Comment: Australia's record on women's representation slipping

Julia Gillard launches the Women For Gillard campaign last year

The more we sweat implementing political quotas for women, the less we will bleed in the so-called 'Gender Wars', writes Meryl Kenny.

Three years ago, Australia's first female Prime Minister was sworn in by the first female Governor-General. At the time, New South Wales and Queensland were led by women premiers. In 2011, women became heads of government in Tasmania and the ACT.  And in early 2012, the inimitable Bob Katter declared that sexism was not 'riding high in Australia; if anything it's probably the other way around'.

Since this point, however, the picture has changed. NSW Premier Kristina Keneally lost power in 2011, while Queensland Premier Anna Bligh followed her in 2012. In the same elections, Queensland went from having the highest number of women parliamentarians in the country (36%) to the lowest (20%). The Governor-General Quentin Bryce's term ends next March. Meanwhile, Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings faces a difficult re-election battle, potentially leaving ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher as the only woman (and potentially only Labor) head of a state or territory.  And finally, in June, Julia Gillard resigned as Prime Minister after being ousted in a Labor leadership spill by Kevin Rudd.

Overall, the percentage of women in Australian parliaments reached its peak in 2009 (31% in all houses) and is now in decline (dropping to 28% by June 2013). When all the votes are counted, just over 1 in 4 (26%) of the 150 members elected to the House of Representatives in 2013 will be women (at time of writing, Senate results were yet to be finalized). While these numbers represent an improvement on 2010 figures (rising from 37 to 39 women), comparatively, Australia’s record on women’s representation is slipping. In 1999, Australia was ranked 15th in world league tables for women's representation in the lower house of its national parliament; it is now 44th.

What explains these patterns?Numerous studies in Australia and elsewhere have identified the selection process within the major political parties as the main obstacle to the equal political representation of women. Political parties can use a range of measures to counter barriers to women's political participation, ranging from 'softer' measures such as special training, financial assistance, or informal targets, to 'harder' measures such as party or legislative gender quotas which secure places for aspiring women candidates. In Australia, the Labor Party first adopted quotas in 1994 and currently employs a 40:40:20 rule, where pre-selections must ensure that not less than 40% of party seats held by Labor will be held by women, and not less than 40% by men. Conservative parties such as the Liberal Party, meanwhile, have firmly rejected quotas in favour of the principle of 'merit' - despite evidence that aspiring women Liberal candidates continue to face discrimination in the pre-selection process, including questions about their marital and parental status.

Do quotas work? The short answer is 'yes'. International evidence suggests that gender quotas are one of the most effective measures for increasing women's representation in political institutions.

In Australia, we can see this reflected in each party's respective performance on women's representation: while, historically, many of the female pioneers in Australian parliamentary politics have come from liberal rather than labour politics, Labor has consistently outperformed the Coalition in the proportion of women elected to political office from the 1980s and 1990s onwards. Indeed, after the 2013 election, women will only be 20% of the 90 Coalition members in the House of Representatives (a nearly identical proportion to 2010), compared to 36% of ALP MPs.  Overall, women were just over 27% of federal election candidates for the House. While the Greens were the strongest performers on gender balance (with over 40% women candidates), less than 1 in 4 Liberal candidates were women, while women made up 1 in 3 Labor candidates.

What matters also is not just how many women are selected, but whether they are selected for winnable seats or positions. In the run-up to the 2013 election, the main parties predominantly pre-selected men to stand in safe seats for the House of Representatives. While Labor's party rules require 40% of these seats to be contested by women, only 3 women were initially pre-selected in 10 safe seats (compared to 2 women in 10 safe seats for the Coalition). While this subsequently rose to 4 women (after the last-minute replacement of selected candidate Geoff Lake by Clare O’Neil in the safe seat of Hotham), this highlights the crucial importance of quota implementation and enforcement. In other words, the devil's in the detail. To deliver substantial increases in women's political presence, quotas have to be well-designed, effectively implemented and accompanied by strong sanctions for non-compliance.

These disappointing figures suggest that women's presence in Australian politics is far from normalized. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment of former Prime Minster Julia Gillard. Much of this has been documented in a public lecture given by journalist, historian and former head of the Office of the Status of Women Dr Anne Summers at the University of Newcastle entitled 'Her Rights at Work: The Political Persecution of Australia's First Female Prime Minister' (and in Summers's subsequent book The Misogyny Factor). This includes, for example, the image of Tony Abbott in 2011 speaking at an anti-carbon-tax rally in front of a banner reading 'Juliar...Bob Brown's bitch', Larry Pickering's sexually explicit cartoons of the Prime Minister that were emailed to federal parliamentarians, and the comments of radio host Alan Jones who stated that Gillard's deceased father had 'died of shame' because of the 'lies' his daughter had told in parliament. Shortly after the Jones incident, Prime Minister Gillard delivered her now famous 'misogyny speech' in parliament directed at Tony Abbott, which went viral worldwide: 'I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man, I will not'.

A second speech hit the headlines in June 2013, when Gillard addressed a private gathering of the Women for Gillard campaign group on the issue of gender equality. Her critics accused her of 'playing the gender card', focusing exclusively on her statement in the speech that a Coalition election victory would mark a return to politics dominated by 'men in blue ties', and that abortion would once again become the 'play-thing' of male politicians. At the same time that the media pronounced Gillard's attempts to 'ignite a gender war' had failed, a photo of a menu at a Liberal Party fundraiser mocking her 'small breasts, huge thighs and big red box' made the rounds. Just over two weeks later, she was out of office, having lost the Labor leadership ballot to Kevin Rudd, whom she had deposed in 2010. When Rudd spoke to the press after the leadership spill (referring to the former Prime Minister as 'Julia' and wearing a blue tie), he notably failed to mention any of her prime ministerial accomplishments, only highlighting her previous record as deputy prime minister. 

This is not to argue that misogyny was the sole cause of Julia Gillard's fall from power, or that she was always a consistent champion of gender equality issues. As she herself stated in her resignation speech, 'being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing…it explains some things.' In hindsight, however, her prediction that an Abbott government would be dominated by men in blue ties has proven accurate; notably there is only one woman in Tony Abbott’s Cabinet, Julie Bishop as Foreign Affairs Minister (compared to six in the previous Rudd Cabinet). Mr Abbott and others have defended these figures on the grounds of ‘merit’, pointing to several talented women ‘knocking on the door of the Cabinet’. These sorts of statements would be more plausible, however, if they were supported by the numbers. In the Parliamentary Secretary ranks, for example – a key training ground for future ministers – there is only one woman, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells , who has been demoted. As for the ‘merit’ argument, this ignores the fact that front bench choices are made according to a whole host of factors, many of which are unrelated to ‘merit’ – including geographical, party political and factional considerations. Nor is it conceivable that there are ‘just not enough qualified women out there’– indeed, the example of the ALP shows that when parties actively recruit women and take gender balance seriously, more women will come forward.

Certainly the 2013 elections have helped put gender back on the political agenda, drawing attention to the substantial progress still to be made on gender equality in Australian politics. Whether these developments lead to more sustained action on women's issues and women's political representation, however, remains to be seen.

Meryl Kenny is Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW.

An earlier version of this piece was published as an opinion piece for the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales.

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