Time for fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion

The West Australian - - OPINION - Phoebe Wearne phoebe.wearne@wanews.com.au

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.

Illustration: Don Lind­say

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