Their politics differ, but these leaders have a shared determination to discuss social and economic solutions for their towns, cities and country. Like most politicians.

Yet as women, the response they get is often alarming abuse. Attacks on their sex, their race, threats of gender violence.

New Wellington mayor Tory Whanau has been called “steaming hot plateful of tokenism” on social media, told she should lose weight, and told she should contest the election in a bikini in a mud-wrestling pit. MP Golriz Ghahraman has been called a “Muslim slut”. Christchurch councillor Sara Templeton was abused and asked about her menstrual products.

Lianne Dalziel: Living by a very different Sword
* Council candidates would maintain or expand co-governance

They are all calling out the abuse publicly. And they are pushing back.

Templeton went to court this year and forced Facebook to disclose who was behind the anonymous accounts targeting her; it resulted in the resignation of Young Nats Bryce Beattie and Jessee MacKenzie from the National Party.

In Parliament, Ghahraman has been working to extend Human Rights Act changes to ban hate speech and incitement of violence against the queer community, women and disabled people. At present it is illegal to “excite hostility against” any group on the grounds of skin colour, race, ethnic or national origins, and soon, religious beliefs.

Now, former Christchurch mayor and minister Lianne Dalziel is pulling together a group of senior women politicians to support new leaders through the misogynist firestorm.

Dalziel says women face increasing amounts of hate online.

“When I started in politics, the internet was just starting to be a thing. I remember the first community-led internet service provider being set up in Christchurch from someone’s house on Bealey Avenue,” she says.

“In 32 years we’ve gone from zero to this massive mass communication and an ability to spread disinformation. And we can attack people, we can say anything about people that we like online.”

“In many respects it’s got worse. I just simply stopped reading it. It’s terrible. And I’ve talked to many friends, and new friends I’ve made since the terrorist attack, who’ve just told me horrific stories of the abuse they receive or the discrimination that they experience in everyday life, here in our country.”

Dalziel says there are support networks for women in other professions, but little that helps if you work in central and local politics. She is hearing from women leaders that there is a need for a group to provide support and mentoring.

That’s being welcomed by women who are in politics now. Tory Whanau, previously chief of staff to the Green Party at Parliament, was elected mayor of Wellington in October. “It is a problem for me, it’s all online,” she tells Newsroom.

“My office is currently writing a security plan for when I have to look at increasing rates. And they’re getting me an unmarked vehicle so people don’t know where I am. Because they’re worried about my safety in the future. And I just think that’s horrifying. We’ve got to be honest about this.”
– Tory Whanau, Wellington Mayor

She supports the creation of the women leaders’ network, and says she will also be talking with Local Government NZ about what support and training they can provide to make women feel safe and empowered.

It’s not going to be easy, either here and overseas. New Twitter owner Elon Musk has begun controversially opening up the social network to some who had previously been banned. These include Babylon Bee, a right-wing outlet that was suspended after tweeting an anti-trans joke about US Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine, kickboxer-turned-internet personality Andrew Tate who told women they should take responsibility for being sexually assaulted, and conservative psychologist Jordan Peterson who is embracing the chance to again take on “woke moralists”.

But it’s not just Twitter, Whanau says, it’s also on Facebook or LinkedIn. She welcomes a support network for women politicians; she says the 30- or 40-something white males who seem to dominate the abusive discourse have already embraced the social media forums for their own networks, making them unsafe places for women.

“The support network is the platform, right? That’s exactly where they’re going. They’re going to people like Jordan Peterson, they’re going to people like Andrew Tate and listening to that stuff, and that is making it worse. There’s a missing link here.

“The other day, someone attacked me on Twitter, and I called it out. And then people criticised me, saying, why aren’t you focusing on the pipes, why are you wasting your time? I got criticised for calling out this abusive behaviour.”

“No one else was doing it. And I want this man to know that wahine Māori can’t accept behaviour like that. Yet our community is clearly ill equipped to deal with this, and it’s getting worse.

“I’m worried that we’re heading into a really awful year of recession, and the cost of living crisis is going to get worse. It’s just going to make people angry. It’s going to make people vent online even more, and then it’s going to make people target people like Jacinda.

“The sad reality is that it is aimed at silencing us on those particular issues.”
– Golriz Ghahraman, Green MP

“My office is currently writing a security plan for when I have to look at increasing rates. And they’re getting me an unmarked vehicle so people don’t know where I am. Because they’re worried about my safety in the future. And I just think that’s horrifying. We’ve got to be honest about this.”

Golriz Ghahraman, a Green MP, has been pushing – unsuccessfully thus far – to have hate speech that incites violence against women banned, as it is on ethnic and religious grounds. “We exist in online spaces,” she tells Newsroom. “That’s a real positive. We are much more accessible to our constituencies, we have a bigger platform, which is exactly what politics should look like. Accountability is there, that’s great, too. But what it does mean is that abuse, that can tip into violence, is also really, really present.”

It’s not an option for her to just step away from social media, she says. That is where political discourse is conducted. That is where leaders can argue their case and be held directly accountable through robust questioning. Those who attack women leaders on social media want to silence them – that can’t be allowed to happen, she says.

“If you talk about women’s issues, if you talk about race issues, if you appear too confident, there are certain triggers we’ve all come to recognise, and then it just absolutely goes through the roof. The sad reality is that it is aimed at silencing us on those particular issues.”

Steve Chadwick, like Dalziel, is a former Cabinet minister and mayor, who returned her Rotorua mayoral chains in October. 

A Facebook attack ad against former Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick that superimposed her face onto a message that was, as she says, “not that subtle”. Image: Supplied

“As mayor, I experience a growing social media campaign of hatred – pretty ugly,” she says. “It grew, and it grew. And I watched it grow and mushroom, and certainly since I’ve stood down as being mayor, it’s gone away. But those those haters are still there, and they’ll turn again and target another woman. And I will be there to support her.”

She says the campaign was explicitly gendered. “This crazy woman mayor, that doesn’t understand and doesn’t care.

“You do have to learn a mechanism to close off to it. But after a while, it does sort of infiltrate you, it infuses into your system. And and you get very tired of it – tired of managing it. But we need women there, and I’d like to also support women who are interested in entering politics.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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