Last week the Liberal party federal executive signed off on a 10-year strategy of how it can achieve 50 per cent female representation in parliament by 2025, the result of a 12-month review.
Opposition will run deep and nothing brings this out in the Liberal Party like a preselection battle. In Tasmania, the Liberal Party contest resulted in not a single female candidate getting a winnable spot. There was a highly qualified trade expert but she was selected for an unwinnable spot and chose not to stand.
In South Australia, internal rumblings about women getting an easy run put paid to Senator Anne Ruston's elevation to the top spot. She came in third behind the two factional heavyweights, Birmingham and Bernardi.
Last year I attended a Liberal forum on the topic of increasing female representation. There were strong overtures made there by a new breed of conservative politicians who reject the mantra that 'the liberal party believes in all candidates being chosen on merit.' Among them were federal MP Angus Taylor and Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman –- they, like many Liberals, can see there is a lot of merit but not a lot of choosing.
Leading the women's representation push, WA Senator Linda Reynolds even enlisted her old boss, the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshall Mark Binskin to encourage Liberals to see that if the ADF promotes women to command combat positions, surely a bunch of safe-seat preselectors can have a go at electing some women.
The problem is the Liberal party will find it hard to enforce any target without it being seen as a quota, because quotas to most Liberals are about as filthy a concept as throwing the Maritime Union off the docks is to Labor.
The review found institutional bias plays a part in women not being preselected for winnable seats. Former prime minister John Howard highlighted this last week, when he asserted that women are less successful in establishing parliamentary careers due to 'caring' responsibilities like raising children. But there is also the Liberal Party's biggest back-handed compliment to educated, talented women: tagging them as 'great marginal seat campaigners', yet who lose out when it comes to safer seats that traditionally are bases for potential ministers.
When a marginal seat comes up – it is inevitably one such woman who gets the call. This is because often they are tireless workers in their community, are well-known in the electorate and, in many cases, have previously yet unsuccessfully contested preselection for safer seats and have become known in the party. Women, however, are also less likely to be factional warlords, so safe seats don't come their way as 'rewards' for their party games.
Marginal seat women can and do lose their seat after a term or two, and the pipeline of female talent freezes. As a result, there are fewer experienced women to choose from when forming a ministry. Worse, those who keep winning on slim margins outfox themselves because it's in the party's interest to keep them working a seat that is going to be hard to hold, rather than being weighed down by ministerial responsibilities and the related travel that takes them away from home.
This last election, the Liberals lost a number of talented women to the marginal seat curse. Fiona Scott in Lindsay (one term), Karen McNamara in Dobell (one), Natasha Griggs in Solomon (two), Louise Markus in Macquarie following a boundary change that made it very difficult (three terms) and, on a knife edge yet retained, Lucy Wicks in Robertson and Sarah Henderson in Corangamite. Both women narrowly winning the opportunity of a second term with margins still under four per cent makes her vulnerable to the theory.
Waiting in the wings, however, is a large cohort of female political operatives who have spent years as Chiefs of Staffs, Senior Advisers and Press Secretaries who would be very capable politicians – building this cohort is something the Liberal party has done well.
Sadly, the reality is they are unlikely to translate into being preselected and elected - giving decades of your life to the political party system, achieving career nirvana, earning multiple degrees and having a gruelling travel schedule means it is rare among them to have a family, certainly rarer still to have children and they haven't had the opportunity to build a grass roots presence in their communities. Everything runs against them as a traditional 'electable candidate.'
So, the party loses a great deal of corporate knowledge and political talent on both fronts.
The prejudices of an ageing membership base – the preselection delegates – is also an inhibiting factor. While I've talked to some very feisty octogenarian women actively pushing for change, there are a few older blokes and ladies who don't quite warm to the idea that a mum should run off to Canberra for half the year. These views are often exacerbated in safe, conservative rural seats, further reducing women's chances.
As someone who's sat in preselections for over half my life, I have seen women quizzed about their fertility plans if of child bearing age and, if mothers, expected to tell a room full of preselectors how they will continue to parent their children while doing their job.
It's unfair to suggest the participation rates of women in the Liberal Party are not representative of issues in the wider workforce. It's also unfair to say the party doesn't support women or diverse candidates. It does. But it is fair to say change, however achieved, is long overdue and the strategy welcomed.
Kristy McSweeney is a Communications, Branding and Political Strategist. She has been part of the Federal Liberal election media strategy team for over ten years. She is a former adviser to multiple Liberal Cabinet Ministers and Premiers.Suggest a correction