Time for fair representation
Malcolm Turnbull is fond of a quote by Chairman Mao Tse Tung, who famously proclaimed half a century ago that “women hold up half the sky”.
Women hold up 50.4 per cent of the sky in Australia.
They are 47 per cent of the workforce.
But less than a third of the politicians who represent them in Canberra are female.
The House of Representatives, where women make up 28 per cent of current members, is meandering (very, very slowly) towards reflecting the Australian population.
Some parties deserve more credit for that progress than others, and on the numbers, the Liberal and National parties deserve none.
Turnbull may trust women to hold up half the sky, but the party he leads shows less confidence when it comes to letting them near the political glass ceiling.
The widely recognised level for a “critical mass” to have influence and impact on the issues that a Parliament pursues is between 30 and 40 per cent.
Liberal female representation in Parliament is sitting at 22 per cent, or 19 out of 86 members MPs and senators.
The issue rears its ugly head every Liberal preselection season, with the dumping of “capable” assistant minister Jane Prentice for preselection in the Brisbane seat of Ryan at the weekend kicking off this election cycle’s proceedings.
Her opponent Julian Simmonds’ victory had more to do with grassroots campaigning than it did gender.
But the issue reverberates and will continue to do so because the Liberal Party clearly does have a woman problem.
Helen Kroger, who heads up the party’s Women’s Committee, described the loss of Prentice as a “great tragedy”.
She warned the party “cannot afford to go backwards”.
Senior Liberals know this. Treasurer Scott Morrison quickly fell in behind Liberal backbencher Ann Sudmalis yesterday as details emerged of her looming preselection battle with local real estate agent Grant Schultz in her marginal NSW seat of Gilmore.
Sending a message to her pre-selectors, Sudmalis declared she had “been doing a damn good job” so there “shouldn’t be any reason to change the jockey on the horse”.
Turnbull endorsed Sudmalis, saying she was a “phenomenal” MP who had delivered for her community.
But can he guarantee she will win her preselection battle?
“The Liberal Party is a democratic, grassroots, political organisation, and so the preselection is in the hands of the members,” Turnbull responded.
Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon joked that Turnbull’s backing was the “kiss of death”, in reference to the Prime Minister backing Prentice before she was cast aside just days earlier.
And there the “women problem” lies. Because of the power the party invests in its branches, their preselection decisions are unlikely to be overturned.
The branches — the lifeblood of the party — are small, old and conservative.
Pre-selection is the most direct tool for them to influence policy.
And while the Menzies Research Centre has been warning the Liberal Party for years that it has been shedding female votes, that message is not being telegraphed to the branches.
The coalition’s target of 50 per cent female candidates by 2025 is failing. WA Liberal senator Linda Reynolds knows it is already costing them at the ballot box.
She has been pushing for the party to adopt a meritorious preselection system because it “can’t win without women”.
Once the preferred choice of female voters, the Liberal Party is no more.
This changed in 2001. Labor’s quota system started bringing more women into Parliament and their frontbench, succeeding to the point that they now fill 48 per cent of the Opposition benches.
When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why women made up 50 per cent of his cabinet, he simply responded: “Because it’s 2015.”
It is long past time for having to justify including women as one half of the national power structure that makes life-changing decisions about everything from paid parental leave and childcare payments to domestic violence laws. And the way to achieve gender parity might be quotas.
Quota is a dirty word inside the Liberal Party, evoking fears of unqualified candidates and claims of unfairness and reverse discrimination against men.
But quotas have the power to change the big picture.
There is one thing we all want in life — opportunities.
If Liberal men are unwilling to give them up to remedy their party’s imbalance, maybe forcing them to do so is the only way.
The trailblazing Julie Bishop — Australia’s first female Foreign Minister — regularly cites a Madeleine Albright quote that there’s a “special place in hell” for women who don’t help other women.
This week, several of the party’s most high-profile women seemed to have the collective revelation that they don’t want to go there.
Women’s Minister Kelly O’Dwyer pledged to donate $50,000 to her new Liberal women’s fighting fund, which she set up to support female MPs in marginal electorates and women preselected in winnable seats in Federal election campaigns.
She believes women lack the “financial firepower” to run effective campaigns, so the assistance will help boost the number of women MPs.
Bemoaning the “extraordinary” fact that only 24 Cabinet positions have been filled by women since Federation, she wrote to her Cabinet colleagues asking them to match it. Bishop, Turnbull and Jobs and Innovation Minister Michaelia Cash came to the party.
It’s the path of least resistance and unlikely to make a big difference in time for next year’s Federal election.
But the Liberal Party’s most senior women have made their first move.
They have woken up to the fact that if they want real change, they are going to have to do it themselves.