Politics from the female perspective: an interview with Annabel Crabb

The journalist and series creator talks about the making of Ms Represented, a powerful ABC documentary about women in politics.

‘Good morning, I’m battling a cold and locked in my house, but otherwise quite fine!’ says that familiar voice on the line from Sydney.

Some say you should never meet your heroes, and Annabel Crabb is one of mine. As the ABC’s Walkley Award-winning chief online political writer, Crabb has the unique ability to walk the line between impeccable professionalism and kooky personality. She can cook dessert for politicians (as in Kitchen Cabinet) while asking serious policy questions, and she pulls no punches in her columns and newsletters. Crabb is quick with a quip and sketches drama from dry details.

Not to mention the fact that everyone feels they kind of know her.

‘Ask her what it’s like to have every woman in Australia thinking they’re your best friend,’ my own best friend suggested to me in the lead up to the interview, because we are both ‘chatters’. We listen faithfully to Chat 10 Looks 3, the ridiculously popular weekly podcast Crabb hosts with fellow ABC journalist Leigh Sales. They flit delightfully from talk about books, movies and recipes, to the ethics of journalism and the nature of fame. With a Facebook fan base numbering more than 43,000, the podcast has spawned a series of sell-out live shows and multiple random acts of kindness, particularly but not exclusively among women.

This makes Crabb one of Australia’s most influential people. Not that she acts like it because self-deprecation mixed with oodles of confidence is just the way she rolls. So too is the ability to be really serious about things that matter, like the shocking treatment of women in politics in Australia over the last year.

Crabb’s latest project as creator, writer and presenter is Ms Represented with Annabel Crabb, a four-part half-hour documentary series about Australian politics from a female perspective that’s now screening on the ABC and iView, and rating extraordinarily well.

With multiple instances of sexual harassment, rape and misogyny coming to light in politics this year, the series comes at a timely moment. But as Crabb explains, it was conceived a while ago with a view to celebrating 2021 as the hundred-year anniversary of Australia electing its first female parliamentarian, WA’s Edith Cowan.

One hundred years is not so long, therefore Ms Represented charts a short-ish history, with many of the key players, female ‘firsts’, still alive and willing to be interviewed. Loosely assembled around themes rather than chronology, the entertaining and informative series assembles surprisingly candid in-depth interviews with female politicians from across the spectrum, from the first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, to the first woman to have a baby while serving as a federal MP (Ros Kelly), and the first female Liberal deputy leader and foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop. Also appearing are Penny Wong, Anne Aly, Bronwyn Bishop, Quentin Bryce, Linda Burney, Sarah Hanson Young, Amanda Vanstone and a host of others.

Shot amidst the pandemic in 2020, it was a logistical nightmare, but as Crabb tells us, the constraints inspired much creativity, especially from director/producer Stamatia Maroupas, producer Geraldine McKenna, production coordinator Tanya Doumitt and DOP Josh Flavelle.

And for the record, I didn’t ask Crabb what it felt like to be everyone’s imaginary bestie, but she was as personable as I could have hoped, keen to spotlight the production talent behind the show, texting photos after hours to assist, and embodying the truth she found in her political interviewees: that success for women comes when they find own style and stick to their own code rather than merely adapting to male-created environments.

Screenhub: Congratulations on the show. It’s really inspiring. I can’t help thinking that it might make a lot more women interested in entering politics.

Annabel Crabb: God that’s so good, such a lovely thing to hear. Because we’ve been slaving away at it for a year, and it’s been hard to make, because of everything that’s been going on, and my biggest fear was that it might put young women off a career in politics. And yet, of all of the cast that we talked to, all of them say that sometimes being in politics is really hard and even unpleasant, but I’m met yet to meet one who wouldn’t do it again.

Screenhub: Do you think things are finally changing for women in politics, even after this horror year of revelations and allegations?

Annabel Crabb: Yes, I think things are changing. And partly, it’s because these women are telling their stories, and they’re actually being heard and paid attention to. And that is a very fluid thing. I think we’re watching that change right at this moment. And one of the extraordinary things and inspirational things is the leading role that younger women are playing in making audible the experience that women have in politics. I mean, we’ve just had the story of Kate Sullivan, who is Australia’s second longest-serving female, federal MP, who in response to Brittany Higgins has come out and told the story of an assault that happened to her nearly 40 years ago.

There are all these dormant stories coming out now. One of the most significant, moving things that I learned more about over the course of making this series is, the actual detail of what happened in 1902 with the Franchise Act, which has been widely celebrated and justifiably so as Australia’s moment where we became the first nation in the world where women could both vote and run for parliament.

Linda Burnie and Annabel Crabb. Image supplied.

But if you dig around in the detail of that act, yes, it gave white women the vote, but also simultaneously withdrew the rights to enrol to vote from Indigenous Australians. So that has been under-explored over the years. If we are going to celebrate aspects of our history, we have to be aware of the price that was paid by people who missed out.

If we are going to celebrate aspects of our history, we have to be aware of the price that was paid by people who missed out.

Annabel Crabb

Talking to some of the Indigenous women, female firsts in our federal parliament, and putting their experience in perspective, Linda Burnie, for instance, was born into a world where her father wasn’t automatically allowed to enrol to vote. The fact that she would be a frontbencher, you know, in the federal parliament, over the span of her lifetime is just an extraordinary thing. And it shows you how quickly things can change. But you also have to understand how the change happened.

Screenhub: Have you seen that brilliant documentary about Australian feminism Brazen Hussies?

Annabel Crabb: Yes! yes.

Screenhub: There was a sense of urgency with that project to interview the participants in that history, while they were still alive, to collect the history. I understand that was an issue for your project.

Annabel Crabb: Yeah, we were four days away from interviewing on camera, Susan Ryan, when she died suddenly. And it was such a terrible thing. I mean, obviously, for her family and those who love her, but we felt so stricken because she was just such an important part of advancing women in federal politics in Australia. She drafted and dragged through an all-male cabinet and dragged through a hostile Senate, the Sex Discrimination Act [in 1983], which really changed life for working women in Australia.

She’d been interviewed a lot in subsequent years, but often she sort of turns up in documentaries about Bob Hawke or Paul Keating, you know, talking about the male leaders, when really she was just a spectacular female leader, as was Margaret Guilfoyle who was in the senate at the same time, and she was the first woman to serve with a cabinet portfolio in Australian politics. And she also died last year. I think Susan’s untimely death really made us redouble the determination that we had to capture these stories.

Read: Horrible histories Aboriginal style: Trisha Morton-Thomas bites back

I had actually interviewed Susan by phone a number of times. So I had some stories of hers and some insights. And we were able to build that third episode that kind of deals significantly with the Sex Discrimination Act, guided by her narrative of what happened and what it was like. I hope that we’ve managed to preserve her and Margaret Guilfoyle, and recognise their really Titanic (no, Titanic is the wrong descriptor, being a giant ship that sank!) let’s say Herculean roles in making absolutely extraordinary advances for women in politics.

When I talked to Susan, there was this lovely moment actually where she was talking about the Sex Discrimination Act. And she and Margaret Guilfoyle obviously, were opponents, you know, political opponents, I sat on opposite sides of the Senate chamber. But Susan told me that one night when the debate around the sex discrimination act was just going bananas, and you know, people were kind of making all sorts of crazy claims that the Act would force women into men’s jobs, and women who break their backs, you know, lifting heavy postal bags or shearing sheep or whatever. And she felt very dispirited by it all, but she said that Margaret Guilfoyle came and quietly sat down next to her and patted her and said, ‘Now, never mind Susan, you’re doing a very good job. Don’t let it get you down.’

‘when you hear them reflect on each other, their capacity for generosity towards each other, is really interesting. There are issues that happen to a lot of women in politics, no matter which side they’re on.’

Annabel Crabb

The other thing that I really wanted to achieve with this doco was to take the partisan issues out and just have women talking to each other and sharing their experiences. And it’s turned into a bit of a kind of oral history project across generations, and also across the political divide.

I would never ever submit that these women have more in common than what divides them, but what they do have in common is really interesting to hear about. And when you hear them reflect on each other, their capacity for generosity towards each other, is really interesting. There are issues that happen to a lot of women in politics, no matter which side they’re on.

Screenhub: You’ve been covering this beat for a long time as a political journalist. Did anything shock you in what the women interviewed told you?

Annabel Crabb: Yeah there was one thing. I was really careful not to assume that all of these interviewees would agree on everything, you know. They’re politicians first, right. They’ve gone into politics, with a set of ideological beliefs, and they disagree violently with each other, particularly on the issue of quotas and how you get more women in politics and so on.

But the thing that just stunned me the most was when I asked them to describe what happens when you’re the only woman in a meeting. I couldn’t believe how similar their accounts were. I mean, if you watch episode two, you see we’ve got it montaged together and none of them was prompted in any way to say the same thing. From Bronwyn Bishop to Sarah Hansen Young they all really had remarkably similar accounts of times where they’ve been in meetings where they’re the only woman in the room and they make a suggestion and nobody says anything, and they think ‘oh, that was a bit of a bit of a dud.’ And then you know, Five minutes later, some bloke makes the same suggestion. All of a sudden everybody’s heard it and it’s this great idea. I was amazed by the identical terms in which almost all of our interviewees told that story.

This is one thing that we’re learning now that ears are a bit more open to women’s experience in the parliament. It’s a culture where women have to think of tactics and devices to get their ideas heard. They can’t just assume that if they say something, it’ll be heard and recognised. You know, it’s a whole plane of strategy that men don’t really have to operate on.

My impression from talking to all of these women is that even today, when women step over the threshold of Parliament House they are dealing with an emotional work landscape that is different from the one that men do. It starts as soon as they get dressed: ‘Oh, should I put on this jacket? Or is it too loud? Or is it does it fit me properly? Are people going to only look at my jacket?’ That minefield exists even just in the question of what I look like, and will it interfere with what I’m saying? All the way through to how to get an idea up in a roomful of blokes who would prefer to listen to themselves or each other.

 Screenhub: And yet you think things are getting easier?

Annabel Crabb: Yes, in some areas. We talked to the first woman to give birth to a baby while serving as a federal parliamentarian, Ros Kelly, and her experience was just horrific. But if you look at the last 10 years, in federal politics, there’s been this baby boom. It’s much more feasible and liveable for women to combine their lives as parents with their lives as parliamentarians. And that is a really significant advance that’s been made.

Screenhub: Many people would be surprised to hear that, because we were not really shown how possible that is in the media.

Annabel Crabb: Well, just the numbers tell you. Roz Kelly was the first in 1983. And the next parliamentary baby wasn’t born for another 20-or-so years. So it was not a big trend that was sent off. And I’m sure there would have been people that looked at what happened to her and thought, ‘Oh, my God’ you know, because she got caned for coming back to work. And I’m sure she would have been caned if she’d spent time away from work, a classic can’t win situation.

But a big psychological shift was the establishment of a childcare center in Parliament House. Design is just massively significant in buildings. You can tell a lot from the design of a building about who is supposed to be working there.

 And, you know, I’m obsessed with toilets, I have to warn you! And in the show we talk about how amazing it is that the Federal Parliament greenlighted women to serve as parliamentarians in 1902. But, you know, when one of our cast, Kathy Sullivan or Martin as she then was, turned up in the Senate in 1974, there weren’t toilets for women senators. That sort of design element really gives you a very clear signal as to whether you belong or not.

‘there weren’t toilets for women senators. That sort of design element really gives you a very clear signal as to whether you belong or not.’

Even in the new Parliament House, it was built with bars and squash courts and swimming pools and snooker rooms, but not a childcare center! It was a significant battle to get a childcare center. I think once that was installed, it did send a different signal to female MPs and staffers about the preparedness of the place to entertain working parents.

Screenhub: How hard was it to get the women participating in your project? And was there a sense of relief to some of them to tell their story?

Annabel Crabb: Yeah, our big problem was that we didn’t have the budget or the logistics. We were shooting in lockdown half the time to get to all the women that we wanted to get to. There are women who really should have been in the series who aren’t, so I’m not kind of claiming that this cast of ours is a comprehensive list of Australian firsts. I found most of them pretty receptive.

We had a couple of ‘Nos’. Pauline Hanson wasn’t up for participating, and one or two others. But on the whole, we found that women were a bit nervous at first, but ultimately really warmed to the task of telling these stories. I really do think that losing Margaret Guilfoyle and Susan Ryan was a real driver for some of the older women to just put their stories down on the record.

We interviewed each of them for around three or four hours each. A long interview. I think women when they’re serving in politics, are often very cautious about being asked too much about gender. I mean, Julia Gillard is quite frank about this. She says now as she looks back at the first period of her Prime Ministership, she recognises that she was trying to dodge the gender issue and not make a big deal out of sexist things that were happening, because she didn’t want that to be the only thing that people heard from her lips. I think most women in politics can identify with that. They are politicians first. They’re to be the first woman to do X. They’re there to be a politician to bring about all of the changes that they care passionately about.

I think it was a different interview experience for most of them being asked about nothing but gender for a couple of hours. But what happens, I think, was you ended up getting a different bunch of stories than the ones that they would normally tell in an interview about politics

Screenhub: Was Julia Gillard one of the earliest people to come on board the project? Could you have made it without her?

Annabel Crabb: Me and my colleague and director Stamatia Maroupas, have been planning this doco for years. And I knew for it to really work, we’d have to get some of those key senior women on board. So I’ve been talking to Julia Gillard’s office for a while. And she was extremely generous to us, because she’s in South Australia. I’m in Sydney, when we were trying to film. It’s very hard to get a full day blocked out in the diary of a former prime minister! And of course, because the borders were sort of open, shut, open, shut, open shut, she very generously responded quickly when the borders reopened last year. We aced into South Australia on day one that the border was open and managed to secure that interview with her.

Screenhub: She is very candid and eloquent on the issues around gender in politics.

Annabel Crabb: Yes, and what I appreciate about Julia Gillard at this phase of her life is she’s had a chance to let the sting of losing the Prime Ministership sort of ease a bit and she’s very clear-eyed, I think.  She’s had a chance to read a lot of books, read a lot of research, talk to a lot of other female world leaders. And she has written a book called Women and Leadership – a great book actually with really interesting stories about women leaders. She’s very practical when she looks back and analyses what happened to her during her Prime Ministership, that was sort of tinted by gender, and what, what was just about politics and what was about her. I think time does give a bit of perspective on these things. I really appreciate the amount of thought and intellectual work that she’s put into reviewing that, and she’s able to articulate I think, more now than she could at the time about the role that gender played.

The other thing that I really wanted to achieve with this doco was to take the partisan issues out and just have women talking to each other and sharing their experiences. And it’s turned into a bit of a kind of oral history project across generations, and also across the political divide. Because I would never ever, you know, submit that these women kind of have more in common than what divides them, but like, what they do have in common is really interesting to hear about, and when you hear them kind of reflect on each other, you know, their capacity for generosity towards each other, I think, is, is really interesting. It really is a significant concession that there are issues that happen to a lot of women in politics, no matter which side they’re on.

About the production, behind the scenes

Screenhub: What’s the process you’d go through to generate your own show for the ABC like this? And can you tell me about working with Stamatia Maroupas on this and other projects?

Annabel Crabb: So Stamatia I’ve worked with for a long time. She’s an incredibly gifted director. She directed The House with Annabel Crabb, which was like one of the most logistically difficult programs I’ve ever made. And she directed several seasons of Kitchen Cabinet. And we, along with my producer from those shows, Madeleine Hawcroft had talked for years about doing this program.

And so being aware of the 2021 centenary of Edith Cowan’s election, we thought that it would be a good hook to hang a frank kind of series about women in parliament on.

So it went through the commissioning stages at the ABC, and we went into production in the middle of last year. Logistically, it was extremely difficult, because, of course, every time we thought we’d scheduled an interview, there’d be some intervening lockdown, or prohibition for Sydney people to travel to various locations. We did a lot of rescheduling. Our producer Geraldine McKenna, and our production coordinator, Tania Doumit, were doing this extraordinary kind of Jenga game, really. Exhausting!

Screenhub: How did you have to change your production methods to accommodate Covid?

Annabel Crabb: Stamatia found ways to deal with the fact that we couldn’t film in people’s houses either. There were really strict ABC guidelines in place last year about where you could film, and particularly filming with elderly people. So the things that Stam did that were really significant were deciding that we wouldn’t shoot overlay in people’s houses, because we didn’t have access to people’s houses.

We shot usually in day rentals of places that had enough space in it to contain our unit. And instead of doing overlays, Stam and the DOP Josh Flavelle, designed this sort of static portraiture method where at the end of the shoot, we build this sort of tent, and Josh would shoot these static but moving portraits of our subjects. It’s hard to explain, but you see a little bit of it in the series. They’re beautifully lit and I love it because it reminds me that we don’t have many statues of women in Australia. You know, there are more statues of animals than there are of women!

‘we don’t have many statues of women in Australia. You know, there are more statues of animals than there are of women!’

Dop Josh Flavell, Director Stamatia Maroupas And Michael Fairbairn In Background At The Julia Gillard Shoot. Courtesy Annabel Crabb.
DOP Josh Flavell, director Stamatia Maroupas and Michael Fairbairn in background at the Julia Gillard shoot. Courtesy Annabel Crabb.

Also, I mean, we did, we did some, you know, quite complicated logistical routines… For instance, with Julie Bishop I flew to Perth, because I’d been in Adelaide and was able to, and Stamatia directed that interview remotely from Sydney. So we had to do some bizarre things, but I think we ended up with what we wanted, which is a style that concentrates absolutely on the faces and reactions, and stories and personalities of these women whose stories we’re hearing. There’s archives in there, but beyond that, there’s not a lot of distraction. We bring it back to the stories that they tell, which is what we wanted to preserve and have people listen to.

One thing that happens when you interview someone for a very long time on camera, if you’re doing it properly, is that they start to feel relaxed. And you can see those human responses. If you watch our series, you’ll see I think a few people in a way that you don’t normally see them, people like Penny Wong and Amanda Vanstone, and Bronwyn Bishop, and you get a glimpse of the sorts of people they are when they are living through these experiences and sharing jokes about things that have happened to them with other women and so on, which I think is a really live culture in Parliament House where you’ve got this oral tradition among women that doesn’t necessarily make it through to people’s perceptions and what parliament is like.

Screenhub: The score for the series is by composer Caitlin Yeo. It’s beautiful and very dramatic. Can you talk about when that came in? And what the brief was?

Annabel Crabb: Well, Stamatia is possibly one of the most thorough, and details obsessed directors I’ve ever worked with. She has a really strong creative vision. And she made [Australian music talk show] The Set, you know, so she’s very, very switched on to music and she had worked with Caitlin before. Caitlin and Andrew Scott started composing at the point once we had a pretty finalised cut.

The music is massively important in achieving this taut energy. We’ve packed a lot into each half-hour episode. We are really happy with the half-hour format, although it sounds brutally short. But to be honest, it’s a challenge to employ stylistic devices to maintain that energy throughout the series, and I feel when I’m watching it that we’ve achieved it.

'As Hard To Photograph As A Snow Leopard' - Director Stamatia Maroupas In Canberra. Courtesy Annabel Crabb.
‘As hard to photograph as a snow leopard’ – director Stamatia Maroupas in Canberra. Courtesy Annabel Crabb.

Advice for women in power

Screenhub: What advice would you draw for women in power?

Annabel Crabb: The one thing that I’ve noticed among the women who have really prospered is they bring their own sets of rules, like I mean, one of the most misleading things about Parliament houses is that it’s this whole system that exudes an absolute aura of structure and rules. Actually, it’s quite a subjective place. And the women that I see really prosper are the ones that come in with their own code of what they will and won’t do. And they stick to it. And they prosper.

the women that I see really prosper are the ones that come in with their own code of what they will and won’t do. And they stick to it. And they prosper.

Annabel Crabb

The key to change is changing the system, and there are women in politics over the last 100 years who have done that really powerfully.

Ms Represented premiered on Tuesday 13 July at 8pm on ABC TV, with all four episodes available to binge on ABC iview. Accompanying the series is a companion podcast hosted by Annabel and comedian Steph Tisdell, with all six episodes available in the ABC listen app.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is the ArtsHub Group's Education and Career Editor. She is a journalist for Screenhub and is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. Her second book, Double Happiness, a novel, will be published by Midnight Sun in 2024. Instagram: @Rochelle_Rochelle Twitter: @Milan2Pinsk