As Australian women continue to be significantly under-represented in State and Territory parliaments (and Indigenous women are totally under-represented), our political leaders across the nation wrestle with the issue.
By
Malarndirri McCarthy

Source:
NITV News
19 Aug 2015 - 6:37 PM  UPDATED 19 Aug 2015 - 6:54 PM

Spring is almost in the air and there seems to be a certain kind of restlessness settling across Australia in parliamentary debate - in relation to women, in particular.

The NSW Liberal Deputy Treasurer speaks of the "matter of urgency" for more women to be represented in parliament, while her political compatriot in the far West resists the need, unless it is on merit of course.

The first female Treasurer for the state of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, says preselection decisions can no longer be made on merit alone. "I think the merit argument is valid when the goalposts are 50 per cent each way for men and women and I don't believe they are," she said.

"Women have to be extra good to get preselected, so to me, the merit argument doesn't wash."

On Tuesday evening, she told the Deutsche Bank Women in Banking and Finance Address, "more women in Government and Parliament will make for better governments and parliaments.”

The issue of the low representation of Liberal women in the State and Federal parliaments has been a constant source of irritation for women – in particular for former Victorian Senator Judith Troeth.

In 2010 the then Senator vigorously pursued the need to adopt a quota for women, saying in a Policy Paper in 2010 (titled Modernising the Parliamentary Liberal Party by Adopting the Organisational Wing’s Quota System for Preselections):

"The custom defence against quotas is the 'what about merit' argument, as if to be for quotas you must be against merit. Like the charge of tokenism, it eventually fails the test of reason after sitting in a parliamentary party room for nearly 20 years without seeing a progressive increase in the cohort of women members. As if those handful of women members who are there were the only ‘women of merit’ who put themselves forward for preselection.”

In an interview with Marian Sawer in 2010, Senator Troeth explained her frustrations in detail. "When told that it is 'demeaning' for women to be selected on anything other than merit she responds by saying that it is demeaning to sit in the party room and see the number of women fall."

Australian women continue to be significantly under-represented in State and Federal parliaments and their respective cabinets. Women make up less than one third of all parliamentarians and not even one fifth of ministers.

Indigenous women are totally under-represented in all state and territory parliaments. The Northern Territory has had the highest numbers of Indigenous women in Parliament, with Marion Scrymgour becoming in 2003 the first Aboriginal woman to be a Minister in any State or Federal Parliament, and Senator Nova Peris becoming in 2013 the first Aboriginal woman in the Federal Senate. Tasmanian Senator Jackie Lambie has since declared her Aboriginality and is now the second Aboriginal woman in the Federal Parliament.

Then there is Alison Anderson who is the first politician to go from an ALP Cabinet, then to a CLP Cabinet. Anderson has also been the Leader of the Palmer United Party NT and is now Independent.

There are currently two Aboriginal women in Cabinet - Bess Price in the NT CLP and Leeanne Enoch in the QLD ALP. The longest serving Aboriginal female politician is NSW Deputy Opposition Leader, Linda Burney.

Women make up less than one third of all parliamentarians and not even one fifth of ministers.

Research by Dr Joy McCann and Janet Wilson into the representation of women in Australian parliaments, published on the Australian Parliament website, says that due to "the slow progress internationally, many countries have adopted some form of gender quota to increase women's representation in politics. Electoral quotas have gained international support and have shown to be effective in 'fast-tracking' women's political representation to produce equality of results, not just equality of opportunity."

Today, the NSW Treasurer is breathing new life into the Liberal parties' struggles in the advancement of women in politics. Ms Berejiklian says the major parties' preselection processes disadvantage women.

It's a view that was raised by Victorian politician Margaret Fitzherbert in her lecture series in 2012, when she explained that one of the reasons why the ALP does far better in the gender stats is because "unlike the ALP, there has not been persistent pressure to keep preselecting women."

"Leaving aside the method it's chosen to use – in quotas – the ALP has had highly visible individual champions and organisational champions. The most visible ALP woman who has pushed and pushed for women in parliament is former premier, Joan Kirner."

Fitzherbert is right. Joan Kirner was a true champion for women’s rights and representation in parliament. Kirner supported my own entry as the Member for Arnhem in the NT Legislative Assembly in 2005.

Fitzherbert points out that "the second reason why the Liberal Party finds itself on the backfoot with women candidates is party culture. It's a culture which largely tolerates branch members asking women candidates for preselection questions about their parental and marital status.

It's a culture which largely tolerates branch members asking women candidates for preselection questions about their parental and marital status.

"And in fact, if these questions did occur in a regular job interview, they would be illegal. It's not a merit-based process if only the female candidates for preselection are asked who will look after their children if they go into parliament. It's not a merit-based process if only the female candidates for preselection are asked if they are planning to have a family and how that might work with being an MP. It's not a merit-based process if only the female candidates are told by delegates that maybe they should wait and try for a seat when their children are older.

If the Liberal Party is serious about boosting its numbers of women in Parliament, then it needs to tackle this admittedly difficult problem. The first step is to acknowledge that it happens and to loudly condemn it."

But that doesn’t appear to be happening in the West.

Premier Colin Barnett has picked a stoush with his opponents by declaring the quality of women in the parliament is not up to scratch. Some female MPs in Western Australian "would not have got there on merit" the Premier said. "Just compare them – have a look for yourself."

It's a curious position Premier Barnett has placed himself in, attacking not the quantity, but the quality of women in the WA Parliament. The WA Premier is essentially arguing that the merit-based principal is a good reason for the low numbers of Liberal women in the State parliament, while his female colleague in the NSW Parliament is saying it’s a ‘matter of urgency’ to raise the number of women in parliament.

If ever there was a male political leader who could champion the cause for quota-driven female representation in State and Federal seats, why not the leader of the state that was the first in Australia to have a woman enter parliament? Edith Cowan entered the WA Parliament in 1920 - the first woman to ever enter any parliament in Australia. She stood in 1920 for Parliament as a Nationalist and can hardly be forgotten, revered across Perth with a university and other historical sites named after her.

Every time the Premier opens his wallet to pull out a fifty dollar note, the face of Edith Cowan knowingly smiles back as a constant reminder that democracy has a way to go here while women comprise 29.0 per cent or less than one-third of all Australian parliamentarians.

Every time the Premier opens his wallet to pull out a fifty dollar note, the face of Edith Cowan knowingly smiles back as a constant reminder that democracy has a way to go here while women comprise 29.0 per cent or less than one-third of all Australian parliamentarians.

Malarndirri McCarthy is a journalist with NITV News and was the ALP Member for Arnhem from 2005 to 2012.