured tie, they wanted meaningful change. 

If so many of our generation are fed up with politics as usual, do you think we’ll make up a large voting block? Will there be a big uptick of Independants and Greens?

I really do. I think young people will decide the outcome of the next election. And so they’ve got a really powerful role to play in sending a message that we don’t want Dutton, he’d be terrifying, but they’re deeply let down and betrayed by the Labor party. [Albanese] said they’d be different from the Liberals and then spend all their time agreeing with them. It’s super weird and totally uninspirational. Young people are really powerful and they can determine who forms government. Nothing changes if nothing changes, but we stand ready to fight for a better future for everyone. 

In the survey, we asked our audience to list the things that they’re deeply concerned about. Seventy-three percent said women’s safety and ending violence against women. We spoke to Amanda Greavey, General Manager at Lou’s Place, which is a crisis centre in Sydney that provides support and services to women in need, especially those leaving violence. She said that something that concerns her is the idea of [focusing solely on] a Royal Commission, which will take years [to undertake] when we have domestic violence plans and strategies that clearly aren’t working. We’ve had 28 women that’ve been killed as of today [the figure now stands at 43 since this interview]. What do you think the Labor government should be doing to help with this crisis?

Well, Ky, that’s the reason I was a little bit late for our interview. I was just doing a press conference about violence against women and what the government should do. So great question. I love that young people have this on their radar. I’m not surprised because unfortunately a lot of young women, in particular, are being sexually assaulted. We still need better consent laws and better education about what consent is and that it’s active and ongoing. Young boys need to learn that as well as young women. The rates of harassment are highest between women aged 15 to 19, including in the workplace, which is foul because a lot of those people are a lot older, those employers that are creeping on their younger employees. So it’s a real power imbalance. We’ve helped to fix the laws on sexual harassment at work. We’ve said now that employers and bosses have to take positive steps to prevent harassment at work, but the numbers don’t lie, it’s still a massive problem. 

On violence against women in particular, the person that you spoke to who runs that refuge and that support service, there are so many others around the country that don’t have enough money to help everyone that reaches out for their help. We just heard the Women’s Legal Service last week say they’re turning away a thousand women a week. They don’t have the money to help them. What the hell is happening in this country where they just found $50 billion to give to coal and gas companies, but they’re too poor to give money to frontline services? Seriously, I can’t believe that there’s been 28 women killed this year, which is almost twice what we had compared to last year.

They called the national cabinet about it and all we got was a rehashing of a Scott Morrison policy about an escaping violence payment, which is fine, give them the money, but it’s not enough when you’re not funding the services that people need. So we’re in a crisis of funding frontline services, and there was not a single cent for that in the Budget. Then they had the audacity to re-announce, for the third time, the same amount of money for housing that the Greens got at [through] negotiations on a housing bill last year. So they’re trying to kid people that they’re taking this seriously, but we see straight through it. I’m genuinely floored that they can’t realise that the community, including young people, want the government to take serious action on violence against women. That involves funding the services that help people when they flee violence and that we’re in a national emergency and they’re just not treating it like that and they’re not funding it like that. I don’t know what more it’s going to take. The ingredients were there. Women voted for the change of government and women really expected better from this government, and they feel betrayed that they’re not getting what they voted for. The government’s not doing what it said on the tin, so let’s get a different tin and not a Dutton tin.

Speaking to my friends it feels like we’re always having these conversations, especially because a lot of them are female — just how unsafe they feel. As if they can’t do anything without having some form of protection. What would you have hoped the Budget included to help women across Australia feel safe and supported?

Cultural change is what we need so that we have less murder and less violence against women, less assault at every level. We know that gender inequality is what’s driving this epidemic. It’s a whole lot of other things as well, but that’s one of the key drivers. So we need education about that. We need those respectful relationships programs that are already in schools, but they’re really lumpy in their funding and they’re delivered really poorly by overworked, underpaid teachers who actually need to be better supported to deliver that material. What could’ve happened in the Budget that actually dealt with women’s safety was proper funding. Those respectful relationships education programs can be really well-delivered by experts and well-resourced in schools. What could’ve happened was funding for men’s behaviour change programs once you’ve left school. What could’ve happened was funding for prevention programs like nationwide education programs about equality and not stupid ones like the milkshakes. But some kind of effective national campaign that’s actually written by young people so that young people hear that message and it’s drafted for them. 

You might also remember they gave some money to universities to do that, and then the universities totally didn’t do it. They used it for a different purpose and we had a whole Senate inquiry exposing that. But they had peer-designed student-led consent education that the vice chancellors, the old crusties said, ‘Oh, that’s too risque.’ And they watered it down and then they turned it into some training manual for staff. That’s important too, but it shouldn’t replace young people drafting education material to help stop violence against women.

All of those things could have happened. And full funding for frontline services so that when people — because cultural change is going to take a while — actually have the means to leave violence, they can be supported. They could have announced new money for housing so that people have somewhere to go when they leave violence. What’s keeping women in violence? There’s literally nowhere to go. No one can afford a home. There’s no private rentals left. And the waitlist for social housing is two years plus. They could have done all of that, and they did absolutely none of that. And I don’t understand why. 

And then the Prime Minister made those comments on April 28th outside Parliament House and made the young woman who set up the entire thing cry— 

And still hasn’t apologised to Sarah Williams.

And then says, ‘I’m the Prime Minister.’ What did you make of that moment?

I think that was not the Prime Minister’s finest moment. If I were him, I would’ve apologised to her immediately or at any time since. But he’s just hoping that people forget that. Women don’t forget about how men treat us. I was really shocked that he didn’t see that he’d done wrong in that situation and apologised for it. I don’t understand what was going on in his brain because the rally organisers had said, here are our five demands. If you want to commit to those things, by all means come and speak and tell us how you’ve committed to those five things. Otherwise we don’t want to hear your spiel. It’s not good enough. They hadn’t committed to those five asks, including a declaration of a national emergency, for which I’ve lodged a motion in Federal Parliament. So not a hard thing to do. But the Prime Minister still didn’t do it. Then he barged on into the microphone anyway. 

It was very ironic that at a rally about women’s safety and respecting women, the Prime Minister really missed the memo about respecting the women at that rally. I think it was just very poor judgement. Then they haven’t coughed up anything in last night’s Budget. Maybe they’re just thinking that this is some political issue, but this is life and death. And this is  young women, feeling unsafe most of the time no matter where they are. That is appalling. I agree, as a woman, I feel unsafe a lot of the time too and when women are being killed going for a run or going to the bloody shops… we know we’re not safe at night, but at the shops or going for a run? This is at obscene levels now. Something’s going wrong and young people are getting their messages from Andrew Tate.

We need messaging that counteracts that — written by young people, designed for young people. That’s the only thing that’s going to work. 

Given everything we’ve discussed, how can we feel hopeful for the future?

Such a wonderful question because it’s a really shit time right now for young people and for anyone with a heart. Look at the world, where there’s wars going on everywhere, there’s genocide being perpetrated, there’s conflict, there’s inequality, there’s murder, an impossible cost of living crisis, there’s no chance for a home, the climate is fucked. So I understand that people feel really, really depressed about the future, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Politics doesn’t have to entrench the status quo. We can actually change. Last night’s Budget could have been a chance for the government of the day to say yes, we’re going to actually make sure everyone’s got a roof over their heads because we’re a wealthy country. We can afford that. No, we’re not going to spend billions on nuclear submarines and fossil fuel subsidies. We’re going to back renewables. We could have put dental and mental into Medicare so that people could actually afford to go to the dentist and get some early intervention to help them deal with the crisis that the world’s in.

They’re all choices that could be made differently so things can change. Pressure on the big parties in the form of votes against them [is] unfortunately the only thing they listen to. They listen to headlines and they listen to where the votes go. Only the media moguls are in charge of the headlines, but young people are in charge of where their votes go. And with the growing surge in Green support from young people, the Government’s getting nervous and that’ll be their choice. Do they continue to ignore young people and just be like the other party and lose government? It can be different. Politics can deliver change. We just need more gutsy people in there to do it. And we need more young people.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The full version is here: 

Read our conversations with Tanya Plibersek, Chris Bowen, and Adam Bandt.

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and Multimedia Reporter at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

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