THE ONLY determinant of who political parties select to contest parliamentary seats should be a consideration of the best candidate available; a call this week by the federal executive of the Liberal Party for an “aspirational” target of 50% female representation is idiot-simple, patronising, and divisive, and will achieve nothing of merit. Poor candidate selection is enough of a problem as it is, across all parties, without entrenching it further.
About twelve or eighteen months ago, it was relayed to me that “Peta” — Tony Abbott’s former Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin — had “decided” that her “legacy” should be the formal adoption by the Liberal Party of a “binding soft target” that 50% of all Liberal candidates preselected to winnable seats should be female, and that she was “determined to force the party to accept” the position she had decided to pursue.
That conversation, with an excellently placed source, took place at the time Credlin was at the height of her paranoid, micromanaging, amateurish power at the epicentre of the Abbott government, and given my complete opposition to quotas of any kind, I assured my source that if Credlin’s “legacy” ever saw the light of day I would do everything in my power to torpedo it: and with the Fairfax press reporting this week that the Liberals’ federal executive has resolved to introduce exactly what was conveyed to me all that time ago, here we are.
Aside from the sheer effrontery of a glorified and jumped-up public servant taking it upon herself to decide she was entitled to “a legacy” at all, those who advocate this sort of garbage miss the point that whilst similar arrangements at the ALP have succeeded in lifting the number of women sitting in Parliaments across the country, the overall calibre of elected representatives is no better now than it has ever been.
And I do not subscribe to the half-arsed counterpoint that if MPs are to be mediocre anyway, then half of them might as well be women: to me, the issue is the calibre of people overall who stand for elected office, and the problem to be solved is not one of gender at all but rather one of identifying, nurturing and encouraging the very best people within the ranks of the major parties — irrespective of whether they are men or women — to put themselves forward.
We will come back to those arguments, but first and foremost, the Fairfax article details the kind of thing the Communist Party (the real one in the Soviet Union) might have come up with if it turned its collective head to putting women in positions of power in the Politburo; this has it all — a 50% “aspirational” target (read: the compulsory and arbitrary carve-up of seats and the corresponding disregard for local branches to select the candidates they want); a “Liberal Champions of Change” program that forces men and women to “advocate for gender equality;” and pompously misleading assertions like the suggestion that simply putting more women in Parliament — because they’re female — will solve “a long-term existential challenge for the party, which it must proactively address in order to remain electorally relevant.”
The report disingenuously alludes to voting patterns at the 2010 federal election — at which Labor scored a lift in its vote from women simply on account of fielding the first female major party leader in Australian political history — but makes no reference to the 2013 election, at which both male and female voters flooded back to the Coalition as the ALP’s tenure in office was terminated.
And it should surprise nobody that the Women’s Working Group — set up in March this year — and its report have both materialised on the watch of outgoing federal director Brian Loughnane, who is of course Credlin’s husband; the apparent contrivance of the husband to bring the wife’s “legacy” to fruition is just a bit too convenient to be a coincidence.
In other words, those who try to defend this new direction in high-minded, sanctimonious terms really should get over themselves.
The Fairfax report cites three examples of the alleged railroading of female candidates as evidence of the problem such a change at the Liberal Party would supposedly correct.
One — Jane Hume, recently preselected to the third spot on the Coalition Senate ticket in Victoria — and the question of why she wouldn’t simply be elevated up the ticket to the second (more winnable) spot now Michael Ronaldson has announced he won’t stand again; the appropriate forums within the Liberal Party will make a determination on that, but the opening Hume contested was secured on the basis it would be the third spot on the ticket. Based on existing polling, the Coalition is almost certain to win a third Senator from Victoria at next year’s election. But the decision is being misrepresented as a simple male vs female equation; there is also an opportunity to get not one good new good Liberal candidate (Hume) into the Senate, but two.
Two — former state MP Donna Bauer’s interest in the federal seat of Dunkley, being vacated by former minister Bruce Billson — similarly fails to offer the cut-and-dried evidence of the need for “action” on women it is clearly intended to supply; Dunkley is a marginal seat at the best of times, and doesn’t even satisfy the women’s lobby’s demands to be allocated safe seats; Bauer has also been extremely ill (a fact well-known publicly) and she would have to satisfy any council of preselectors that she was literally fit to serve through both a gruelling election campaign and a three-year term if elected. That said, Bauer was an excellent MP as the member for Carrum, and in a seat usually held by Labor it was a credit to her that she won it at all. But the point is that her gender, frankly, has nothing to do with either the calibre of the service she did and may yet render, nor with the question of whether she should replace Billson in the federal seat that overlaps her old one in state Parliament.
And three, the question of whether upper house Victorian MP Margaret Fitzherbert should replace outgoing state Brighton MP Louise Asher in the bluest of blue ribbon state seats when Asher retires in 2018; Margaret is a friend, and when I first met her she had just been shouldered out of standing for the federal seat of Goldstein to make way for Andrew Robb (who has been an excellent ministerial performer, if not perhaps a visible local presence) and to be honest I’m in two minds: on the one hand, she would make an excellent state MP wherever she served, but on the other, she already has a state seat. Yes, it was a touch-and-go proposition, secured as it was last year from the third spot on the Coalition’s upper house ticket in the Southern Metropolitan electorate. But Margaret would arguably offer the Liberal Party its best prospect for continuing to hold three of the five Southern Metropolitan seats, and once again, the issue here isn’t one of gender at all, but rather of the party making the very best use of the resources it has at its disposal.
There are no straightforward answers to any of these three scenarios, but simply installing the woman in any or all of them precludes the prospect of a better candidate (who might in fact be female herself) from being considered. And that is not in the interests of the party, the wider community it seeks to serve, or even the tokenised, patronised woman in the middle of it, who must know the only reason for her preselection is what is (or isn’t) between her legs when what is between her ears is what really matters.
Speaking of Robb and Goldstein — for Andrew, at 65 next year, won’t be around forever either — I was recently shown a list of the names of four aspirants who hoped to succeed him as a Liberal MP in Goldstein; three of them were male and one was female. To be frank, three (including the female) would be nothing less than the waste of a safe seat on a time-server, and the fourth might be best served waiting five or ten years. Lest anyone think I’m being anti-women, however, I told the person who gave me the names to discard all four from consideration, and to go and chase a certain female identity around our branches who I think is one of the best potential MPs I have come across in many years: her name was not one of the four we had discussed.
I relay these stories, and my thinking in response to them, simply to illustrate just how rigid, brainless and counter-productive the adoption of any kind of quota by the Liberal Party may be.
But lest there be any confusion about it, one of the reasons there are fewer female MPs from the Liberal Party is that for whatever reason, women seem less willing to put themselves forward for elected office; maybe women aren’t as interested in politics to the degree men are, or maybe they are unwilling to surrender lives, careers, earning capacity (and sometimes, marriages) to the brutal bear pit that is parliamentary politics in this country to the extent men are.
One thing I do know, however, is that a better approach to boosting the ranks of female MPs would be to identify suitable female candidates and encourage them to put themselves forward, and this is one area I think all parties might improve their efforts on: if it “naturally” occurs to men to do so, but women are more reticent, every assistance and encouragement should be offered. But simply finding female names to allocate to seats in Parliament is no solution at all.
The Liberal Party is just that — a party of free-minded individuals that champions the right of the individual to make decisions — and shackling it with some silly, arbitrary gender quota runs utterly counter to that noble principle.
And if you’re just going to tell half your branches that the seats they’re located in are reserved for female candidates only, it follows that you’re either going to encourage capable, ambitious men to start moving all over the place to chase a seat, or — more likely — to drop out of active involvement in the party altogether. Far from strengthening anything, as a quota of any description would seek to do, the end result would be to rob the party of ideas, resources, and potential parliamentary servants.
This column has never supported quotas in any way, shape, or form; be it Jacqui Lambie and her plans to create reserved seats for Aborigines, Bill Shorten’s (quietly abandoned) plot to introduce quotas for gays, lesbians, blacks, and heaven knows who else, or the disgusting female candidate factory of the hard socialist Left that is Emily’s List, the interests of whichever group stands to benefit from a quota are, in my view, tarnished and compromised by the very measure intended to advance them.
Quotas are patronising, humiliating, condescending and tokenistic; they send the terrible message that merit, in the big scheme of things, is irrelevant; they send the message to any group not covered by the quota that they are second-rate citizens; and all they really achieve is to enable whatever band of do-gooders responsible for them to feel good about themselves when there is little evidence they make any difference to the quality of outcomes — in this case, where governance of the country is concerned.
Does anyone seriously and credibly suggest the likes of Julia Gillard, Christine Milne, Sarah Hanson-Young or the late Joan Kirner are shining advertisements for the virtues of open slather promotion of women simply because they are female? If you’re a socialist, perhaps, but for anyone with a brain they embody the fact that competence is too easily disregarded when gender is allowed to dictate things like political preselections, and so it would be if the Liberals adopt the recommendation on the table.
Political parties are volunteer organisations that have trouble as it is attracting quality candidates for all kinds of reasons — money foremost amongst them — and all quotas do in my view is entrench the mediocrity that more often than not emerges from preselection processes.
Look at the ALP, with its binding quotas: yes, there are an awful lot of useless male Labor MPs littered across Parliaments around the country, but the binding 35% quota for female representation simply means they’re accompanied by more equally useless women than their counterparts across the aisle.
Some might find that a hard judgement, but it’s meant to be: star candidates for high office are the exception, not the norm, however chauvinistic about the primacy of our respective parties we might choose to be.
Be they male or female, straight or gay, the sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of people elected to Parliaments in Australia are far from the best possible people in the community to fill those posts.
This issue has been a bugbear of mine for years; of course it would be good to see more women in Parliament, but by the same token it would be even better to improve the quality of elected representatives in general.
Quotas — be they hard, firm, soft, binding, arbitrary, aspirational or whatever — have no place in the Liberal Party or, as far as I’m concerned, anywhere else; the more important change that needs to be looked at is how to improve the calibre of elected representatives. Men and women alike should be championing the issue of merit, not bickering over how to favour one gender over the other.
If there’s one good thing that might emerge from this silly push to impose quotas on the Liberals, it could be that men are forced to give a more stringent account of themselves by women concentrating not on securing automatic allocations from the carve-up, but instead on encouraging the best in their ranks to step forward and take the men on. Just as there are mediocrities everywhere in politics, there are also some very good people, and a lot of those are female. But rigour and discipline, not quotas, are required for the cultural change I am alluding to.
Liberals — male and female alike — should do whatever they can to shoot this ridiculous recommendation down. As for Credlin, she can bury her “legacy” where the sun doesn’t shine. If, that is, she can extricate her head first to make way for it.
Maybe Credlin still thinks she should be gifted a safe Liberal seat. If she does, she’s in for a shock. There are resources available across from Australia to fund an independent conservative campaign against her should she ever put her head above the parapet. The reasons people are prepared to ensure she never sits in Parliament have nothing to do with gender.
In fact, a quick check on the identity of the current Prime Minister and the terminal electoral position of his predecessor speak volumes for the “merit” Credlin offers as a candidate. She can’t have it both ways. She was a woman given the #1 unelected position in Australian politics and was given unprecedented free rein to execute it, and fucked it up completely. Nothing to do with gender at all. Nobody to blame except herself.
If Credlin wants a fitting legacy, I’m sure there’s a jobs desk at Centrelink that might benefit from her aptitude for micromanagement, but the Liberal Party must consign her — and her silly quota — to the dustbin of history.