Watching where you step in the history of Australian Democracy.

This International Women’s Day I examine the landscape of Old Parliament House Gardens and discuss who is recognised as contributing to Australia’s democracy, who is not, and what we lose by preferencing reductive “factual” histories.

It’s nearly impossible for me to resist a doorway in a hedge. Coming from the direction of the National Circuit, on my way to the National Library of Australia, I saw a white gate, opened, in a hedge. A little bob and weave and I saw the path led into a rose garden. What’s this? What’s this? I asked myself with delight. With a glance at my watch, I saw there was some time for explorations before work.

I walked into this space with the understanding archives take many forms. They can contain pages from a journal, a letter, a strip of film, sketches in a travel journal or a small photograph. The landscape, the ground on which we walk, can also be read like a text from an archive. Carefully. With consideration of curators, caretakers, information present and silences. All provide social and cultural information from the past.

As I passed through the hedge, I entered a rose garden. The hedge-enclosed garden was situated on the left-hand side of a stark white building. This I knew to be Old Parliament House. The pillars that I passed on my way into the garden told me as much.

Busy bees and some unexpected history awaited me, under the shade of some wisteria vines at the Old Parliament House Garden, Canberra.

As I wandered through an English styled garden, tall hedges hid me from passersby, and muted the traffic beyond. The only sounds in the garden were a trio of people, perhaps volunteers that serviced the gardens, who chatted about that morning’s tasks. As their voices rose and fell during their companionable discussion, I noted signs detailing how the rose garden came to be due to the determination of a volunteer group. I saw a streak out of the corner of my eye and noted a border collie running with joy for a tennis ball across the manicured lawns. The sun glistened on gazebos to the front of me and to the left. Then, I saw it, a new destination. I walked straight ahead and made my way to a wisteria-covered structure. With black wooden seats lining the pathway, I saw this was considered by someone as a popular space for people to sit and appreciate the garden work of local volunteers. Above me wisteria bloomed. Local bees collected pollen, acting as good workers for the hive.

I am sure I made a sound of delight as I saw a tile pathway, made of thousands of glass tiles about 2 cm by 2cm. They appeared in various shades of purple, green, white and yellows. These tiles were nestled in the pathway before me, making a colourful addition to the ground. It worked towards a fountain, one that seemed a little out of sync, as it shot jets of water rapidly then fell to silence before doing the same again, without a clear pattern. Initially, I thought these tiles were a path of surreal, forever blooming, pansies. There was no signage to tell me otherwise. When I walked on it, I saw plaques embedded in the tile work. I read them upside down, at first. The names of Gillard and Bryce provided some context- women in Australian politics. In some places, the letters were faded, difficult to read. I then realised these colours were chosen deliberately. They were those of the suffragettes: purple signifies loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope. My Doc covered feet, clunky and jarring in firm black leather next to these delicate tiles, skipped along the path. The timeline started in 1902 and ended in 2010 when the first woman Prime Minister was elected (see below this article for the timeline).

There are many dates, names and generalised events mentioned on this timeline. Without more detailed, easy to access materials onsite, it’s impossible to grasp the significance of these women’s actions.

There is a silence in the garden that is a continuing form of violence against women voters in Australia. I saw no indication of whose land I was walking. I would find out later, thanks to a Google search, that the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area. John Gray’s informative history, Roses, Tennis and Democracy-The story of the old Parliament House Gardens tells readers these commemorative artworks were installed in 2003, during a ceremony officiated by Senator Patterson ‘as a celebration of women’s achievements in Commonwealth Parliament.’ Being that Gillard and Bryce’s achievements were added to the walkway after the initial 2004 laying of the pathway, and the pathway itself states it is ‘an ongoing tribute to women’s achievements in Federal Parliament’ I was frustrated to see that Indigenous women in Federal politics, such as Linda Burney are not included in the pathway. Burney is a Wiradjuri woman who was the first female Indigenous Australian to be elected to the House of Representatives on 2 July 2016. There is no reason given for her absence. Was it her choice or someone else’s? This information is crucial in settler societies like Australia, as it demonstrates who is in power to tell this nation’s history.

Two moments are recognised on the installation as crucial to Indigenous women­, but they’re awkward representations, not focused on individual achievements like many other markers. In 1962 ‘Indigenous women (and men) [were] granted the right to vote in Federal elections’ and in ‘1967 Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) 1967 Act gave the Commonwealth Parliament power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people.’ The individual achievements of Indigenous women are lost, as they are represented here as part of a larger minority. The lack of individual Indigenous recognition says much about Australian politics today. The ‘Power of Us’ 2016 survey, commissioned by the Museum of Australian Democracy, a building that is located just outside the gates of this garden. The survey found that Australian democracy is inclusive, as Indigenous respondents indicated democracy here was ‘but a colonial invention – a product of European conquest and settlement or what Thomas Keneally (2009: 14) has referred to as “the grand intrusion”.’ The form of representation chosen here supports that assertion and shows there are significant issues of Indigenous representation in association with Australia’s political systems.

Names, events and dates are good place markers, but they don’t provide the depth that people need to learn from events or to sympathise with people active in a particular time and space. Interestingly, this installation was not facilitated by the MoAD. This change in the local landscape was supported by the National Capital Authority, the body responsible for the planning and development in Canberra. The fountain and pathway were intended to ‘provide visitors with an understanding of and background to Federation, the Australian Constitution and the role of the Parliament in Australia’s form of democratic government’. While it would be unreasonable to expect a garden timeline would carry all major turning points in Australia’s suffrage history, it is the absence of individually named Aboriginal and Torres Strait women, Pacific Islander women, women with disabilities, women in work, women out of work, the women that I know were involved in protests for the right to vote, that I wish to see acknowledged on this landscape the most. Their actions in Australia’s democracy should be recognised.

The markers do not indicate a century ago white Australian women undertook such actions as part of a global network. The Daily Telegraph, a Sydney based publication, wrote on 7 April 1922, of the formation of an “Australian Federation of Women’s Societies” and that this organisation would be affiliated with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance.’ The purpose of the Alliance was to assist women ‘in every part of the civilised world to obtain from their own particular governments the same civil rights as are accorded to men.’ Global connections were key to this organisation with ideas to be exchanged ‘between women in every part of the British Empire.’ With women from Canada and South Africa having formed an affiliation with the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, it was expected other white women from the ‘Dominions’ step forward.

In an interesting coincidence, the Canberra Enlightened Festival saw Parliament House covered with the artwork “Trust the Women Mother.” Focused on the suffrage of white women in the colonies, this artwork resonates still after seeing the lack of Indigenous women at the Old Parliament Garden commemoration site.

Detailed signage about this monument is lacking in the garden. There are no signs about the development of the pathway, like the signs explaining the presence of the roses. Later, with access to the internet, I learn the coloured tiles were ‘inspired by wisteria in flower, in the women’s movement colours of green, purple and white.’

The suffrage colours indicated to a more contentious history was attached to those names and dates than was presented in the European garden. Suffragettes, with their demands for the right to vote and a voice in democracy, was seen as a social factor to be silenced. The anti-suffragette postcards from the Shut up series were published in Australia. Across four postcard white women were demonstrated as forcibly, violently, restrained–with a muzzle, tape, or a red-star covering placed over her mouth. These women were depicted as being well dressed, with earrings, brooches, hats, well-kept hair, however, their facial features are exaggerated, a bulbous nose and bulging eyes indicating these were not ultra-feminine women, and therefore could be treated violently.

 Muzzled Up (in Vain) an anti-suffragette postcard, one of four) from the Shut up series, Australia, 1890-1910 Retrieved March 2, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-1981714889

When I left the garden opposite the entrance that I entered, the noise of Canberra’s traffic came back, so too did more complex representations of Australia’s political history. I saw the Tent Embassy across the road- a strong visual and emotional reinforcement that Australian democracy has excluded many, not just women. Erected in 1972, and a stable presence since 1992, the occupants of the Tent Embassy are present to ensure the recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty, self-determination and land rights. Although I wished the Embassy was unnecessary, it was a welcomed; a reminder that landscapes can be reclaimed to contest reductive representations of the past.


1902- Commonwealth Act passed

1903- Women voted and stood for the first time for Federal Parliament

1903- Vida Goldstein Senate

1903- Selina Anderson House of Representatives

1903- Nellie Martel Senate

1903- Mary Ann Bentley (Mary Ling) Senate

1943- First woman elected to the House of Representatives Enid Lyons MP

1947- First woman Opposition whip in the senate Senator (Dame) Annabell Rankin

1949- First woman Vice President of the Executive Council and the first woman in Federal Cabinet Enid Lyons MP

1951- First woman Government Whip in the Senate, Senator Annabell Rankin

1962- Indigenous women (and men) given the right to vote in Federal elections

1966- First woman to administer a government department Senator Annabell Rankin

1967 Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal) 1967 Act gave the Commonwealth Parliament power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people

1968- First woman to chair a parliamentary committee, Senator Ivy Wedgwood

1976- First woman cabinet minister with portfolio Senator Margaret Guilfoyle

1983- Senator Susan Ryan Cabinet Minister

1984- First woman chairman [sic] of Committee Joan Child MP

1986- First woman speaker of the House of Representatives Joan Child MP

1988- First woman to lead an Australian Federal political party Senator Janine Haines

1990- Roslyn Kelly MP Cabinet Minister (also the first to give birth while holding office)

1994- Carmen Lawrence MP Cabinet Minister

1995- First woman Deputy President and Chairman of Committee in the Senate Senator Margaret Reid

1996- First woman President of the Senate Senator Margaret Reid

1996- Senator Jocelyn Newman Cabinet Minister

1996- Senator Amanda Vanstone Cabinet Minister

2001- Senator Kay Patterson Cabinet Minister

2002- Centenary of women’s right to vote and to stand for election

2002- First woman elected as Deputy Leader of the Opposition Jenny Macklin MP

2004- Senator Helen Coonan Cabinet Minister

2004- Centenary of Women’s Suffrage Commemorative fountain & suffrage walk an ongoing tribute to women’s achievements in Federal Parliament was officially opened by Senator Kay Patterson Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for women’s issues on 2 December 2004

2007- First woman elected as Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard MP

2008- First woman appointed Governor-General Quentin Bryce

2010- First woman elected as Prime Minister Julia Gillard MP

(2013- Nova Peris first female Indigenous senator

2016- First Indigenous woman elected as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition Linda Burney MP

2016- Linda Burney MP and Malardirri McCarthy MP first Indigenous women to be elected to both a state/territory parliament and the Federal Parliament)


Comments appearing in parenthesis do not appear on the pathway. These details are provided to assist with further research.

The Australian Dictionary Biography and The Australian Women’s Register provided content for this timeline.

Italics were added for emphasis.

-Deborah Lee-Talbot