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I want to make a contribution today about a more equal and a more representative Parliament
For some weeks now we have seen those opposite consumed by a long overdue debate on how it is that deep into the 21st Century just one in five of the Government’s Members and Senators are women, and what they can do to turn this around.
I say it is long overdue not to score a political point here, but because of a more fundamental principle; regardless of race, sexuality, religion, ethnicity or gender, we should be striving for a society where all people are judged on their abilities alone.
This is a principle that certainly guides my public life. It is a principle of Australian democracy and it is a principle the Labor Party holds dear.
This principle includes making sure that the Parliament is more equal, both in its numbers and in its practices. Because without one, you will not get the other.
A Parliament that is more representative of the Australian people will be one that acts, and behaves in a way that more closely is aligned with the community expectations of the Australian people, and the make-up of the Australian people. And that change is also necessary to make Parliament a more attractive and better career option for Australian women.
For over a quarter of a century now our party has been committed to this goal of making our party better represent the Australian people and reflecting the principle of equality by ensuring more women were elected to Federal, State and Territory Parliaments.
Labor supports affirmative action not just because we think women have just as much right as men to serve in this place and others, but also because we think this Parliament is a better place when it more closely reflects the people we represent.
And we support affirmative action because it is the best way to tackle and defeat the systemic failures in our political system.
It also changes culture and it changes policy. Recall it was a Labor Government that put in place measures such as the increase to the tax-free threshold, the low-income superannuation contribution, paid parental leave, and now the Labor Party has announced an addition to paid parental leave for women’s superannuation.
All of these are economic policies which reflect the experience of Australian women.
We often hear from some of those opposite sarcastic remarks about “quota girls”, as if none of us on this side have any right to be here.
Well, I’d like to ask them this question; why is it that you think women make up so few of the Members and Senators in your party?
Because, since women make up more than 50% of the population, there can really only be two answers: either women are not seen by the males in your party as talented, and therefore not as deserving of a place in this Parliament as men, or there is something more systemic preventing women from being elected to Parliament as members of the Liberal or National Parties.
So, unless you are prepared to stand up in this place and argue that, if merit alone determines pre-selections, women in the Liberal and National Parties are consequently only one fifth as meritorious as men, then you accept that there are barriers of prejudice to equal representation.
And once you accept there are barriers, then clearly action is required to break those down, and that action is affirmative action.
A book I will be launching in the near future by Claire Wright, “You Daughters of Freedom” documents how in the early years of the 20th Century other nations looked to Australia with admiration as the land which led the world in universal suffrage, something of which we can be extraordinarily proud.
We were a place where women had not only won the vote, but had also won the right to stand for Parliament, an almost unheard of concept in the first decades of the 20th Century.
And yet today, Australia is ranked 50th in the world when it comes to gender diversity in Parliament.
Where once we led the world, today the latest figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union show we trail the UK, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, Rwanda, Cuba, Slovenia and 42 other nations. And why? Because of the Liberal and National Parties.
If Labor were the only party in this place Australia would rank 4th in the world.
So the debate we have seen over the last few weeks, and the growing recognition something needs to be done to change this, is very welcome, not just for those opposite, but for the Parliament as a whole, and for the nation.
However, I do sound this word of warning, if the experience in the Labor Party is any guide, you do face decades of struggle prosecuting this case, at multiple party conferences.
In 1996, the last election where Labor branches could avoid taking action about the fact we had so few women MPs and Senators, we were left with just four female MPs, fewer than one in ten of our lower house members.
But with party rules demanding at least 35 per cent of winnable seats go to women, by the next election that number had quadrupled, and women made up over a quarter of our MPs. People such as Julia Gillard, Nicola Roxon and many others entered our Parliaments.
Since then we have twice lifted our quota, to 40, and then 50 per cent. And today, 46 per cent of our Caucus are women and we are on track to achieve equality at the next election.
This will be a historic and proud moment – a party of government, for the first time in this country, accurately reflecting the diversity of the Australian people.
It is also proof affirmative action, quotas, whatever term you want to use, work.
By contrast, on the Government benches, where senior figures routinely deride Labor women as “quota girls” we see the exact opposite trend occurring.
In 1996 there were 18 women sitting as MPs in John Howard’s new Government. 22 years and seven Prime Ministers later there are just 13 women and we see reports that is likely to drop to single figures after the next election.
And there is absolutely no sign this is going to improve. If anything, it will get even worse.
In the 13 most marginal Labor seats the Government might be expected to target at the next election, in just one has a woman been preselected by the Liberal Party.
This confirms, I think, that too many people in the Liberal Party have a problem with women.
And when so few of your numbers are women, this leads to the sorts of behaviour we have seen widely reported in recent weeks – the claims of bullying with no fewer than five Liberal women calling out their appalling treatment during the bitter infighting that led to the dumping of the Prime Minister.
And when those few women left are so dismayed by bullying and intimidation that some of them are quitting this Parliament, worsening the gender inequality in the Coalition Parties, then you create a vicious cycle that sees women marginalised, driven out of Parliament, and of course Parliament made less attractive to women.
For many years the Liberal Party sought to disguise its poor record on gender by pointing to Julie Bishop, Australia’s first female Minister for Foreign Affairs. Yet we also saw how the party treated her during the leadership ballot.
It’s no wonder the Member for Curtin memorably declared she would not be another bloke’s deputy and left the front bench.
However, one point on which I would disagree with the former Foreign Minister is her reluctance to describe herself as a feminist, something on which she was joined by many women on the other side.
The Oxford English Dictionary comprises 20 volumes yet its definition of feminism is commendably concise – advocacy of the rights of women based on the theory of equality of the sexes.
Christine Wallace I thought put this very well in her recent column when she declared this;
“the reluctance of Liberal women to name and organise around the liberal feminism they actually practice, psychologically undercuts their power and keeps them in a prone position.
They need to name and unashamedly organise around the set of ideas that can end the present male Liberal monoculture in a way consistent with their political philosophy: that is, liberal feminism.
Every time Ms Bishop and those like her shy from declaring themselves liberal feminists, they pull the rug from under not only their own feet, but also from under the feet of every other Liberal woman around them.”
I recognise that some women in the Liberal Party are recognising that they need to change their approach and I think that is a good thing.
To my way of thinking it is somewhat counterproductive to the cause of equality to be proud of not being feminist
As a general rule, not talking about discrimination or inequality has historically not been a successful approach to remedying it. Those in power, and those with control of pre-selections, rarely cede that power willingly.
As the 1970s Equal Pay song put it – don’t be too polite girls!
Ultimately you have to decide whether you want to make that change, and how to best prosecute that case, and male leaders have to decide whose side they are on. Are they going to stand against that tide or work with you, as people on our side from Paul Keating to Simon Crean and Bill Shorten have chosen to do?
Sadly, at this moment, surveying the Coalition benches, I have to say, there are too few male allies.
But, when only 17 per cent of your members in the House of Representatives are women, and you are going backwards, you obviously have a problem.
When your MPs and Senators are routinely referring to women in this place as “quota girls”, “the handbag hit squad” and calling on them to “roll with the punches” and to “get out of the kitchen” you have a problem.
And this gets back to the point I raised earlier about the culture of a party, or a Parliament and how that is affected by the lack of equal representation.
It is time for those opposite to understand that a lack of female representation in this Parliament is not only bad for women, and bad for the Liberal Party, it is bad for democracy.
It is time for those opposite to join the 21st Century, to stand up to the bullies, and to support affirmative action so that this Parliament, on all sides, whether Government or Opposition, truly represents the Australian people.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.