There is no refuge for a Liberal Party leader in the ACT, where the Coalition holds no House of Representatives seats. Which presumably is why Scott Morrison chose Albury (not Canberra) as the location of his inaugural address to the party’s rank and file.
The first meeting of what became the Liberal Party was held at the old Masonic Lodge in Canberra in October 1944. This followed the massive defeat of what were frequently described as the anti-Labor parties at the August 1943 election. The United Australia Party (the main anti-Labor Party) gained 16 per cent of the primary vote. The total vote for the anti-Labor parties amounted to a mere 33 per cent.
Robert Menzies, who had stepped down as prime minister and UAP leader in August 1941, decided to form a new party in the wake of Labor’s stunning victory. The first meeting was in Canberra, the second and final one was at Mate’s Store in Albury.
Menzies invited a mishmash of political parties and non-party organisations to the Canberra conference. Perhaps the most significant non-party organisation was the Australian Women’s National League.
Menzies, influenced by his wife Pattie, was conscious of the importance of women as voters and organisers. The Liberal Party in Victoria initially was formed on the structure established throughout the state by the AWNL, led by Elizabeth May Couchman. In his book Afternoon Light, Menzies praises Couchman and describes the AWNL as a “fine body” whose “members did far more electoral work than most men”.
After Menzies became prime minister (for the second time) in December 1949, he appointed Enid Lyons (the widow of one-time UAP prime minister Joe Lyons) to his cabinet. She was the first female cabinet minister. Lyons won the tightly contested seat of Darwin (now Braddon) in 1943 despite Labor’s high vote under the leadership of John Curtin. Lyons increased her vote (now as a Liberal Party candidate) in the 1946 and 1949 elections before resigning from politics in 1951.
The next senior woman in the Liberal Party was the Victorian senator Margaret Guilfoyle, who held cabinet positions during Malcolm Fraser’s prime ministership from November 1975 until March 1983. When John Howard led the Coalition to victory in March 1996, there were two women in his inaugural cabinet, Jocelyn Newman and Amanda Vanstone.
After his 1996 victory, Howard was photographed with some two score of Liberal members and senators, the highest female representation in parliament the Liberal Party had ever had. Following his narrow victory in the subsequent election, Howard praised the female members who held marginal seats and saved the Coalition from defeat..
The entry into parliament of many Liberal women in 1996 was neither accidental nor a result of the imposition of quotas. But it did result from organisation. Women in the party sought out and trained suitable female candidates who prevailed in preselections and went on to have successful parliamentary careers.
In recent years, this campaign faltered. As documented in the Menzies Research Centre publication Gender and Politics: 2017 Update, all but one Liberal Party seat that fell vacant during 2016 went to a man. The exception was Nicole Flint in the Adelaide seat of Boothby. Flint co-authored the Gender and Politics discussion paper.
It is this reality that led former Liberal Party deputy leader Julie Bishop to declare last Wednesday: “I say to my party, the Liberal Party, it is not acceptable for us to have in 2018 less than 25 per cent of our parliamentarians as female.”
Few would disagree with this view. However, not many would have a solution in the short term.
Many Labor Party members and senators have a background in the trade union movement, which provides valuable political training. The Liberal Party does not have a like organisation and quite a few Liberal Party women work in or run small businesses. This is valuable life experience but not a ready step into politics.
The low representation of females in the Liberal partyroom has nothing to do with the liberal-conservative divide in the party. For example, it is accepted that the self-proclaimed “moderate” (or left) faction in the Liberal Party in NSW is very influential in deciding who will succeed at preselections.
In NSW since the beginning of 2016, there have been three preselections for safe or relatively safe Liberal Party seats: Berowra, Mackellar and North Sydney.
All three went to male candidates. In Mackellar, the conservative Bronwyn Bishop was replaced.
The next preselection for a winnable seat will take place in Wentworth next week following Malcolm Turnbull’s resignation.
The evidence suggests that Scott Morrison is aware of the problem.
At the Canberra Writers Festival on August 26, ABC journalist Emma Alberici put it to Howard (who was a speaker) that the resignation of Julie Bishop would reduce the number of women in the Coalition cabinet from four to three.
In fact, there were five women in the Turnbull cabinet.
In response, Howard said it was unwise to predict such an outcome. Quite so. There are six women in the Morrison cabinet, one more than under Turnbull. Bishop is no longer the Liberal Party deputy leader but Bridget McKenzie is deputy leader of the Nationals. Marise Payne has replaced Bishop as foreign affairs minister and Kelly O’Dwyer holds the important industrial relations portfolio.
There are plenty of talented women on the non-Labor and non-Greens side of Australian politics. In NSW, Premier Gladys Berejiklian has shown how a talented woman can move from business to politics, having learned political skills in the Liberal Party when young. There will be others.
Female support has underpinned successful Liberal governments during the past 75 years. Menzies gave the lead in Canberra and Albury in 1944 and success followed not long after. He was a social conservative who delivered on his promise of ensuring an important role for women in the Liberal Party’s Victorian division over which he had authority until his resignation.