A MINISTERIAL RESHUFFLE in the British government has seen the promotion of capable, relatively young and politically upcoming female Tory MPs to Cabinet, and whilst the personnel changes are admirable, the reaction in some surprising quarters has been ridiculous. British Labour, like the Australian Left, has lampooned the Tories as unrepresentative. I shudder to think of the reaction to Tony Abbott undertaking a similar reshuffle here.
I think most readers know that their Anglophile columnist is more or less obsessed with British politics, although I restrain myself from posting on it too often; I’m painfully aware that the vast majority of my readers aren’t junkies for UK politics like I am, and that flogging this particular hobby horse too frequently isn’t going to offer material that is of interest to most.
Even so, a major development overnight (Melbourne time) has been undertaken in Britain’s coalition government, which is led by the Conservative Party, and I’m horrified by the reaction an obviously astute exercise in party and personnel management has already elicited in quarters that usually would — and should — be staunchly supportive.
And I hate to say it, those on the Left will be cock-a-hoop.
I’ll keep as much of the detail out of the article as I can today; as I’ve already alluded, I don’t expect the names and issues involved to be as familiar to most readers as they are to me (but for those who share the interest in British politics — here, here, here, here and here are a few articles and comment pieces on the changes that have occurred on a tumultuous day in Westminster).
In any case, a picture tells a thousand words, so let’s get right to the point.
Under Britain’s electoral system, general elections for the House of Commons must be held “at least every five years;” nine months out from the next of these falling due, Prime Minister David Cameron has undertaken a major reshuffle: some ministers, such as Foreign secretary William Hague and veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke are retiring; some ministers have been sacked; and some fresh blood — including several well-regarded female Conservative MPs — have either been appointed for the first time, or elevated through Cameron’s ministry.
The Conservative Party, much like the Liberal Party, has in recent years begun to attract talented women in greater numbers to its ranks; now, in the runup to next year’s poll, Cameron has promoted several of them as he strengthens his ministry, tries to smoothen out the inevitable few rough spots for his government, and replaces those who will not form part of his government beyond the election.
Speaking specifically of those newly promoted female MPs, they have “done their time” learning the ropes at Westminster; the advancement each of them has been rewarded with is well-deserved.
Or is it?
Don’t get me wrong, I think (as I always have) that the best candidate for a preselection, a ministry or a leadership role should be appointed; I have observed in the past that politics disproportionately attracts men, and that simply appointing those women who enter the field for the sole reason they are female is tokenistic, tacky, and is an approach that hardly conspires to render quality outcomes of governance.
In this case, I don’t think anyone could seriously suggest that the female MPs whom Cameron has promoted are undeserving; some — like newly-minted Environment secretary Liz Truss — are seriously spoken of in Westminster as potential future party leaders; others (such as a favourite of mine, Essex MP Priti Patel) in many ways represent the modern face of the Tory Party in modern, vibrant Britain.
Yet the picture I have included with this article is from the influential conservative magazine The Spectator, which ordinarily could be expected to be supportive of the changes Cameron has announced; the fact it isn’t (and, indeed, the cover has been rushed out today in advance of next week’s issue) should send a shudder down the spine of anyone who takes women in government seriously, or acknowledges that — just as I could say of men — that the right women have an enormously valuable role to play in the corridors of power.
The Spectator isn’t the only Tory-friendly voice raising its apprehension over the inclusion of more women in Cameron’s government, either.
If this is what the Conservatives’ friends are saying, what need do they have for enemies?
I wanted to post about this, e’er briefly, because the day will surely come when our own Prime Minister reshuffles his ministry, and when he does, talented, newish female Liberal MPs who have accrued some parliamentary experience — such as Kelly O’Dwyer and Sarah Henderson — will be in the mix, along with others (like former WA Treasurer Christian Porter) who warrant ministries on merit but, like the talented backbench women, have had to wait their turn as well.
When that time arrives, what reaction will Abbott elicit for promoting them? Will Labor and the Greens pillory him on the basis the male/female ratio remains skewed toward the men, or will they give the credit that is due for promoting women who deserve to be promoted?
More to the point, will the government’s friends in the media voice their approval, or will they take the path The Spectator has apparently chosen to walk, demeaning some very well-credentialled appointments as “token women?” Will Abbott be accused of “soft misogyny,” as Cameron is? And will those female MPs be given a clear run at their jobs when they are appointed to them, or will they be hassled, harassed and tokenised further?
If there are ten vacancies and the ten best-qualified candidates consist of seven men and three women, for example, then seven men and three women should be appointed. I have no time for quotas or the like, and in matters of governance find the idea that anyone should be invested with responsibility on the basis of gender rather than competence to be repugnant.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard is a classic case in point: it was great to see a woman could be Prime Minister. The problem is that it was her. There are plenty of women already in politics in Australia, on both sides of the divide, with the ability and potential to make admirable Prime Ministers if the opportunity ever presents itself to them. Gillard, to be brutal, was never such a candidate.
But this is the environment we now live in; criticising a female politician attracts a (mostly baseless) charge of misogyny, whilst advancing the career of female MPs through the ranks is dismissed as tokenism, even when the appointments are made on merit as they have been in Cameron’s case.
If vacancies Cameron filled in his reshuffle were allocated to women simply because they were female, I’d be absolutely slamming him right now. The rank stupidity of such a methodology is an insult to any thinking person’s intelligence.
But for Cameron to face the friendly fire he has raises the rather obvious question: is a conservative leader damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t when it comes to promoting women? I thought the revamped lineup Cameron announced was perfectly suited both to the ongoing business of government and to winning next year’s election but some, it seems, simply can’t be pleased.
I suspect Abbott would receive a similar reaction to a similar undertaking in his own ranks.
Perhaps any time a male, conservative leader promotes a woman, this type of thing will be the response. It doesn’t make it right, but the mentality fostered by the likes of Emily’s List and adopted by the ALP around quotas, female-only lists and other, similarly misguided enterprises — and the resentment they foment — plays a big part in causing the problem such cabals (wrongly) claim to redress.
(Coincidentally, the number of women promoted in David Cameron’s reshuffle overnight is, in fact, 10: readers can access an excellent piece profiling each of them in brief through this link).