The Labor Party seems to prefer prescription as the way to get more women into Parliament. The Coalition has preferred pre-selection on merit and through that the natural increase in the number of women entering Parliament.
It is important that more women get into Parliament, if the Parliament is to be truly representative of society. So, too, should it have more indigenous people and more people from non-English-speaking backgrounds. However, such ends should not be ends in themselves and much care should be taken about how those ends are achieved.
At the weekend, senior figures in the NSW Labor Party put forward some very tough affirmative action proposals to get more Labor women candidates in winnable seats. Labor has a target by this year of have women as candidates in at least 35 per of winnable seats. That target was set by the party’s national conference. At present women make up just 22 per cent of Labor’s NSW Lower House members. Federally, the target has been met, with 35 per cent of Labor Lower House members being women.
The general secretary of the NSW ALP, Eric Roozendaal, has said the party expects more women in the NSW Parliament and to get it, it might designate some seats as “”women only” and increase the loading it gives women at pre-selections.
These are extraordinary measures. They defy several important principles in a democracy.
Political parties should choose candidates on merit in a open process open to all qualified members. There should not be a special loading for different classes of people or the exclusion of males from standing for some seats. As well as being offensive in principle, these proposals might back-fire in practice. Some voters in electorates designated women-only might feel offended or cheated and vote against Labor. Disaffected and excluded males might resort to anti-discrimination laws, causing a public row.
Moreover, women elected in a safe seat that had been designated women-only might be open to the charge of not obtaining the seat on merit.
The end does not justify the means.
That said, the fact remains that many men get pre-selection based on deals and old-boy networks rather than merit. But the answer is to weed out the informal mechanisms that favour men rather than promoting artificial arrangements to favour women.
NSW seems to be a hard case. In Queensland 41 per cent of the caucus are women.
As to whether, prescriptive methods beat the reliance on natural growth, it depends on which jurisdiction you look at, and when you look at them. There was a time federally, when the Liberals had great female representation than Labor, but now women comprise just 23 per cent of Liberal members of the lower house, compared to Labor’s 35 per cent. In the ACT, the Liberals have had a higher proportion of women than Labor after the past two elections.
Overall, women comprise 48 per cent of the Lower House in South Australia, 35 per cent in the ACT, and between 25 per cent and 32 per cent in the other jurisdictions.
Quite quick movements in representation are possible. In the ACT, for example, there were no Labor women Members before the last election now they comprise 25 per cent of the caucus.
It indicates that prescription is not necessary.
A more effective approach might be for more research to be done on the effectiveness and electoral success of women Members of Parliament. At present there is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that women from both parties are turning marginal seats into safer ones. Therein lies a path to overall electoral success.