“Denise Allen, winner of the Benalla by-election in Victoria last Saturday, takes the number of female Labor MPs nationwide to 101. Of these, 68 were supported by Labor women’s group Emily’s List, 38 of whom are new to parliament since Emily’s List was formed in 1996. But there’s still a long way to go, says Joan Kirner. Labor’s 1994 national conference pledged that 35 per cent of Labor’s winnable seats would go to women candidates by 2002.

A target announced years out can look ambitious, like Bob Hawke’s pledge at the 1987 election that by 1990 no Australian child would live in poverty.

But amid community perceptions that governments are failing their electors with meaningless rhetoric in front of the cameras, targets are something tangible, a picture of change to look forward to, a way of politicians saying, “Take me at my word, I really mean to do what I say.” Conversely, like election promises, targets eventually become a measure of the credibility and competence of those who propose them.

So how goes Labor’s target for female MPs by 2002, just half a federal election term away? Answer: not so good say Labor women.

At state level, Labor’s target of 35 per cent of winnable seats for women by 2002 is still close to achievable. Federally, it looks like turning into significant disillusionment – an opportunity for the Coalition to exploit as another empty Labor gesture.

The statistics are obvious. For state legislatures in Victoria (38 per cent female Labor MPs) and South Australia (43 per cent) the target has been exceeded. In Tasmania (28 per cent), Queensland (27 per cent) and Western Australia (27 per cent) the percentages of female Labor MPs are close to the target, likewise the Northern Territory with 29 per cent. NSW’s 21 per cent is seriously wanting, with about 10 more women needed. The ACT, with no female Labor legislators is a scandal.

Kirner, noting the likely outcome of preselections and factional struggles, along with available seats, predicts the shortfall to be 10 seats federally.

Take two illustrations. In Victoria, with two senate vacancies, preselections have determined that Labor will go to the next federal election with an all-male ticket. The able Jill Hennessy was left out again. With preselections finished in Victoria, the shortfall on the target is two seats. This has put added pressure on NSW and South Australia in their preselectins. And it’s not looking good.

In South Australia, Labor has no women members in the House of Representatives. For the winnable seat of Adelaide, Tim Staley has the nod, leaving thirtysomething Jo Dyer to stand against the deal. The senate ticket gives some hope, with Penny Wong (replacing Senator Rosemary Crowley, who is retiring) and Linda Kirk as numbers I and 2 on the ticket. Still, that’s just one more female Labor MP after the next federal election.

Alone, setting targets alters little. But it can change cultures. Targets are advocated by some British Conservatives. Tessa Keswick, Rosemary Pockley and Angela Guillaume argue this in Conservative Women (Centre for Policy Studies 1999). Documenting the parlous state of women in the Conservative Party, both in positions held and the gentlemen’s club-style discrimination against them, they recommend “a number of minimum targets for female participation within the party should be publicly set and monitored”.

In the blokey, union-dominated culture of the ALP, Labor women also recognise, as have leaders such as Paul Keating in 1994, that targets are the only way if the many talented and experienced female party operatives are to gain preselection. Numbers are also important in the longer term. Without a critical mass of women MPs, blokes, both able and mediocre, will continue to monopolise the best positions.

Targets are a blunt instrument to encourage action. The NSW Labor Women’s Forum, led by Julie Heraghty (Right) and Diane Minnis (Left) will put a raft of affirmative action measures and policies, along with strategies to increase the number of female MPs, to the annual conference in June.

One recommendation is for women-only seats – attacked already as likely to be used by the NSW right-dominated administrative committee to pre-select women from that faction. Left faction federal MP Tanya Plibersek believes most rank-and-file members will see this as “pretty undemocratic”. Those with a commitment to affirmative action also believe in internal party democracy. Plibersek wants affirmative action at all levels of the party to ensure such drastic policy is not needed.

Females still feel marginalised by politics. In Marilyn Lake’s classes at La Trobe University, young women identify with Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir. In her recently published Getting Equal, Lake writes, “[When] de Beauvoir observes that ‘the fact of being a man is no peculiarity. A man is in the right in being a man’, the students exclaim that ‘Yes, that’s right, but why is this still the case?'”

If Labor’s targets for Labor women, so proudly announced at the 1994 national conference, are not to prove yet another illusion, ALP operatives will need to work fast. Women voters take note.”

Article published in The Australian