In 2019 the Libs' women problem is as far from fixed as ever

In 2019 the Libs’ women problem is as far from fixed as ever

‘Told you so’ is, admittedly, a rather childish refrain to begin an article, let alone a new year with, and yet here we are. ‘Told you so’ are the three words I cannot escape when reflecting on the discourse about the Libs’ women problem  that has been underway in the first few days of 2019.

Back in March of 2014, the weekend before International Women’s Day as it was, the then finance minister Matthias Corman told Sky News host, David Lipson, that the Abbott government was not “going to get distracted by these sorts of, what I would say, are side issues.”

The ‘side issue’ to which he referred was the underrepresentation of females in the government. Almost five years later for a ‘side issue’ it has grabbed rather a lot of newspaper front pages.

And yet it seems the leaders of the Liberal party are no closer to grasping that the representation of women in its ranks is not a fringe concern, but a fundamental problem with serious consequences for the party’s survival and democracy.

That having more women is essential to getting the best policy outcomes, ensuring the best parliamentary talent is available and that our governing body bears at least some resemblance to our actual population is important.

Which is where I land at TOLD YOU SO.

While Liberal powerbrokers might have had their hands over their ears on this issue, plenty of others – including from the conservative side of politics – have been speaking about this problem ad nauseam.

Back in 2014 the reason Cormann was even asked about the representation of women was because the Coalition’s own Sharman Stone had said the Liberal party should consider introducing mandatory quotas to address the imbalance.

In June of 2014 LNP Senator Sue Boyce delivered her valedictory speech. She said this:

“There is only, as we know, one woman in the Abbott government: the wonderful Minister Julie Bishop. There are only four LNP women in the House of Representatives, and two of them are over here today —thank you for being here. Once I leave on 30 June there will be no LNP women in the Senate. So I figure I have failed. But so, I think, has our party at both the state and the federal level. It is obvious that if we want more women in cabinet we need more women in parliament. The current 22 per cent figure is just not good enough. Improving this pathetic figure must be the job of every party member and every party employee.”

In 2015 Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer said the party needed to consider targets as an intervention to ensure more women were preselected.

As it stands women comprise a little under 25% of the federal party with just 12 women in the coalition. In the first week of 2019 the Liberal party is quite genuinely confronting the scenario where that number will drop to six at the next election. Twelve was already dismal, six is an abomination.

The party’s preference for men, however hard they try to argue otherwise, is undoubtedly a factor. As Network Ten’s political editor Peter Van Onselen wrote in his weekend column in The Australian:

“Jane Prentice (a minister at the time) was knocked off at preselection by a bloke, not long before a prime ministerial intervention saved backbencher Craig Kelly. Ann Sudmalis is retiring from her marginal NSW seat, sick of her treatment by male factional powerbrokers. The Liberals have preselected a bloke to replace her.”

Julia Banks, the only Liberal who won a seat off Labor at the last federal election, quit the party due to its poor treatment of women.

Sarah Henderson, Nicolle Flint, Lucy Wicks and Michelle Landry hold their seats by such small margins that they will all almost certainly lose when we go to the booths later this year.

On the brink of this type of electoral extinction you might think the Liberal party would, finally, be determined to admit it has a problem and take action to remedy it. But you would think wrong.

Instead of taking any meaningful steps towards change the party appears to have despatched a few of its women to reassure the public it does not have a problem with women. At least not one it’s willing to fix.

There was an opinion piece in The Australian by Linda Reynolds – an MP who has called out the party’s lack of women – explaining why the Liberal party will never use quotas to boost the representation of females.

There was a front-page headline in The Australian with the extraordinary claim by Sarah Henderson that the Liberal party has actually outperformed Labor when it comes to women. (An assertion that is difficult to reconcile with the actual numbers which show the Labor party has close to 50% women in parliament.)

But this paled in comparison with the inexplicable claim Henderson made on The Project that despite women holding only a tiny portion of seats it “seems” like women hold around 75% because the women holding them are so strong and powerful.

If there was any further proof required that the federal government does not sufficiently respect women or recognise the issue of women’s representation as being consequential, the fact it’s willing to send out women, including Henderson who is likely to lose her seat at the next election, to effectively make the case for maintaining the status quo (ergo inaction) is compelling.

It seems as blind as ever to the seriousness of this issue and women will face an electoral wipeout as a result.

The problem with ‘told you so’ is the bitter aftertaste it leaves. Five years ago had the coalition recognised it had a problem with women it would now be five years closer to fixing it. Instead in 2019 the Libs’ women problem is as far from fixed as possible.

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