'When women vote' - Anti-suffrage image courtesy of: Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive
The general poor performance on setting quotas or taking other meaningful action to achieve equity in gender representation is shown in the QuotaProject report card for Australia compiled some years ago -
between the two main parties, only the Australian Labor Party has increased its policy commitment to quotas.
The major political parties in Australia are divided on the issue of what to do about the low numbers of women in Parliaments across Australia.
In 2014 A NSW Greens MP, Mehreen Faruqi wrote in New Matilda about this increasing democratic deficit. Faruqi said that the Greens have "strong gender equality focus in their constitution, party structures and pre-selection processes" and she challenged her parliamentary colleagues to take action.
Both major parties are talking about the need for more women in parliament.
The Australian Labor Party committed itself to introduce quotas to ensure equal representation among Labor politicians across parliaments. Nationally, the Labor Party is committed to affirmative action rules "to ensure 50/50 representation across the Labor Party by 2025" and "a minimum percentage of labor members of Parliament of 50 percent." The Labor Party in New South Wales is reported to be moving to extend affirmative action initiatives to all levels of party engagement.
The New South Wales branch of the National Party does not endorse quotas. However, a goal for 50 % representation by 2025 was recently set:
The NSW Nationals will aim to have women make up half of their MPs by 2025.
State leader Troy Grant said the 50 per cent target was to “ensure the long-term and fiercely independent future of the NSW Nationals”.
The Liberal Party is considering the development of "frameworks" to ensure more women join the party and become candidates because "gender does matter" "to enhance the party’s long term electoral prospects." Essentially the Liberal Party sees the underrepresentation of women in parliament as a problem because of generally low female participation in the party overall. The Liberal Party position seems to be that it is in favour of improving the representation of women but cannot act in breach of "merit principles."
On 18 April 2016 Prime Minister Turnbull is reported as saying that achieving the goal of 50% representation ought to be driven by local branches of the party. In July 2015 Malcolm Turnbull declared himself to be a "champion for change" seeking to increase female representation in parliament. In explaining why, he said:
On Friday I took part in a panel at the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians conference in Sydney to discuss how male politicians can help improve gender equality in politics. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick outlined how the Male Champions of Change program was changing things in the private sector and asked us to consider whether a similar model could help in the political sphere.
“We are trying to create a critical mass of change agents … who understand the need for change not just with their heads but with their hearts,” she said. “It is not about men saving women, it is about men standing up beside women.”
NSW MPs Adrian Piccoli, Jamie Parker, Stuart Ayres, Luke Foley and I canvassed everything from preselection, quotas and targets to making politics more attractive by improving State and Federal Parliament as workplaces. We were all in agreement that if men control the levers of power, as they currently do in most parts of Australia’s political infrastructure, then men have to take responsibility to help change things.
Increasing the number of women in politics is not solely a ‘women’s issue’ – it is in the national interest for Australia to have access to 100 per cent of the nation’s talent pool, regardless of gender.
Candid representations were made from women MPs at the conference about the abuse that they have been subjected to in the chamber. Disrespect, verbal abuse and demeaning of women are connected to the curse of domestic violence that we are battling and should not be tolerated anywhere and especially in our parliaments.
Turnbull argues it is necessary to improve "the tone of political discourse" to stop discouraging female participation.
Then Prime Minister Abbott endorsed a Menzies Research Centre discussion paper on the low numbers of Liberal Party women in parliament. The discussion paper called for ‘targeted intervention’ involving "reporting the problem", "defining the targets" and providing "sponsorship."
On 30 July 2015, Marian Sawer commented on the difficulty of getting the Liberal Party to commit to quotas for women to enter parliament:
Those campaigning for gender equity in Australian politics need a great deal of stamina. Those pushing for quotas in the Liberal Party may have this stamina, but they are from the wrong faction and are up against entrenched resistance. It’s unlikely that the partisan gender gap will be closed any time soon.
Following the 4 July 2016 federal election, Marian Sawer drew attention to the poor performance of the Liberal Party:
The proportion of women among Coalition MPs fell to 17 per cent after the 2016 election. This is the lowest point since 1993. The gap between rhetoric and reality is palpable: the federal Liberal Party has adopted an "aspirational" target of 50 per cent women MPs by 2025.
Marian goes on to discuss the use of quotas and proportional representation to increase female representation:
In addition to electoral reform and/or the use of quotas, there are other means to boost women's parliamentary representation. Increasingly, reformers are looking at regulation of political financing and how this can be leveraged to promote gender equality.
The division between the policy of one party and the leader's statements of the other is clear. The Menzies paper is strongly ideologically driven and makes a stunning read. It acknowledges that “women are more educated, independent and more career-minded than their predecessors.” It goes on to say that “the party’s leadership must first persuade members there is a problem”. However, the paper is emphatic in giving reasons to “strongly reject the imposition of quotas”.
Quotas are part of the semantics of socialist collective action. They are tools preferred in centrally planned command economies. They are anti-democratic and hostile to freedom. They are anathema to Liberalism.
At least one senior Liberal recently strayed from the path when NSW Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian said: “The party’s mantra of merit selection hasn’t worked to get women into parliament. The odds were stacked against them in pre-selections”
The debate is framed in terms of ensuring ‘merit selection’ versus taking action to get more women into parliament. There is also a risk that the party processes for the pre-selection of lower house candidates will remain gender biased and change will be confined to Senate pre-selection. Obviously, while this might seem a good thing, it will keep the lid on the numbers of women representing single electorates and thus in a position to become Prime Minister.
In April 2016, Marian Sawer wrote about the representativeness of the parliament in the lead-up to the 2016 federal election. Sawer concludes that the parliament is a poor representation of the people and fails to properly represent women:
People who entered parliament from politics-related jobs form the largest single occupational group in the 43rd parliament elected in 2010. “Politics-related” is quite a broad category. It covers members of state or territory legislatures or local government, union officials, lobbyists, political consultants and ministerial or electorate staff.
From July 2011, when the new senators took their seats, 92 MPs came from the “political class” compared to 57 from business and 30 from the legal profession. They were well educated, holding 212 bachelor degrees, 49 masters degrees and eight doctorates, among other post-secondary qualifications.
While the parliament has become better educated and more middle class, the House of Representatives remains remarkably male-dominated. Women made up only 27% of members after the 2013 election. Australia has slid to 54th place on the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s league table of women’s parliamentary representation, with 60 countries ranked above it.
However, Sawer focuses on reforms to the voting law designed to eliminate manouevering by minor parties to harvest votes in the proportional count for the Senate. Sawer does not pursue the issue of quotas for women, let alone canvas the possibility of mandating equal representation.
Catherine Helen Spence, the Hare-Spence system and why the suffrage movement both won and lost
Catherine Helen Spence knew that suffrage was not enough. We quote at length from the South Australian Government website recording the work of Spence and others. The site quotes Spence herself. Spence knew that majoritarian suffrage would squash the opinion of minorities and of women and warned of 'political life thronged with second and third rate men; who either have no opinions of their own, or have the art of concealing them.' The 2016 reforms to the Senate have effectively strengthened the major parties in the proportional representation system for the Senate.
New Zealand confronted the problem of representative government and created a system to ensure better representation of minority views in their parliament. As politics in Australia descends yet again in 2016, into an informal presidential race between two men, focusing on personalities and not policies, it is time to revive the work of Spence and others and build a better electoral system for the House and the Senate. Spence wrote her Plea for representative democracy in 1861 and it should be as well known as the works on suffrage by Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill.
What is needed is transformative change: Democracy5050 is one way, the Spence-Hare system is another. But change, although indescribably late, must come - as Spence put it more than a century ago:
"Reformers have applied themselves to endeavour to arrive at a true system of representation by cunning slits in ballot boxes, by equal electoral districts, and by extension of the suffrage, but all without success; for the principle itself being unjust, the fuller carrying out of it only leads to greater injustice. The more equally the electoral districts are divided, the more the suffrage is extended, the more people exercise their right of voting, the greater is the power of the numerical majority and the less chance minorities have of obtaining a hearing. The genius, the originality, the independence of the country find no majority anywhere to appreciate them, and political life is thronged with second and third rate men; who either have no opinions of their own, or have the art of concealing them.
'Political equality I understand to be something very different from the common views of it. It does not mean that if one man holds an opinion that is popular it shall be of use to him in obtaining a representative; while another man's, which is unpopular, shall be of no use to him whatever. It means this—that every man's vote shall have its weight, wherever he may live, and whatever majority or minority he may belong to. It is by the enfranchisement of minorities alone that we can arrive at the true state of public opinion.'
We want no paternal government to tell us what we ought to hear, do, or say; we want no paternal press to decide for us what we would not like to hear .... We are not children to be coaxed and managed, but men and women fit to think and judge for ourselves ... majorities always will continue to rule; we only plead for a more accurate system of recording votes, so that we may ascertain how great the majority ought to be.
Politicians ... have all gone on the principle that however the constituency was formed, the majority should have a right to their representative, and the minority none .... The minority represented, is the true sharpener of the wits of the ruling powers, the education of the people, the animator of the press.