Weekly column for The New Daily.
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Australian women have had the right to vote and run for parliament for over 100 years. Yet it was not until 1943 that the first woman was actually elected.
Here we are, more than 70 years later, and still only 72 out of 226 members of the Australian Parliament are women – that’s three in ten.
It’s been a long, slow haul, and there’s clearly much more to be done. Women make up half the Australian population and we should also be half the elected politicians.
Why is it important to have more women in parliament? Because without women having a greater say in the making of laws that govern our country, governments will never really tackle the matters that are of greatest concern to women.
Even with the best of intentions, it can be difficult for male politicians to understand many of the issues facing us such as women’s health, the challenge of juggling work and family duties, or the difficulties faced when trying to re-enter the workforce after raising a family.
And then there is the struggle by older women to cope financially as they approach pension age, sometimes even being forced into homelessness. Well-paid male politicians may not even be aware of this issue, let alone be motivated to do something about it.
Domestic violence is a good example of an important issue that has been continually overlooked because men are less likely to experience it than women. And so the money provided by male-dominated governments for legal assistance and women’s shelters has been woefully inadequate.
It’s probably fair to say that if not for the tireless efforts of family violence campaigner Rosie Batty, who faced an unbearable tragedy when her son was killed by his father, we might not have even had the promises made this election of additional funding to support affected women and children.
Another example is the fact that the grand Parliament House building in Canberra, which houses up to 4000 MPs, staff and journalists at any one time, did not have a childcare centre until some female MPs started to have babies and wanted to have their small children nearby. And so the staff bar was converted into a childcare centre in 2008, nearly 20 years after the building was officially opened.
So what are the political parties doing to increase the number of women in parliament?
Malcolm Turnbull declared after he became Prime Minister that no-one was more enthusiastic than him about “seeing more women in positions of power and influence in parliament” and in the ministry. He delivered on that promise by making six women senior ministers, compared to only one appointed by Tony Abbott.
That was an important step by the PM, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that his government’s Liberal and National parties have a disappointingly low number of female MPs, and that this number is likely to get worse after the election.
At least three of the Coalition women who are retiring this year will be replaced by a man, whichever of the major parties win the seat.
One of those women, Sharman Stone, has called for her party to have a quota that would ensure 50 per cent of all Liberal candidates in winnable seats were women. This would increase the number of Liberal women being elected.
So far, Dr Stone’s suggestion has been pooh-poohed by the men in her party, who say that a target of 50 per cent is good enough. The difference between a quota and a target is that a quota can be enforced, while a target is something that would be nice to have.
In contrast, the Labor Party has done much better in getting women elected to parliament, having met its quota of 40 per cent female MPs in the current parliament.
Labor has set a new quota of 50 per cent female MPs by 2025, but it is difficult to accept why the party needs 10 years to raise the number of women in its ranks by from 40 to 50 per cent.
Perhaps this is because many of the unions that have a large say in who is chosen by Labor to run for parliament also have overwhelmingly male union members and are run by men.
That would explain why a number of talented young Labor women were replaced by male union member candidates for this election.
As we have noted before, there may not be enough women in parliament, but that does not mean that women’s voices cannot be heard.
Pay your local MP a visit in the lead up to the election, or give them a call. Ask them what they’re going to do for Australian women if they get your vote. And if they don’t give a satisfactory answer, make contact with their opponent and ask the same question. Your vote counts, so make sure you use it.
Originally at The Australian Women’s Weekly.
Back in the nineteenth century, Australia led the way in giving women the right to vote and stand for parliament.
Yet here we are 114 years later and still only around 30 per cent of politicians in Australia’s parliaments are women.
Political parties say they’re doing everything they can to get to 50-50, but so far only Labor and the Greens have managed to get close. Labor has 45 per cent women MPs in the national parliament, while the Greens have 45.5 per cent. The Coalition parties have 27 per cent, and may have even less following the upcoming election.
This is not just a matter of balancing things up for appearances sake.
Without enough female voices in the nation’s decision-making forums, there is an increased chance that governments will make poor or bad decisions that have a negative impact on women.
That’s because it’s easier for a bunch of men on comfy incomes to cut funding for frontline domestic violence support, women’s health services or child care without thinking through the implications for women, families, the economy or the broader community.
In the absence of there being enough female politicians to stand up against their male-centric colleagues, it’s up to female voters to remind politicians what our half of the population wants from elected representatives when it comes to identifying priorities and allocating government funds.
The power of women voters cannot, and should not, be underestimated. Hell hath no fury like a female voter scorned.
Some politicians are alert to this, and while some have tried to pitch themselves as the supporter of women’s interests, many have failed.
Who could forget Tony Abbott trying to neutralise his “women’s problem” with an expensive, badly-targeted and poorly defended paid parental leave scheme.
And then there was Julia Gillard who, on the same day that she delivered her blistering speech about Abbott’s misogyny, also cut payments to single mothers when their youngest child turns eight.
So it’s hardly surprising a major opinion poll found more women supported Labor after Kevin Rudd replaced Julia Gillard in 2013 federal election, even if he did eventually lose to Tony Abbott.
Opinion polls are now showing the Government first led by Abbott and now Turnbull has lost its lead on the Opposition, with at least one poll suggesting this is because women have shifted their votes from the Coalition to Labor.
This may be in part because of decisions in the federal budget, which we highlighted last week as pretty unsatisfactory for women. But female voters have also gone off the Prime Minister, who failed to deliver on the high voter expectations he encouraged before challenging Tony Abbott for the top job.
Back then, 68 per cent of men and women approved of Turnbull, now that has dropped to 46 per cent for women and 49 per cent for men. The PM’s disapproval rating has increased accordingly.
Even so, despite their disillusionment with PM Turnbull, male voters seem to be sticking with the Government.
Accordingly, the outcome of the federal election rests in the hands of Australian women.
That’s why we’ll be providing you with analysis of the parties’ election policies, in light of their track records to date, and an assessment of what each party has to offer Australian women.
In preparation for election day, which falls on July 2, it’s worth checking to see if you are on the electoral roll and your details are correct. If you’re not yet registered to vote, you can enrol online at the Australian Electoral Commission.
Preference deals serve many agendas. When it comes to the allocation of preferences at Australian elections, no party can claim to have clean hands.
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The Political Weekly: The Government’s budget update was an amateur affair.
The Prime Minister isn’t fooling anyone when he sings Tony Abbott’s praises.
Having given them four weeks to get used to the new Government, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week commenced the delicate task of pushing back against his harshest critics.
Not the Labor Opposition, but conservative MPs within his own party.
Turnbull had gone to some effort when he first became leader to placate the right, not only in the Liberal Party but also in the Nationals. This reportedly included disavowing any move to reintroduce an emissions trading scheme or exchange the plebiscite on same-sex marriage for a parliamentary vote.
Such commitments would have provided some comfort to the right, but also exposed Turnbull to the obvious criticism that nothing about the Government had materially changed.
However, in a series of statements and announcements last week, the Prime Minister finally started to show his progressive hand. In detailing how his regime differed from Abbott’s, Turnbull was testing the limits of hardliners’ opposition to his planned progressive reforms to better understand how far and how quickly he could move the Government to the more competitive political centre.
First the PM referred to his Government’s support for greenhouse-friendly public transport in contrast to the Abbott regime’s narrower focus on fossil fuel-intensive roads.
Then there was the pointed omission of any praise for the harsh Abbott-Hockey economic reforms when Turnbull paid tribute to the departing former Treasurer. This was followed by an announcement that the 2014 budget’s cuts to family tax benefits would be softened to secure Labor support.
These hints of the PM’s determination to put his progressive mark on the Government were joined by an announcement that funding for climate contrarian Bjorn Lomberg’s think tank was no longer available, and a parliamentary statement denouncing continued efforts to water down the Racial Discrimination Act.
Each of these moves can be seen as an attempt by the PM to find the weak spots in Liberal conservatives’ resistance to progressive policies, as well as identifying the points where the right (and their supporters in the tabloid media) are likely to dig in before waging an unedifying war upon their own kind.
Same-sex marriage appears to be once such touch-point, given it was the only issue that provoked squeals of indignation from the right last week when PM Turnbull canvassed the binding nature of a marriage equality plebiscite on the Parliament.
“When the Australian people make their decision, that decision will stick. It will be decisive. It will be respected by this Government and by this Parliament and this nation,” Turnbull said.
Former Liberal Senate Leader, Eric Abetz, hit the airwaves, labelling a proposal to automatically legalise same-sex marriage if the plebiscite was successful as unhelpful and an ambush.
Even before Turnbull had addressed the issue in Parliament, arch-conservative Liberal Concetta Fierravanti-Wells warned the PM to tread carefully on the matter or risk alienating the Liberal Party’s conservative base.
Speaking to the National Press Club in her capacity as the newly-appointed Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Fierravanti-Wells said the party’s “mostly conservative” base was “devastated” by the leadership change, and that she had done her best to talk people into staying “for the good of the Liberal Party that we all serve”.
“A Coalition policy that directly supports same-sex marriage could place under threat some of our most marginal seats which have disproportionately high religious and migrant communities,” she said. The Assistant Minister based this assertion on her own analysis of the religious and cultural makeup of 14 marginal seats across Australia.
However, the most recent opinion poll on the subject suggests 69 per cent of all voters now support same-sex marriage, including 53 per cent of Coalition voters.
These numbers suggest Turnbull could attract more “new” Liberal voters by taking a centrist position on marriage equality, than the number of existing voters he’d lose by doing so.
Having identified same-sex marriage as one of the points on which the right will aggressively push back, Turnbull desperately needs those opinion polls to be accurate.
The Coalition’s conservatives may be prepared to waive their principles on welfare cuts and free speech in the interests of party unity, but it appears they’ve decided to make opposition to same-sex marriage a totemic issue.
Consequently, Turnbull needs to convince the right that opposition to marriage equality stands between them and re-election. Even then, the conservatives may still prefer electoral oblivion to having to concede the issue to their new progressive overlord.