Opinion: Quotas won’t solve party’s ‘women problem’

Julia Gillard, Australia's first female Prime Minister, during a visit to Wagga in 2014.
Julia Gillard, Australia's first female Prime Minister, during a visit to Wagga in 2014.

It’s no secret there are far fewer women MPs than men, and that in the equality stakes the Liberals are lagging far behind their Labor counterparts .

It is likewise no secret that current polling suggests the next election will send the Liberals into electoral oblivion, subsequently leaving even fewer women in the House.

What is it about the Liberal Party that could be making women say ‘thanks but no thanks’?

Only about a quarter of the Liberals’ federal MPs are female, and that hasn’t changed much since the first term of the Howard Government in the 1990s, despite a goal of 50/50 representation.

Labor, by contrast, has the same goal and is much closer to achieving it, with women MPs accounting for just under the 50 per cent goal.

The Liberals are again toying with the idea of introducing gender quotas.

I struggle with the idea of quotas. It just seems to smack of promoting women based on their gender ahead of their merits, and that feels patronising.

But clearly, doing nothing isn’t moving the issue along either. So what do we do?

Some party heavyweights, including MP Sussan Ley, are backing quotas, while others have advocated the introduction of other measures, including national committees tasked with bringing more women into the fold.

Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O’Dwyer has called for a fighting fund to help potential women candidates, while Peta Credlin, who was chief of staff to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, suggested something broadly similar.

Is it just me, or does this seem like tinkering at the wrong end of the problem?

Has anyone actually gone out into communities and asked female business and community leaders why they aren’t joining the Liberal Party or putting up their hands to run for Parliament?

What is it about the Liberal Party that could be making women say “thanks but no thanks”?

Julia Gillard, our first female prime minister, once famously used a line about “a man in a blue tie” in describing multiple Liberal ministers.

At the time, there was a lot of hyperbole from both sides about gender, misogyny and females in Parliament, but that comment probably stung because of the truth in it.

There simply are a lot more blokes than women on the Conservative benches.

In the wake of the leadership spill that deposed Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal Ann Sudmalis announced she would go at the next election, and cited bullying by senior male Liberals.

Senator Lucy Gichuhi and MP Julia Banks have also spoken about being bullied.

I cannot help but wonder whether any male MPs felt they had been similarly under attack during the tense lead-up to the turfing of Mr Turnbull in favour of Scott Morrison.

Perhaps this is wider than a gender problem?

Politics is a rough game. Watch even an hour of Question Time and you’ll be either highly amused or outright disgusted. There is more than a lack of respect towards women. There is an appalling lack of respect generally.

Ms Gillard, who was commended for her misogyny speech, also once referred to Liberal Christopher Pyne as a “mincing poodle”.

Yet the juvenile taunts flung around the chamber or repeated in quotes to the media are probably the tip of a tacky iceberg.

How often do we hear about branch stacking, lobbyists, factions and favours? 

Each incident in isolation may not seem to matter, but with every little jibe and every report of political payback, the image of our elected representatives is tarnished a little.

Perhaps if the current crew of MPs – right across the political spectrum – behaved better, then more people would consider a political career.

It’s a bit of a Field of Dreams thing. Not so much, build it and they will come, as behave better and others will want to join your party.

How many people – men and women – have looked at the appalling carry-on from some politicians and simply thought, “sod that for a game of soldiers”?

It’s been a long time since politics in this country appeared more about advancing Australia and less about politicians jockeying for favourable grabs in the media.

If the Liberals or any other party want to attract top candidates, and not just the factional-approved former party apparatchik, they need to do more than implement quotas. Women – and men – would be a lot more inclined to join a group that didn’t look like a gathering of favoured insiders.