THE SOLE DETERMINANT of who is endorsed by political parties for seats in Parliaments across Australia should — and must — be selecting the best candidate on offer, irrespective of gender, race, religion, or sexuality; and whilst the Liberal Party is right to consider how to get more women into elected office, targets and quotas are no answer. Such measures stink of patronising tokenism, and have no place in a democratic political party.
In posting just the second article for the week, readers will have guessed I have been busy; I have a lot on at present in areas that must take precedence over our discussions in this column, although between this piece — and some others I plan to publish over the weekend, time (and two children) permitting — we will I hope catch up to some extent on what has been happening over the past week, including the promised article on the silly push by two Labor Premiers to lift the Medicare levy as a pathetic copout designed to evade the heavy lifting associated with genuine taxation reform.
Today, however, I want to talk about the renewed apparent push by some within the Liberal Party to introduce a so-called soft target (read: quota) to lift the proportion of female Liberal MPs to 30% of the party’s elected representatives, and to say I am completely and utterly opposed to such a demeaning, tokenistic and trivialising measure is something of an understatement.
I’m going to be deliberately vague on some of the details in retelling this anecdote, but roughly 20 years ago I had the misfortune to attend a round of preselections conducted by the Queensland division of the Liberal Party, and before the candidates for one particular seat — a vacant, nominally Liberal seat — made their presentations, some bloke ran around the party members assembled on the day, telling everyone that “the party wants a woman; the party wants a woman: see that it happens.”
I was immediately and consequentially inclined to vote for just about anyone other than the sole woman in the field of candidates; and having later listened to the respective presentations and deciding the best candidate on offer was in fact one of the four men who stood against her, voted for him.
But the woman was victorious: and whilst Liberals later thought she was just great (in the grand old Liberal tradition that all of “our” elected representatives are the best thing since sliced bread, until or unless they do something particularly naughty and/or cross the wrong people) the fact is that this eventual time-server of lengthy tenure contributed, in round terms, nothing. She never lost her seat to Labor, which I suppose is something, but in a reasonably solid Liberal area and in the context of a discussion about preselecting women on merit, that isn’t saying very much at all.
I wanted to start out by revisiting the episode because it’s significant, in my view, for a number of reasons: one, it wasn’t long after Labor had declared for the first time a binding target for 35% of its MPs to be women, a move decried at the time within the Liberal Party (including by many strong, capable women) as insulting patronisation. Two, it was in my view an attempt to rig a preselection, insofar as the four men who stood may as well have not bothered to turn up. And three, that process threw up a female representative who might have been an effective factional operative but who — in the context of representing people and/or adding to public administration — was abysmal.
It was with despair, therefore, that I saw on Wednesday an article in The Australian that detailed a push by Brisbane Liberal MP Teresa Gambaro for the party to adopt “an initial 30 percent target” for getting women into seats in Parliament.
This is no way to improve the numbers of female MPs; as soon as you start doling out seats in Parliament to women because — well, just because they’re women — you immediately invalidate any merit the ladies in question might offer, and turn them into mere baubles, chattels, trinkets: worthless, really, beyond the fact they’re not men.
There are those who look to the ALP and the fact its 35% quota has, on the surface, achieved the desired objective, largely in tandem with the contemptible Emily’s List that sends hardcore female socialists into Parliaments across the country, and in conjunction with union and factional structures that allocate parliamentary seats as if they were the gifts of an autocratic fiefdom.
Dig a little deeper, and it’s difficult to accept a lot of these women are the best candidates the ALP could put up: certainly, those who are ultimately elected probably benefit from the fact they’re endorsed Labor candidates who harvest votes from people simply inclined to vote for the ALP anyway.
But women — like men — whose CVs detail personal journies through left-wing sinecures in the ALP, the unions, and sympathetic entities arguably well removed from anything that could be construed as remotely mainstream, speak more to the kind of women who put themselves forward than to any particular success in getting good female candidates into office.
And herein lies the rub.
Those who know me know I am no sexist or misogynist, and in fact I agree wholeheartedly that more good and talented women are needed in Parliament. But it’s not a case of “gender balance” or some other trendy platitude that needs to be indulged in order to bring this outcome about: very simply, the issue is getting a greater number of capable women to put themselves forward, or even to get more actively involved in politics at all.
There are a couple of things I should probably be clear about.
The first is a “captain obvious” acknowledgement that there are plenty of dud male MPs floating around on all sides of the spectrum, and by virtue of the fact the vast majority of MPs are still male, there are more of them than there are dud women. Nobody needs to think they’re inventing the wheel to point that out — I’m well aware of it, thank you very much.
But the second — looking at parties like the ALP, and others with forms of so-called positive discrimination in place, like the
Communist Party Greens — is that the kind of women who benefit from these assisted passage schemes into Parliament seem to be the last people on Earth anyone would seriously choose to have represent their interests, the fact they eventually get voted into their seats notwithstanding.
If they were required to win 50% of the vote in a lower house electorate rather than hiding in the undemocratic Easy Street that is the proportionally elected Senate, does anyone seriously think people like Christine Milne, Sarah Hanson-Young or (God forbid) actual Communist and fruit cake Lee Rhiannon would ever be elected to office in Australia? I think not.
Meanwhile, over at the ALP, people like Jenny Macklin (for whom I have always had a lot of time, despite our political differences) and Amanda Rishworth — who give a damn about people so tangibly it is written all over their faces — sit in the same party room as dangerous socialists like Tanya Plibersek and (once upon a time) Julia Gillard, whose ideas about politics and governance border on the delusional extremes of the Left, and slogan-regurgitating cardboard cutouts like Kate Ellis who, on any objective criteria, has been a major disappointment when her portfolio responsibilities and the nature of her output are considered.
Again, it’s a case of harvesting the votes that would flow to their parties anyway, and between the dud men and the dud women, both groups are rightly lambasted by Joe Public as reflective of the exceedingly poor calibre of parliamentarians clogging elected assemblies in this country today.
In other words, it isn’t just the case that more women (and the right kind of women) are needed in Parliament, but that more of the right kind of people — men and women alike — are required altogether.
But the third thing, in all candour, is the factionalised nature of political parties, who plays them, who benefits from them and who gets it in the neck for whatever reason: and I think this has an awful lot to do with why the Liberals in particular don’t have more women in parliamentary seats, although I would imagine a similar situation exists in other parties.
For as long as there is democracy — let alone formalised political parties — the natural instinct of human beings to organise at the most basic level means that factions, patronage and other power mechanisms will always exist: and whether we are talking about women or men, this reality is always going to distort outcomes in selecting candidates, and colour those outcomes wherever any attempt to manipulate them (like boosting representation of one gender at the expense of the other) is concerned.
This brings me to Prime Ministerial Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, and the rumoured intention to install her in a safe Liberal seat in Melbourne in the near future; having inserted her into the conversation on the back of that particular point, we’ll come back to her a little later. But anyone who wants to argue the merits of Credlin as a suitable candidate to represent the interests of 100,000 voters and their families has their work cut out, and it is only the exercise of the kind of distorting power I am talking about that will ever get her into Parliament. More on that in a bit.
If we come back to the basic question at hand — how to get more women into seats in Parliament for the Liberal Party — I think there are two issues that need to be addressed.
One, encouraging women to get more actively involved in the party (as opposed to simply going to branch meetings, perhaps intending to support a husband or male partner) so the input from these people is more forthcoming than it is.
And two — more importantly — looking at the reasons women seem less likely to put themselves forward for elected office than men, and working through ways to remove those barriers.
In other words, working to get more women into preselection contests rather than gifting the outcomes of those contests to them.
I refuse to believe there are not more very good females in the Liberal Party who would make excellent MPs (and probably do better than many of the existing MPs, men and women, that the party boasts).
Yet by the same token, anecdotal experience seems to suggest women are more put off by the stereotypical disincentives to parliamentary life than men: the brutal nature of politics; the grinding, long hours; the modest remuneration; the intrusive and often malignant media scrutiny that goes with the job, and the total surrender of personal privacy that accompanies it; and so forth.
Anyone who thinks life in elective politics is some gravy train junket that features untalented people rolling around in clover at public expense doesn’t know what they’re talking about (although the present fracas involving Bronwyn Bishop merely reinforces such uninformed stereotypes). Women, for whatever reason, seem more deterred by these things than men, although plenty of capable males — myself included — are similarly disinclined to seek Liberal endorsement for precisely these reasons, and don’t.
How you encourage excellent prospective female MPs — people with particular skills, or substantial career histories in private enterprise, or significant policy expertise and passion, or a mixture of these things, who also connect well with people and enjoy working on behalf of others — to move beyond those barriers and put their names forward for public office is not an easy question, and there is not an easy answer.
Some arbitrary quota (which is exactly what a “soft target” in fact is) of installing women into 30% of winnable and/or safe seats does not resolve those barriers.
In fact, such a quota is by its nature likely to disproportionately attract those women who — knowing space is available to them based on their gender — enjoy the backing of dominant power centres within the party, and who are disproportionately more likely to be interested in the accrual and exercise of power than they are in any meaningful objective to represent the interests of those they nonetheless expect to vote for them at an election.
The other argument used by quota advocates, especially where safe Liberal seats are concerned, is that women are discriminated against through being disproportionately endorsed to contest marginal seats that change hands with a change of government, or even when smaller overall swings see governments returned with reduced majorities. The argument fails to stack up.
For one thing, Sophie Mirabella (a woman) lost what on paper was a 65-35 Liberal seat in Indi at the last federal election to a conservative independent (who was also woman); of the 16 federal seats the Liberal Party* holds by margins of 15% or more, five (or 31.25%) are held by women — including the second-safest of these, Murray in Victoria, held on a margin of 20.9% by 30% quota advocate Sharman Stone — whilst women sit in 11 of the 39 seats (or 28.2%) held by the Liberal Party on margins of less than 10%, and one of those 11 is Kelly O’Dwyer in the blue-ribbon electorate of Higgins on 9.9% that common sense dictates is probably safer in practice than some seats held by far greater margins on paper.
In other words, the safer the Liberal seat, the more likely it already is to be held by a woman.
And for another thing, there is the small matter of where the female candidates actually live: ministerial-quality MP Sarah Henderson needed two attempts to win the marginal Geelong-based seat of Corangamite from the ALP, and now holds it by 3.9%; but as a Geelong local, was there a push to parachute her into a safe seat somewhere else? Of course not. Australia’s best-known classic marginal seat — Lindsay, in western Sydney — is ably represented by Fiona Scott, having won it from Labor in 2013. I don’t think Scott would see herself vaulted into a rusted-on sinecure on the North Shore, and neither should anyone else. She is representing the community she lives in, which is as it should be.
And this brings me, quite unapologetically, back to Peta Credlin.
With rumours continuing to persist that she is either lining up a safe seat for herself or being lined up for one by others despite present-tense denials that are unconvincing at best, it should come as no surprise that Credlin has been propagating the myth that the Liberal Party doesn’t preselect women to safe seats, and deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop (who is both female and the holder of an extremely safe seat indeed) is absolutely right to not only call Credlin’s story out, but to finger the real problem, which is the need for a more diverse spread of candidates in the Liberal Party overall.
Credlin is said to be in line to “inherit” either Kevin Andrews’ seat of Menzies, in Melbourne’s north-east, or my local electorate of Goldstein, in Melbourne’s Bayside, from Trade Minister Andrew Robb; I acknowledge that Credlin is originally from Victoria, but the notion that someone who has spent years based in Canberra and insisting (as Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister) that anyone who amounts to anything in government also live in Canberra would seem to have a problem passing herself off now as a local in Melbourne.
The fact the two seats are about 40km apart, and on different sides of the city, means that Credlin could scarcely be accused of prioritising meaningful ties to the local community, if stories that whichever of the two electorates comes up first would suit her are true.
Not merely Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, Credlin is married to the Liberal Party’s federal director, has spent more than a decade working as an adviser to various senior party figures in one insiderish capacity or another, enjoys the explicit personal support of Tony Abbott, and is known to command the bloc backing of a significant chunk of the party’s dominant conservative hard Right faction.
As a female candidate and purported success story the party might choose to inflict on the unfortunate voters in either of these two seats, it’s not difficult to see where Credlin’s support comes from. But in terms of the kind of appeal that might win swinging voters over to the Liberal Party from Labor, I contend she doesn’t have any.
In fact, Credlin has limited appeal within the rank and file membership of the party, too — the kind of people who, unlike me, mind their Ps and Qs and keep their views to themselves. These are the people who, despite public denials from the hard Right Liberals who defend her, are all too aware that the control over the Abbott government that has been exercised out of the Prime Minister’s Office — and the processes of vetoes, rubber stamps and preferment — that have been operated from there irrevocably implicate Credlin in everything that has gone wrong during this term in government. And those wrongs, to put it mildly, have been innumerable, and almost politically apocalyptic.
I don’t know what locals in Menzies think and to some degree that is a matter for them, but if Credlin sincerely wants a woman (and the best available candidate) installed in Goldstein whenever Robb moves on, I know of such a person: a well-educated, highly articulate and lovely lady, who boasts a career CV of formidable achievement and offering vast policy expertise, and who is as at ease with people in one-on-one situations as she is in high level situations. With or without the ghastly spectre of Credlin lurking in the shadows, I intend to canvass this person and urge her to stand — with the offer of as much support as possible — when Andrew Robb eventually moves on.
But if the people around Credlin see to it that the local membership is neutered in the preselection process, or other candidates leaned on to get out of the way for her, or a head office endorsement staged in order to avoid the potential embarrassment of losing a vote of local members, I fully intend to hold good to my threat to stand against her as an Independent Conservative from outside the Liberal Party: and as much of a joke some in the cabal around Credlin might perceive that threat to constitute, even in a “safe” seat like Goldstein there are limits to what local voters are prepared to stomach — or have foisted upon them.
Credlin’s candidacy, to be brutal, would compare unfavourably with the anecdote I recounted at the outset of this article from 20 years ago: and one piece of realism that must also seep through to those looking to boost the ranks of female MPs is the fact that just because an elected representative is a woman doesn’t mean they have achieved their objective — it has to be the right kind of candidate, just like it ought to be with the blokes, otherwise the entire enterprise is pointless.
A Credlin candidacy might be useful to those who seek to wield power, or who can benefit from knowledge of the locations of buried skeletons, but to the wider public would offer very little.
By all means, the idea Credlin might want to see more women in safe seats is worthy, and at face value, noble; but if her own name appears on any list of intended possible contenders, then any merit in her advocacy can be dismissed as the self-interested pap it probably is.
The same can be said of the 30% quota target, which in any case is an insult to women generally: and if those who care about the welfare of the Liberal Party — men and women alike — wish to boost its levels of female representation, they should help work to encourage good female candidates past the barriers to standing for office, and leave divisive hacks like Credlin on the sidelines where they belong.
*National Party seats excluded today. How the Nationals run their party is a matter for them.