With politics a fervent passion in my teens, I fanastised about becoming a politician undeterred by few females in the ranks. Perhaps ignorantly and naively, gender did not seem particularly relevant; what was significant was whether I could toe the party line and compromise my ideas and beliefs if the party demanded it. Deciding that being a political journalist was more appropriate and apposite for my individual independence, after three months covering the Victorian State parliament as a junior reporter at 19, I abandoned politics altogether, at least in the short term. It was 1969, with just one woman, Liberal MP Dorothy Goble, in parliament, with no recollection of her whatsoever. Gender then became significant as why were there so few women politicians, virtually just one. Federally, it wasn’t much different, with the House of Representatives having female members continuously only since 1980. The Senate has had the odd woman continuously since 1943. Between 1966-69, there was just one woman member in the HOR, a Liberal from SA, and certainly parliamentary proceedings and media perspectives were dominated my men. The first female Cabinet minister was not appointed until 1975 by PM Malcolm Fraser, another Liberal, Margaret Guilfoyle, who became Minister for Education. In 1980, there were just three women in parliament, six in 1983 and 13 in 1993. In 2016, after the last election, there were 43 women in the HOR out of 150 seats, accounting for 28.7 per cent of members. The numbers are less than impressive.
So why the gender disparity? Over the past few months, there has been a plethora of media articles and commentary about not just the gender imbalance in parliament but the bullying engendered against female politicians and one only has to recall the vitriol and enmity consistently directed at the former female PM, Julia Gillard, to realise bullying is not a new phenomenon. While the exposure of bullying against female politicians may be recent, the nature of politics as I’ve always understood it is that bullying is part of parliamentary behaviour, albeit manifested by men against males since I reported state parliament nearly fifty years ago. The fact that some women politicians are now voicing their anger about the abuse and acrimony reflects more about their expectations and comprehension about politics rather than shedding light on anything gender specific. Why are they so disturbed about the bullying? Were these women, including the former Foreign Minister, Julia Bishop, so naïve and innocent about the nature of politics? Did they think that as women they would be accorded more respect than the men have traditionally evinced towards each other? Clearly, I cannot answer that question with any knowledge but from perusing media articles it seems they did expect different treatment for no other reason than that they were women.
Yet, at this time, respect, admiration and trust in politicians, gender irrelevant, is very low in this country and it remains curious as to why women would expect they would be impervious to that and avoid abusive behaviour. Do they believe they are intrinsically better behaved, more moral and upstanding, even more honourable, than men? Are they using their gender as some sort of excuse, even justification, for personal frailties, faults and fallacies? Loathe to generalise about gender at all, it does seem that some female politicians, and women commentators, do regard themselves differently to men and it’s that difference that I find difficult to appreciate, let alone accept. It was the argument advanced by Hillary Clinton on losing the presidential vote as if she would have achieved so much for women if she had succeeded and behaved differently to a male. A similar belief theorises that having more women in parliament will by itself change the nature of political relationships and that the gender imbalance is indicative of unequal representation in our parliament. In The Weekend Australian Dec 29-30, 2018, there was an article by Peter van Onselen, Professor of Politics at the University of WA and Griffith University, arguing that the Liberals must introduce quotas which “should be seen through the prism of encouraging more women to engage, to get involved, to seek parliamentary office.” But I ponder whether quotas will actually engender this outcome and why, without them, women do not seek parliamentary office. The implication of this argument is that without quotas it is assumed women are not inspired to seek parliamentary office making me reflect on why not. Is it because of the bullying, the hard slog and the long, family unfriendly hours or is it that they think they will not be accorded a “fair go” in the preselection process because of their gender? Do they consciously or unconsciously believe male bias will deny them candidacy and/or be responsible for failure at the ballot box? Obviously, I do not know the answers to these questions and given some women have sought office and succeeded without quotas another question arises as to the criteria for their success? Were these women so exceptional and so extraordinary they transcended male bias or did they simply enjoy great self-belief, confidence, self-respect and self-empowerment to put themselves forward nonetheless?
On what basis did these women succeed and moreover, maintain their integrity and political principles in the fracas of parliament? I actually believe that those women, be they Liberal, Labor or The Greens, were so strongly self-directed and motivated they made quotas irrelevant. I do not believe quotas are the “fix” some adhere to for increasing female representation, not because of tokenism, a possible lack of merit, sexism or discrimination, but because if a woman does not entertain a strong sense of self, albeit with a genuine political inclination, introducing quotas won’t intrinsically equip her to withstand the rough and tumble of politics. Many men have fallen on the wayside too. Indeed, in a letter to The Australian on December 31 commenting on the Weekend Australian article, Julie Baker, of Queensland opined that “The problem (in the Liberal Party) is not bias, but simply that many more men choose to seek preselection because of the long working hours and time away from home. Politics is not a family-friendly vocation.” She continues that quotas would lead to “unjust results, and there is no inherent virtue with having a 50-50 balance…anymore than there is in any other profession or occupation….It does not matter in the slightest (if the best qualified person) is a man or a woman.” As a woman, a female candidate would make no difference to Julie and in The Australian on January 3, 2019, the paper published other letters referring to women politicians, including one I wrote (see Letters to Editor) whereby most agreed gender was irrelevant in having the best person for the position. How representative of the female and male voting population these letters are I do not know but certainly for some women and men, gender is irrelevant as it is for me.
One of the interesting aspects of the weekend article was that apparently traditionally, more women voted Liberal than Labor but that is now no longer the case so as I wrote in my letter to The Australian, maybe now Labor represents women’s aspirations and ambitions more than the Libs irrespective of quotas and seeking office. Maybe the Libs are just unaware of how more women want a party who best represents their interests and the gender of candidates is not the issue as Julie wrote. Maybe too women are now better educated and more knowledgeable about politics and can make more informed choices at the ballot box.
There is another issue and that is how comfortable and confident women feel in positions of power such as in parliament. I do believe many females, particularly younger women, lack a strong sense of self-belief as evidenced not just in the small numbers seeking office but across many professions that are male-dominated such as surgery and more generally, STEM areas. Many women working in those fields have articulated how young females need to be actively encouraged to pursue careers in these areas and I can only ponder that working and competing with men and against men is not what they want to do. A lack of confidence seems paramount as I’ve detailed before in other blogs. It is not essentially about male bias but females’ own reluctance and wariness of stepping into an overwhelmingly male domain. Parliament is just one area where for some having more women is an issue but as Julie wrote, why should it matter?
As much as I hope more women seek office, I do not believe their presence in greater numbers will impact the nature of politics or change political relationships. It may be cynical to regard politics as a nasty business with bullying innate to the culture, but politics has been conducted in this way not just recently, but for centuries. For reasons I believe delusional and fallacious, some seem to think women are essentially different and will therefore enhance the political process but I’m not one of them. History records not just hostility and hate of political opponents, but assassinations, corruption, bribery and fraud pervading many countries’ politics, gender irrelevant. Just last nite on SBS News was an item about the female PM of Bangladesh who it is claimed is involved in corruption and fraud. Moreover, Theresa May lost the support of her Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, over Brexit and many Tory members have called for her removal as PM although she survived a no-confidence motion in the House of Commons. Gender is not relevant in the business of politics.
It is certainly true that women are demanding more influence in how policies are formulated and want to be heard more clearly and more powerfully than in years past, but whether that translates into achieving a 50-50 gender balance in parliament is a moot question. Moreover, whether it will advantage women outside parliament also remains to be seen but it is a decided positive that women are less of a “silent elite” than they were even 40 years ago. Female politicians are on the rise and as young women become more confident, better educated and more resilient, this can only benefit this country, whatever party is in government.
Indeed, one male Victorian Young Liberal, Sali Miftari, penned an opinion piece in The Age on December 31, 2018, in which he detailed that after losing the 2005 UK general election, the newly elected Tory party leader, David Cameron, drew up an “A-list” of male and female candidates who were rigorously trained to run in and win preselection contests. Five years later, Cameron won the election with many of those successful women going on to hold senior ministerial roles. Maybe the Liberal Party needs to introduce training programs to educate and inform women about the political process to facilitate their knowledge, confidence and acumen in seeking parliamentary office. It seems like a good idea more generally for all parties notwithstanding it assumes women actually do want to become politicians. This is particularly pertinent for the Liberal Party as according to a new story in The Age on January 4, 2019, the party “is on track to take the smallest number of female candidates to a general election this century as it struggles to preselect women in seats it holds and those it needs to win to stay in power.” The article outlined that some of the few female party members denied suggestions the party has a “women’s problem” but a breakdown of its candidate list shows only 21 Liberal women will vie for HOR seats in the election due in May compared to 102 confirmed male candidates. As I have written, do the women not want to seek office and/or why is there such a gender disparity?
It could be that having more female MPs in parliament will enhance policies for women but are their needs, aspirations and lifestyles so different to men? Is there a gender disparity in how women’s ambitions and hopes can be, should be, addressed? Maybe I’ll just wait and see if we have another female PM in my lifetime to affirm that gender does not matter, indeed should not matter, in politics.