When News Corp’s Herald Sun announced Georgie Purcell was running for Victorian parliament, the image accompanying the story was her pole dancing in a black leotard, her colourful tattoos on show.
“Pole-dancing chief of staff to contest in state election,” read the headline.
It is not uncommon for a tabloid to dredge up a young candidate’s social media posts. But in this instance, the Animal Justice party candidate submitted the images herself.
“So many people in politics, especially women, end up feeling they have to hide parts of who they are to be considered acceptable in public life,” Purcell tells Guardian Australia.
“Yes, I am a pole dancer and covered in tattoos – but I’m also smart, professional and competent for the job. I want other women like me who might not look or act traditionally political to feel the same way.”
Purcell, 30, is one of a record number of young candidates vying for seats in the upcoming state election – and, thanks to a sting operation carried out by her party, she’s also tipped to win.
More than 100 people aged 35 and under are contesting the state election, according to an analysis by Guardian Australia, with the majority of them women.
Within the Liberal party – which has no gender quotas – there have been internal calls to ensure women are preselected to contest winnable seats. In 2016, the opposition leader, Matthew Guy, said he wanted almost 50% of Liberal MPs to be women by 2022. However, just eight out of 30 Liberals in parliament this term were women.
The Liberals’ candidate for the marginal Labor-held seat of Box Hill, Nicole Werner, says it’s a misconception the party only preselects women for difficult-to-win seats.
As the daughter of Chinese-Malaysian migrants, Werner says the parliament also needs to better represent a multicultural society.
“For Box Hill specifically, the demographics are that it’s 30% Chinese backgrounds,” she says.
“That’s my background. When we talk about representation, it’s not tokenism.”
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Many young candidates say they constantly face misconceptions. Jacqui Hawkins, 31 – who is contesting the rural seat of Benambra for the second time – is no fresh face to political life. But she is often asked what life experience she has.
“People are often quite gobsmacked about how much I’ve been able to jam-pack into 12 professional years of working,” she says.
“Age isn’t a determination of experience at the end of the day. And it’s obviously not a determination of effectiveness.”
She points to her “patch quilt” career that’s included working for the former federal MP Cathy McGowan and Victorian MPs Suzanna Sheed and Ali Cupper – all three of whom were independents. Hawkins has also worked in bushfire recovery, veterinary services, manufacturing and higher education.
For some, such as Labor’s Lucy Skelton, who is contesting the Melbourne seat of Kew, there’s an eagerness to inject some new energy into Victoria’s halls of power.
“Parliament will benefit from more young people bringing their lived experience – like what it’s been like to be in high school or university through the pandemic, how the cost of living pressures affect us and issues like housing affordability,” the 20-year-old says.
At 18, the Greens candidate Marley McRae McLeod will easily be the youngest MP in Victoria if elected in the seat of Macedon, with a campaign focused on improved youth mental health services.
“I have lived experience of it [mental health issues]. So I think that parliament should be a representative place,” she says.
“The more it is representative of everyone in Victoria, the more the politics that we see come out of that place will be representative of our wants and needs.”
In Mornington, the independent candidate Dr Kate Lardner, 35, is promising to establish a youth citizen panel to help inform policy positions if she wins the seat from the Liberals.
However, Angelica Panopoulos, a Greens councillor in Merri-bek who is running in Labor-held Pascoe Vale, pushes back against the idea of youth-specific issues.
“All of these issues affect us as young people. The decisions that are made now, we’re going to be the biggest winners or the biggest losers, quite frankly,” the 23-year-old says.
“The biggest one is, ‘no new coal and gas’. When you say it to a younger person, universally, they’ll be like, yes, that just makes sense.”
Meg Watkins, 25, is the lead candidate for the Animal Justice party in the Western Metropolitan region for the upper house.
“After I decided to run I looked around and realised there weren’t many other people who looked like me, particularly young women,” she told Guardian Australia.
“Parliament [should] reflect society, which means a diverse range of values and opinions and life experiences.”
Purcell will probably win an upper house spot for Northern Victoria, with Guardian Australia this week revealing her party had undermined the preference arrangements of Glenn Druery – dubbed the preference whisperer.
As Purcell ponders a future in parliament, she is committed to shifting the digital footprints that haunt young candidates who embark on political careers, particularly women.
“It’s part of the reason why our parliaments are still so lacking in young people,” she says.
“I know I’m not the person I was 10 years ago. I’ve grown, I’ve learned and there are definitely things I would have said that I never would now. We need to reach a place in society where we accept this about political candidates and not hold their pasts against them.
“Every single politician is in the same boat, it’s just that for the older generations, theirs isn’t with them forever.”