Why numbers matter in politics - Women's Agenda

Why numbers matter in politics

I recently posted on LinkedIn that it was good to see media reporting on the number of men and women appointed to Parliament in the recent NSW election, but sad to see only 30% female MPs, with 23% in the governing Coalition. A comment on the post implied we should not measure the success of women by their number in politics as the selection process is flawed, but then went on to say we are very fortunate as women in Australia to have Julie Bishop as a role model. Emphasis on the singular. 

While Ms Bishop is an excellent role model (as was Julia Gillard, Amanda Vanstone and others before her) it bears remembering that she is only one of two women in a cabinet of 19 – giving a shade over 10% female representation.

In his press conference announcing the appointments in December 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, said: “In the end all of our appointments are on merit. As time goes by and the number of women in the parliament increases, I am confident there will be more women in the ministry.” 

To his first point on merit-based selection processes. Does this mean we can leave Tasmanians, Queenslanders or members of the National Party out of the Cabinet if they don’t meet the merit test? What about members of the left and right factions from the Liberal Party? Surely on a merit based system you go for the best people for the job, not representatives from states or factions. Isn’t that dangerously close to a quoted system?

On the second point as to the number of women in Parliament. If you use the argument that the number of Cabinet members should be proportional to the overall selection pool and 30% of all Federal Parliamentarians are women (20% in Coalition ranks), there should be at least four (and up to six) women in the current cabinet. Or is the Prime Minister saying that female Parliamentarians are simply not up to the standard of the men in Parliament. Do they somehow lack merit?

As a woman, I am not comfortable knowing that the majority of voices in the core decision making bodies of our federal and state governments are male. Add to this a political system established before women were even allowed to vote – let alone represented in Parliament – and there is little chance this will change significantly in the coming years. Unless greater percentages of women can be persuaded to stand for election, the system supports their candidacy and Parliament becomes a place where women want to participate, things will not change.

The Labor Party is making greater progress under its Affirmative Action Rule that requires women be preselected in 35% of winnable seats at all elections. This is underpinned by the financial, political and personal support network called Emily’s List. Both National and Liberal Parties have denounced the Affirmative Action Rule as encouraging tokenism – ie, women without merit being elected to Parliament – but have not come up with an viable alternative. 

recent review by the Victorian Liberal Party on its engagement with women showed the issue may be far more deep rooted, engrained in a culture of inappropriate behaviour where women were subject to bullying, asked inappropriate questions about their marital status and had been “actively dissuaded” from standing for leadership positions. The report made 14 recommendations to increase female participation, including the formation of a group to focus on women likely to be suitable for preselections. This is the hub of the problem as there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest women will not stand, even when asked, citing career, timing family and the hurly-burly of politics for their lack of willingness. 

Reform of the way Parliament operates is something both the Coalition and Labor Party could easily affect and would bring it into line with acceptable practices in place in schools and workplaces across the country. However, until this occurs many women simply do not want to work in a place where there is an unacceptable level of abuse and discrimination.

Yet sadly the decisions made in Parliaments around the country impact men and women alike. Key reforms on tax, superannuation and childcare are in play in the federal sphere while at state level, health, education and infrastructure are top of the agendas. All of these impact on 50% of the population, yet in many places of power their voices are one in 10 – albeit impressive women like Ms Bishop. But until numbers are higher, we are not equally hearing the opinions and voices of all members of society to best set us up for a more balanced future. 

This article was originally published on Women on Boards and is republished with permission.

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