Women too busy holding the sky up to participate in Parliament

Malcolm Turnbull once claimed women hold up “half the sky”, but women certainly don’t hold up half his Government.

In fact in the House of Reps, women hold up just a tiny proportion of it, with just 13 of the Coalition’s slim 76 seat majority being female. At a time when the number of women on major boards and in powerful positions around the world is increasing, the Coalition now boasts its lowest representation of women in twenty years.

Indeed, Turnbull’s governing party in the House of Reps now has five fewer women than Tony Abbott’s did. An interesting twist for Turnbull, who in October last year had a 68% approval rating amongst women according to a Fairfax Ipsos poll, compared to the 31% of women who said they approved of Abbott just two months earlier in August.

So you’d think Turnbull’s ministerial revamp on Monday could have been an opportunity to prove the small proportion of women represented in the governing party still had a powerful say in the inner workings of the government.

Apparently not. Instead, two of the few women already in Cabinet had their responsibilities diminished. Kelly O’Dwyer’s Small Business portfolio was taken away, while she retains her assistant treasurer position (renamed Minister for Revenue and Financial Services). Meanwhile, Australia’s first female Defence Minister Marise Payne saw part of her portfolio handed over to Christopher Pyne, who takes on the new role of Minister of Defence Industry.   

Payne’s recently been one of the few women at the top of the party to speak out about its poor female representation. She told the ABC on Friday that “quite frankly we have not done well enough” and that, “if there is a strategy, it’s clearly not working”.

We didn’t expect Turnbull to be the laggard on women’s representation.

Last year when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why it was so important that his Cabinet was gender balanced he said, “because it’s 2015.” US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has also declared half her Cabinet would be female saying, “I am going to have a Cabinet that looks like America, and 50 percent of America is women.”

The new frontbench line-up in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Government features less women than David Cameron’s. Still, she has eight women in her full cabinet, making it 30% female, and 28 across her full ministerial team.

Last week, Opposition leader Bill Shorten told Women’s Agenda that only quotas will significantly change things for the Liberal party on female representation, “otherwise the power brokers will not get out of the way”. The majority of the 43 women in our 150-member House of Representatives will sit with the Labor Party, a feat that’s been aided by the 40% gender quota the Labor party’s had for pre-selections since 1994.  

Turnbull’s “half the sky” mantra will be tested during his government, particularly on whether he will lead a renewed effort in his party to ensure women are preselected for seats in the future. If half the sky belongs to women, so too should half the seats of a governing party that determines just how the sky's being held.


Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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