August 2018 marked the 75th anniversary of the first Australian woman to be elected to the House of Representatives – Dame Enid Lyons, who stood for the United Australia Party, the forerunner of the Liberal Party of Australia. In the last three decades, female MPs have become a familiar sight in both houses of the Australian parliament. But that is just part of the tale – female MPs remain a minority – even more so on the non-Labor side. On Tuesday 31 July 2018, academic Peter van Onselen, commentator and contributing editor at The Australian joined Katherine O’Regan, executive director of the Cities Leadership Institute and Sophie York, lecturer in Public International Law & Legal Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney, and to discuss and debate the issue of women and the Liberal Party of Australia.
LIBERAL PARTY WOMEN MPs – WHERE ARE THEY?
PETER VAN ONSELEN
I have come to the conclusion that there is only one solution to deal with the fact that the Liberal Party has an abysmally small number of women in its ranks. That, I’m absolutely loath to say, is to finally embrace quotas.
In a moment I’m going to take you through my own journey to embrace what I long regarded as a profoundly bad policy decision. Which is, quotas. First, however, I want to make the point that if anyone has a better solution or if you don’t think that there’s a problem – and then I think you have a problem – then we can talk about that.
I’ve gone on a very long journey to get to the point where I’m in favour of quotas on gender for parliament. I have gotten to where I have because I do think the gender disparity is a problem and I can’t see a solution other than quotas capable of fixing it.
I have gotten to where I have because I do think the gender disparity is a problem and I can’t see a solution other than quotas capable of fixing it.
I don’t extend my support for gender quotas to micro quotas, based on a whole plethora of other issues. We are talking about a particular issue where half the population is being held back. We’re not talking about fractions of the population. As I say, I don’t like this idea, this prescriptive idea of putting in place a scenario where you say, “We need to have a certain percentage based on a quota.” But the Liberal Party is at a point where, when it comes to gender, it is so fundamentally out of touch with where it needs to be that frankly I have arrived at the idea of quotas because I have no other ideas.
the Liberal Party is at a point where, when it comes to gender, it is so fundamentally out of touch with where it needs to be that frankly I have arrived at the idea of quotas because I have no other ideas
Increasingly, I am sick of this as I watch my wife work her way through her career, and as my two daughters get older. I am completely tired of rhetoric and promises, ongoing enlivening ideas about how we can do something about this which doesn’t involve a quota and never ensures improvements.
It is at a point where, like it or not, as bad a policy idea as quotas might be, the only worse policy idea is to have what the Coalition has now – just 13 of 76 members of the lower house are women. When four of the five spots behind the leader’s box on the parliamentary video screen are women, they know they have a problem. With a third of their lineup in front of the camera, the rest is wall to wall men.
The Liberal Party has a problem. And fixing that problem is not just about a better electoral outcome. It’s not about that; it’s about the fact that half the population just might want a political career. Half the population just might be able to add value in the political debate. And if one half of the two-party divide – an entrenched two party divide however big the vote of the small parties is -does not embrace one half of the population, not necessarily by intent, that is a problem.
Half the population just might be able to add value in the political debate.
I’ve talked about quotas at so many different levels and I’ve written about it and I’ve spoken about it time and time again. I’ve finally hit that point now where I just want change. How can the Liberal Party continue to say, “It’s got to be based on merit” and point to the status quo? Lets deal with that first up.
If, as a matter of logic, you believe that women are equal to men, then merit as a matter of logic is met if you have a quota that gives women equal representation. I cannot see a way around that. And if your argument is that women don’t want a life in politics because it’s harder on the family, I hear that. Then make the parliament less unfriendly to families. Find a way to improve those elements.
At its core, the parliament in a democratic system is meant to be representative of the body politic. And, if that’s the case and you believe as I do, as I’m sure everyone in this room does, that women are equal to men, how does a quota – at least in the short to medium term – get in the road of merit if it reflects merit by giving women roughly half the roles?
I’m no longer prepared to wait the many, many decades it will take to see cultural change within the Liberal Party such that it reflects the modern community and fact women are as capable of holding positions of power as are men. Not for me, and not for my children.
women are as capable of holding positions of power as are men
I have decided that change is more important than the falsities or the problems in the system that gets you there. It’s been an interesting journey, because in most of my thoughts I prefer process over outcomes. Good processes rather than the notion that the ends can justify the means. Simply put, I do not consider quotas a. As enough means to justify retaining the currents ends within the Liberal Party which sees so few women in its ranks l.
I used to be in favour of the concept of targets rather than quotas. Katherine tonight talked about targets. Targets are great in theory, and yes it is wonderful that the Liberal Party has a target of 50 per cent female MPs by 2025. I will do a nude lap of Sydney Harbour if the Liberal Party has 50 per cent women in the parliament by 2025. In fact, I’ll up that, I’ll do two laps. Because there isn’t a chance in hell that they will have 50 per cent women by 2025. I can see Gerard writing that down – I’ll be doing that lap whether I like it or not if I’m wrong. But it’s not going to happen so I’m comfortable with my promise.
I will do a nude lap of Sydney Harbour if the Liberal Party has 50 per cent women in the parliament by 2025.
Targets can work at a corporate level, where you can put in place KPIs which require those targets to be met because performance bonuses are impacted by whether they are or not. There are incentivised reasons why managers across the line need to achieve those targets, because if they don’t there is blowback for them. Whether it’s financial or career projection in nature.
But politics isn’t like that, certainly not within the Liberal Party when it comes to improving gender outcomes or failing to do so. Politics is not a profession wherein targets of themselves can create the difference. You need the rigid enforceability of a quota.
A quota creates flow down effects, which create the decision making down the line to select women into the positions. It’s about breaking past the argument that women aren’t interested, or there aren’t as many women who want to go into politics and therefore inaction to redress gender imbalance is tolerated. It’s about getting women interested so that they will go into politics. And the way to do that, like it or not, is via a quota system.
A quota requires the powerbrokers, the whole party as a matter of fact, to go out and find those women it says don’t exist or aren’t interested. To convince them to participate, to serve, with the useful carrot that the quota system ensures they get judged equal to men, free of the historical prejudices which have reduced female participation. And if you believe that women are equal to men then there’s no harm in that.
A quota requires the powerbrokers, the whole party as a matter of fact, to go out and find those women it says don’t exist or aren’t interested.
In fact, there’s more than no harm in that, there’s a significant benefit. If you are disproportionately selecting men, you are missing out on talent. If you’re finding a mechanism to get the party to find women to go into politics, I can’t see a better way than a quota. The outcome is a diversity of thought in the party room and in the cabinet, and there is plenty of research to support the value of diversity to good outcomes.
I completely understand, from a male perspective, how frustrating it must be when you think you’re good, to be passed over because there is a quota that requires a woman to get there. Well, guess what, deal with it. The truth is that you might be good, but so are a myriad of women who are missing out because of sexism. One of the things that makes me relax about no longer being at Sky News and giving up daily presenting is that a woman filled the slot that I was in. I’m very glad about that.
The truth is that you might be good, but so are a myriad of women who are missing out because of sexism.
Most women are on board with quotas. Not all of course, but most are. It’s men who need to increasingly get on board, especially within the Liberal Party if change is going to happen. I understand that superficially quotas might appear unfair, or seem to fly in the face of merit.
But these are false arguments. I would ask you all to reflect on the idea, the fact, the reality that society is steeped in sexism. And if you believe that woman are equal you have to conclude therefore, that unequal representation which follows processes that don’t include quotas are discriminatory by nature. I would ask you to put that first.
Men, like it or not, have to accept that the days that they dominate society and positions of power simply because they are men is over, or coming to an end at least. It should be over. The time of men believing that because you’re male you get the job and the woman misses out, that time is over. Quotas are the only way that I can conceivably come up with that can fix that scenario within the Liberal Party, at least within a reasonable time frame. In business, yes targets can work.
The time of men believing that because you’re male you get the job and the woman misses out, that time is over.
You can have KPIs, you can have scenarios that allow men to therefore do the right thing because their own bonus for example is based on it. In politics, it’s a rawer discipline than that, and always has been. Quotas are therefore necessary.
The Labor Party is far from virtuous as a party of an organisation. But, by introducing quotas, they have provided a platform whereby they now have very close to 50 per cent female representation in the federal parliament, and its state parliaments are similarly well represented. And when I hear people on the right say, the women in the Labor Party aren’t so good, I simply reply that women have a right to be as bad as the men. Genuinely. It’s not about holding a woman up on a pedestal and saying unless she is literally curing cancer she’s a failure. They have a right to be as hopeless as men.
I could rattle off the names of men in the Liberal Party who are not particularly impressive, but we don’t have all night. Or men in the National Party who are not great. Or men in the Labor Party who are not great. This is something that should be about equal opportunity, not artificially ranking the capabilities of the sexes. Men and women should have equal opportunity to be hopeless, as well as to excel.
A quota provides a level playing field which requires the men – and the power brokers are overwhelmingly men – to pick women whom they think are as good as it gets. They probably won’t be, because that’s politics like it or not. Many good people refuse to enter the field. But at least forcing power brokers to go searching for good women because they must fill a quota will create equal representation. And that is better than the alternative, which we are witnessing at the present.
Many good people refuse to enter the field.
I’ll end with this. At a completely superficial level, I hate quotas, as I have mentioned. I regard them as a very blunt policy instrument. If I could think of a better way to fix the gender problem that exists within the Liberal Party, I’d embrace it in a heartbeat.
But I’m tired of rhetoric. I’m tired of the Liberal Party saying they’ll get there eventually, they have a got a target, a plan, they’ll do this or do that, only for nothing to happen. No change to follow. What I want is a fair playing field and the only way I can see that happening is if quotas are introduced.
I’m tired of the Liberal Party saying they’ll get there eventually, they have a got a target, a plan, they’ll do this or do that, only for nothing to happen.