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
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.