Several new female politicians have taken up positions in Federal parliament this year. Labor’s Ged Kearney has taken a spot in the lower house after successfully winning the seat of Batman, while Kristina Keneally and Amanda Stoker arrived in the Senate to replace Sam Dastyari and the former Attorney-General George Brandis respectively.
Kearney’s presence means women now represent 48% of Labor MPs which is the closest either of the major Australian parties has come to parity.
For the Liberal party Stoker’s arrival now means women hold 19 out of the 84 Liberal MPs and senators in parliament, comprising around 22%, which is the party’s lowest number since 1993.
In the Senate women now hold 32 seats out of 76, or roughly 42% of the chamber, while in the lower house women occupy 44 of the 150 positions, comprising almost 30% of seats.
These overall figures put the subject of women’s representation in the major parties into stark contrast: while Labor is edging close to 5050 representation the Liberal party has not elevated the issue and the numbers haven’t moved. (Which is exactly what the outgoing president of the NSW Liberal Women’s Council said.)
The coalition is working to a target to pre-select women in 50 per cent of winnable seats by 2025 but it seems a long shot. The ABC reported earlier this year that since 2015, 13 Liberal MPs retired from safe seats, and male candidates were picked to replace all but two of them.
Amanda Stoker’s selection bodes well but the LNP President Gary Spence was quick to point out she had not been selected because she was a woman.
“The LNP doesn’t need quotas to choose our representatives,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to promote opportunities for women and recruit the best people we can from all walks of life, but at preselection the best person for the position will be chosen.”
Spence’s preference for “merit” over gender is at odds with the position several female Liberal MPs have adopted recently.
“The meritocracy argument we’ve seen time and time again is completely flawed,” Victorian Liberal MP Julia Banks told SBS News. “I don’t believe we can continue to address an imbalance of men and women by simply saying ‘it will happen’ or ‘it will evolve’ or ‘it will fix itself through meritocracy’. That I think is not the right approach.”
To accept meritocracy as an adequate and appropriate mechanism for party selection is to accept that only 22% of Liberal women are meritorious. That is difficult to accept on its own, but particularly when you consider the Labor party has managed to find 48% of its representatives from a pool of meritorious women.
Without a mechanism for change, whether that’s targets or quotas, as well as leadership and commitment, these numbers won’t change. Australia currently ranks 49th in the world for female representation in Federal parliament and the idea that this is because there aren’t enough appropriate female candidates is ridiculous.
“There are women who could be elected tomorrow and this notion, this M word, ‘merit’ that keeps being thrown back in some way suggesting that women aren’t really deserving of public office in the way that so many men are, it’s a ridiculous debate,” Natasha Stott Despoja said on International Women’s Day. “We need political parties to stump up. We need political parties to select, pre-select, support, mentor and network women of all ages and all backgrounds.”
Changing the numbers really is that simple.