Choos­ing on merit is way to progress

De­spite a move to find a woman to rep­re­sent the peo­ple of Went­worth, Dave Sharma is the best Lib­eral can­di­date to stand for the job

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - - OPINION -

ON THURS­DAY night in the Sydney seat of Went­worth, the Lib­eral Party rank and file se­lected their cho­sen can­di­date to stand at the up­com­ing by-elec­tion forced on them by the res­ig­na­tion from par­lia­ment of for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull.

To say this has been an event­ful pre­s­e­lec­tion bat­tle would be an un­der­state­ment.

The early fron­trun­ner and lo­cal branch pres­i­dent Andrew Bragg, who quit his job at the Busi­ness Coun­cil to run – armed with a ref­er­ence from Turn­bull – looked set to walk it in, yet a day af­ter nom­i­na­tions closed, he dra­mat­i­cally with­drew be­cause, he claimed, the “seat should be given to a woman”.

You can read into that his ar­ro­gant view that a woman couldn’t beat him if he stood, so the only chance she might get is if he walked away. So mag­nan­i­mous! What a man!

I sus­pect there was much more to it than we’ve been told – but what does Bragg care, he’s been paid off, so they say, with a seat in the se­nate.

For days, new PM Scott Mor­ri­son said pub­licly that he wanted a woman to win; and his party en­forcers hit the phones to pre­s­e­lec­tors mak­ing that clear. But in the end, it was all for nought be­cause on the night, it was a man, for­mer diplo­mat Dave Sharma who won the right to stand for the Lib­er­als in Went­worth, in a con­test that will be de­cided five weeks from now – on Satur­day, Oc­to­ber 20.

And here’s the rub. De­spite all the talk about women, and get­ting more of them to run, three of them ran in the Went­worth race, and all were beaten fair and square, most in the early rounds.

If you look at his back­ground, and cre­den­tials for the job, Sharma was the stand­out and de­served to win.

A mi­grant with Indian her­itage, Sharma went to the lo­cal state school, man­aged to score 100 in his HSC, and then did the hard work nec­es­sary to grad­u­ate with first-class hon­ours from Cam­bridge Univer­sity. He was ap­pointed Am­bas­sador to Is­rael by the Gil­lard Gov­ern­ment, Aus­tralia’s youngest ever am­bas­sador at 37.

He has a wife and three chil­dren and in his early 40s. He is in the race of his life to hold the seat of Went­worth. If he’s suc­cess­ful, he’ll keep the gov­ern­ment’s knife-edge, one-seat mar­gin, in­tact.

If you’re a Lib­eral and con­cerned about where the party is headed, Sharma’s win should re­store some faith be­cause it was a con­test in which the best can­di­date won – not the best bloke, not the best woman, not the best branch-stacker, not the best mi­grant, not the best fac­tional pick – purely and sim­ply, the best Lib­eral can­di­date.

That’s what it should al­ways be about.

A lot of peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand the spirit of the Lib­eral Party throw around the view that quo­tas are needed to lift its par­lous fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

And it is par­lous – only 13 out of the Coali­tion’s 76 seats in the lower house are held by women. But for a party founded on in­di­vid­ual free­dom, any quota rule is anath­ema.

Quo­tas are a blunt and ar­bi­trary rule that says this seat, or this round of pre­s­e­lec­tions, can only be con­tested by a woman. It risks leav­ing the best Lib­eral can­di­date out just to meet a pre­de­ter­mined num­ber and with­out the best can­di­date in the field, win­ning the elec­tion be­comes harder.

Per­son­ally, quo­tas are de­bil­i­tat­ing be­cause if you’re the ben­e­fi­ciary, you never know whether you re­ally de­served the job.

It saps con­fi­dence in your achieve­ment be­cause, in your heart, you fear you were like the wind as­sisted ath­lete with the medal around your neck, but no right to own your time in the record books.

I’ve been on the in­side and pol­i­tics is hard enough with­out women feel­ing like they’ve only got there by some spe­cial rule.

When I got into the law school at Melbourne Univer­sity, I did so know­ing I sat the same ex­ams on the same day as ev­ery­one else. Know­ing I was there on merit played a huge part in help­ing me “own” my achieve­ment.

There was no quota when I got the job as Tony Ab­bott’s chief of staff and helped him win 25 seats off La­bor in 2010 and 2013. And there’s cer­tainly no quota at this news­pa­per which gives me a col­umn ev­ery week.

But while I can’t sup­port quo­tas, it doesn’t mean I can sup­port the sta­tus quo ei­ther.

With over 50 per cent of the elec­torate fe­male, of course, there should be more women in the par­lia­ment rep­re­sent­ing the Coali­tion. There’s no doubt about that. Just as wor­ry­ing, ac­cord­ing to the ANU’s Aus­tralian Elec­toral Study, the Coali­tion’s share of the fe­male vote was only 35 per cent at the 2016 elec­tion. That is the worst re­sult in 30 years.

Now it’s in­sult­ing to as­sume that women will vote for a woman re­gard­less of her val­ues, her ex­pe­ri­ence or her poli­cies. But with­out more women in the par­lia­ment, the Lib­eral Party’s poli­cies are de­vel­oped with­out the real-life ex­pe­ri­ence of women, and that means it’s out of touch.

Do­ing bet­ter means get­ting real about tar­gets, rather than treat­ing women like you might hand­i­cap the field in the Melbourne Cup. A tar­get, like the cur­rent one that Tony Ab­bott put in place for 50 per cent women by 2030, is a mech­a­nism to en­cour­age the party to seek out able women and help them run.

But un­like a quota, women can­di­dates still have to run the gaunt­let of an open pre­s­e­lec­tion and win. They should not be given the seat just be­cause of their gen­der. And that’s the dif­fer­ence.

To work, tar­gets must be re­ported on reg­u­larly and be taken se­ri­ously by party of­fi­cials and right now, that’s not the case.

For well over 100 years, women in this coun­try have had the vote, as equal mem­bers of our mag­nif­i­cent democ­racy; one of the first coun­tries in the world, in fact, to grant uni­ver­sal suf­frage.

In 2018, it would be a very sorry mis­take to turn this equal­ity on its head by cre­at­ing seats that are off lim­its to men, in the hope that only let­ting women run, will some­how make our so­ci­ety more equal.

As a con­ser­va­tive, I’ve never wanted the odds tipped in my favour just be­cause I’m a woman.

All I’ve ever wanted is a level play­ing field know­ing that it would then be up to me to com­pete against all com­ers.

It’s about fair treat­ment, not spe­cial treat­ment be­cause any­thing else, like quo­tas, quite frankly is of­fen­sive.

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