Liberal female MPs agree: It’s time for an intervention | Women's Agenda

Liberal female MPs agree: It’s time for an intervention

I’d really like to renovate our house.  No I don’t have plan for this – I don’t support plans – but it would good to have a renovated house.

I’d really like to generate a new income stream in my business. No, I don’t have a plan – I don’t support plans – but it would be good to generate a new income stream in my business.

I’d really like to educate Australians – particularly those in Canberra – about why merit is a myth. No I don’t have a plan – I don’t support plans – but it would be good to educate Australians – particularly those in Canberra – about why merit is a myth.

Will any of these goals ‘just happen’, spontaneously? Seems awfully, almost ridiculously, unlikely, wouldn’t you agree?

It is exactly the same as leaders – in any realm – saying, in one breath, that they would like more women in leadership, and, in the next breath, explaining why they don’t support mechanisms to realise the objective.

Without a plan in place, no stated objective is more than a platitude.

On Monday night on the ABC’s 7.30 program the federal Education minister Christopher Pyne said he believes the Liberal party needs more women in its ranks. He also said he doesn’t support targets or quotas.; He prefers merit-based selection.

“Well I don’t like quotas because it’s instinctively anti-Liberal in terms of it’s not necessarily merit-based.”

Yesterday the Attorney-General George Brandis weighed in: “We do need to have more women in the ranks of the federal Coalition. I think through the spontaneous processes of the party is the way that this is best done.”

Christoper Pyne also said this:

“If merit isn’t achieving the outcome that you want, then other measures need to be looked at, to ensure that we are attracting women to Parliament.”

May I suggest that now might be the time to recognise that merit isn’t achieving the outcome we want, if indeed the ‘outcome we want’ is something closer to equal representation of men and women in the Liberal party?

May I also suggest that the “spontaneous processes of the party”, to date, seem inadequate in this realm? Upon what basis are we to rationally expect the spontaneous processes of the party to suddenly deliver equal representation?

As it stands 16 Liberal MPs out of 74 in the House of Representatives are women. In the Senate, there are six women out of 27.  This contrasts starkly with the ALP which has 45% female MPs in the House of Reps and the Senate. 

Yesterday Victorian Liberal MP Sharman Stone said it’s time for quotas to fix those numbers. 

“So let there not be a preselection until at least 50 per cent of the candidates are women,” Dr Stone said on ABC24. “We require there to be 50:50 men and women as preselection delegates [those who vote for the candidates at the party meeting] but we don’t require there to be 50:50 women up there doing their thing. Let’s be serious and let’s do this.”

Last night on ABC’s Lateline Emma Alberici interviewed Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer and the Shadow Minister for Education and Early Childhood, Kate Ellis on the subject of women in politics.

Kelly O’Dwyer was forthright in arguing the case for targets.

“Christopher Pyne was right in calling this out the other night and I think he’s right in saying that we actually do need to take action and I believe that one of the best things that we can do at this point is to have targets, considered targets,” O’Dwyer said. “Those targets can be measured and we will be able to then hold ourselves accountable for our progress in this regard. I think that when you measure something, you achieve better outcomes and I’d like to think that we can achieve better outcomes.”

If the Liberal party is serious about boosting the number of women it’s time for an intervention. Let me explain why.

There already is a quota system

The Liberal party is unashamedly anti-quotas. “We should have more women in Parliament generally. I think that’s a fundamental difference between the Liberal Party and the Labor Party is that the Liberal Party does not believe in quotas,” Senator Michaelia Cash commented yesterday. “We never have. I’ve often said I don’t believe that quotas are a way to effect true cultural change.”

But is there not already an informal “quota” system in the party? Women’s Leadership Institute chair Carol Schwartz says there is.

“I find it somewhat bemusing and disingenuous when we hear ministers such as Christopher Pyne state categorically that he believes in merit, not in quotas or targets,” Schwartz told Women’s Agenda. “What system does he think is operating at the moment for ministerial and Cabinet appointments… A quota system of course!

“Around the Cabinet table at this very moment is a quota system for the left faction of the Liberal party, a quota system for the right faction, a quota for each of the States and Territories and the all-important quota for the National party. The only group that is not subject to a quota is women – and that’s because they alone need to be appointed ‘on merit’.”

Which brings me to the next issue.

Merit is a myth

Merit is the inevitable catch-cry of opponents to quotas or targets. If merit was a truly objective measure then “merit-based selection”, of course, would be preferable, but it isn’t. Merit is a myth.

Dr Jennifer Whelan explains: “In Australia, merit has become synonymous with fairness, equality, or objectivity. In fact, merit-based processes operate much differently. Discrimination is actually integral to a meritocratic system. A merit-based system “discriminates” on the basis of how much “merit” a person has – assuming the pre-condition that everyone has equal opportunity to acquire it – and favours those who have more of it. Or more precisely, are perceived to have more of it. And this is where the trouble starts. How are perceptions of merit shaped and influenced?”

Consider this. There are 19 people in Australia’s Cabinet. 17 of them are men. 2 of them are women.

From the outset it’s obvious that the distribution of merit is skewed. Is this because men are just overwhelmingly more meritorious? Or is it because our version of merit is overwhelmingly skewed towards men?

Is it really accurate or logical to argue that for every 17 males in this nation there are only 2 females of ‘equal merit’?

Is there a thinking man or woman in Australia who can look me in the eye and seriously argue that merit just happens to be distributed so inequitably that this holds?

The Cabinet itself is far easier to accept if we accept that it’s selected on a version of merit that is self-fulfilling. Merit is not an accurate arbiter of anything other than an individual’s likeness to the prevailing beholders of “merit”.

Stubbornly arguing that merit is the only way women can be selected is tantamount to doing nothing.

“Clinging to the belief that meritocratic processes make them gender bias-free only serves to further entrench inequality and inaction,” Dr Whelan says.

Which brings me to the point about wanting an outcome, without wanting any action to achieve that.

It’s not just going to happen alone

No CEO in their right mind would set out to reduce costs, boost a business segment or achieve any objective without setting out a clear plan. Relying on anything to spontaneously happen is hardly the remit of effective change.

The issue of women’s representation is no different. It’s not going to happen without intervention.

“I don’t think there’s one silver bullet that’s going to solve this issue,” Kelly O’Dwyer said last night. “I think we need to put in place a number of strategies in order to encourage women to have the confidence to put up their hand for Parliament, to make sure that they’re supported and set up for success.”

Targets are an integral part of that strategy.

“No-one for one moment is suggesting that you don’t preselect people who are not up to the job. But the point that’s being made here is that with targets, [it can] focus people’s mind on the fact that there are a lot of women of great merit who could make a wonderful contribution in the Parliament. It’s important that we give people the opportunity to really reflect on that, and targets, I think, as I said before, do focus the minds of a lot of people.”

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