IWD 2018: Female politicians call for higher standards

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As the world celebrates International Women's Day, female parliamentarians from across the political divide in Australia are united in the push for gender equality in the corridors of power. But the 'right' path to parity still has a giant fork in the road.

Just two months into the new year and 2018 has already proven to be a catalyst for debate around the treatment and rhetoric surrounding women in politics. And how could it not be?

First there were photos of Barnaby Joyce's heavily pregnant new partner splashed across the front page of a Sydney newspaper, followed by threats from senior Minister Michaelia Cash to expose rumours about women working in the office of the opposition leader.

"I don't want to lose the next generation of young women and indeed young men simply because they're put off by some of the standards and the behaviour," former Democrats Leader Natasha Stott Despoja told SBS News.

While Minister for Revenue and Financial Services Kelly O'Dwyer said: "I think there is no doubt that the standard in this place can be lifted and I think there is a real public desire for the standard to be much higher than what they see today."

The minister is among five women in the Turnbull government's 22-member cabinet and juggles her senior position while raising two children under the age of three. Late last year, she added Minister for Women to her list of titles within a Liberal Party criticised for having a 'woman problem'.

"I think it's absolutely critical that women whether they be married, single, young, old, whether they have children or not, be represented in this place," Ms O'Dwyer told SBS News.

Policies for women by women

The consensus is clear - women need to be involved in decision making not just because they represent 50 per cent of the population, but because good policy depends on it.

"Women's issues aren't just the soft issues. Things like economics and finance very much affect women," Australian National University gender and politics researcher Kirsty McLaren said.

"You end up with inefficient or ineffective policy if you don't consider the ways in which women and men have different experiences and the ways in which policies will have different impacts on them."

Shadow Minister for Women Tanya Plibersek said "very few government policies or decisions are gender-neutral".

"Mistakenly thinking they are is how inequality becomes embedded in revenue and expenditure decisions," she told reporters at the National Press Club on Wednesday.

"Australia levies the GST on tampons but we don't apply it to Viagra. Only a bunch of blokes sitting around a table would think that was a good decision."

Australia ranks 49th in the world when it comes to female representation in federal parliament and sits behind countries like Angola and Cameroon.

Women make up more than 40 per cent of those in the Senate with 31 seats out of 76.

But the numbers in the lower house paint a different picture. Among 150 MPs, women occupy just 43 seats or about 30 per cent of the chamber.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull admits the numbers need to rise.

"We don't have enough women in the parliament, as a consequence we don't have enough women in the ministry," he told reporters in Sydney.

'We're not all wearing grey suits'

Even for those women who are successfully pre-selected, it is often in marginal seats where there is less chance of holding on to power from one election to the next. Add to that, extra scrutiny once they begin the role.

"It doesn't escape my attention that for both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party the number of women who hold seats that have a margin of less than 10 per cent is very, very high," Ms O'Dwyer said. 

"I think there is probably a higher level of scrutiny just simply because there are fewer women here and as a result of that things stand out more when a woman does it. As you can tell, we're not all wearing grey suits."

Crunching the numbers

Just 18 out of the 84 Liberal MPs and senators in parliament are women - the party's lowest number since 1993.

It is working to a target to pre-select women in 50 per cent of winnable seats by 2025.

Ms O'Dwyer believes the next move should be setting up a special fund to help get more women on the Coalition's benches. Most of her colleagues are in furious agreement that quotas are not the answer.

"I do not want to sit in the Senate and be referred to as a quota girl," Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells told SBS News.

"There's always this dismissive attitude that you're only here because you're making up the numbers. We don't need that, we don't want that.

"It's longer to go the route of targets but in the long run I'd rather be sitting where I am because I deserve it."

Targets versus quotas

Labor started setting quotas to boost its female numbers back in 1994. Today, the party has 45 per cent representation. The Liberal Party remains at 22 per cent. 

"They're at 22 per cent. We're at almost 50 per cent. You cannot tell me that targets don't work," Ms Plibersek said.

"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," Ms Stott Despoja said.

"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."

Despite the views of most of her party colleagues, Victorian Liberal MP Julia Banks agrees.

"The meritocracy argument we've seen time and time again is completely flawed," she 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."

The double-D effect

Liberal MPs and senators from different cultural backgrounds agree there is an added layer of unconscious bias for female candidates depending on their ethnicity. 

"That question of double discrimination can play more acutely for women because we're dealing with unconscious biases and that discrimination I think is still there," Ms Banks said.

Ms Fierravanti-Wells, who spoke no English when she first started kindergarten, said the issue of under-representation in parliament is not restricted to just gender alone.

"We're not reflective of mainstream Australia, not just on the gender part of it but obviously on our diversity as well."

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