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Oct 23, 2012

Where are the women in the Liberal Party?

As the Coalition mounts a rearguard assault on sexism, should the smaller proportion of conservative women in power raise alarm bells? Political watcher Stephen Luntz reports.


While people more qualified than I (women for a start) continue to debate whether uncharitable descriptions of female genitalia are more or less serious evidence of misogyny than attempting to limit access to abortion, I’m rather surprised no one has looked at a more objective test of sexism. A comparison of the proportion of women in parliamentary positions strikes me as enlightening, to say the least.

There are just two women in the 20-member shadow cabinet: Julie Bishop and Sophie Mirabella. The cabinet has five women. This is just the start of a pattern where women make up a smaller proportion of positions of power on the Liberal side than among their opponents.

Among the shadow ministry the proportion of women rises — to 18%. There are three female shadow parliamentary secretaries, but 11 men. Most of the criticism of Abbott has focussed on the way he behaves to women on the other side of politics, or those who find themselves unwillingly pregnant. However, Peta Credlin notwithstanding, the low proportions raise questions about whether he likes to surround himself with strong women. Two men, but no women, were promoted when Cory Bernardi pushed the limits too far.

However, it may be that Abbott is just playing the cards he has been dealt given the number of women in Liberal and National parliamentary ranks. Women make up 21% of Coalition parliamentarians — a higher proportion than those Abbott has chosen to promote, but not much. On the other hand, 42% of Labor federal reps are women, and 60% of Greens.

The number of women in Parliament has risen quite dramatically over the past few decades, so it might be expected that the Liberal women are younger, and therefore less likely to hold shadow ministries. However, it turns out this is not the case. There is only one Liberal (and no National) federal parliamentarian under the age of 40. There are four more women in the Coalition ranks between 40 and 45, but among under-45s, women are still just 24%. In contrast the three youngest Labor federal parliamentarians, and two youngest Greens, are all women.

So it would appear that any problem with women belongs at least as much to the entire Coalition machine as it does to Abbott. The numbers would not differ much if Malcolm Turnbull was leader.

Nor is it just a federal issue. In fact, 21% of Coalition state and federal MPs are women as well, ranging from just 16% in Queensland to a high of 37% in the Northern Territory. In almost every state parliament Labor has a higher proportion and the figure for the Greens was exactly 50% before the ACT election. The fact there have been five female premiers and four chief ministers, all but one of whom were Labor, also speaks to a difference between the parties. If the push against Isobel Redmond succeeds it could be a long time before a conservative woman leads a state.

These figures should be particularly worrying for the conservative feminists (now that the term has apparently been rehabilitated) because it is quite common for the proportion of women to rise temporarily after landslides, since women usually make up a larger proportion of candidates in long-shot seats. The figures for Queensland and New South Wales could fall as the narrower winners drop off.

Nor is this a situation that will necessarily sort itself out with the fullness of time. It’s not a huge sample, but it is interesting that the Young Liberals website lists just one woman on their 14-member executive. The Australian Liberal Student Federation has one out of six (both last on the website if that means anything).

The really interesting question is whether women are not putting themselves forward for pre-selection in winnable seats, or if party sexism is stopping them winning: William Bowe has been keeping records at Poll Bludger of the candidates in preselections around the country. I’ll confess I have not done a systematic survey of these, but have been struck by how often on the conservative side there were no women candidates at all. (Four women did come forward when Mary Jo Fisher resigned from the Senate — so it’s possible there are plenty who want to run, but think they won’t have a chance except in cases like this one, where the only woman in South Australia’s federal Liberal delegation was being replaced.)

I wouldn’t say this is proof of a misogynistic culture in the party, but it raises questions that deserve to be answered. How well can a party with so few women in Parliament represent the majority of Australians? Why are these numbers so low, and more significantly, why does the Liberal Party seem so untroubled by them?

*Stephen Luntz works as an electoral analyst for the Victorian Greens



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22 thoughts on “Where are the women in the Liberal Party?

  1. drmick

    Tony has binders full of women, that, when paid enough, will come out and say what he wants them to say. The party room is the same. When women have finished making the sandwiches, they can sit there quietly and clean up afterwards.

  2. Laura

    Happy to see someone asking this question–I have been asking it for some time. On the one hand, I feel it’s possible the Liberal party may not represent ‘what women want’ as well as Labor…but it seems that, as an ’employer’, the party may not be as welcoming a place to be–unless, as suggested in the article, it is to fill a seat previously held by a woman. I agree this is troubling in terms of whether the Liberal party is able to fully represent Australia…or whether it reflects something more insidious, such as woman knowing their place.

  3. klewso

    With such depths of talent as Mirrabella, the Bishops, O’Dwyer (even Vanstone was being allowed to rewrite history on Q&A last night) how many more do you want?

  4. David Fyfe

    The women that surround Abbott in his Party have been trained with a couple of exceptions, as his attack dogs. They are a snarling, teeth bared, talons extended trained unit. They go into battle with prepared strategy, never deviate from it and like all foot soldiers are the first dispensable casualties in an assault on the enemy.That description also applies to certain male Tory MP’s

  5. Hamis Hill

    How did the Menzies Liberals go on balanced numbers?
    There was one outstanding lady called the “Iron Butterfly”.
    But then Howard started fawning after the support of a woman-fearing (hatin?) minority, religious community as written up in Menzies Child by Gerard Henderson.
    Notice how it takes a member of The Greens to state the bleeding obvious.
    Not that watermelon principle of economic and social justice in operation again?
    A wrecking ball principle if ever there was one!
    Equality for women, where’s the justice in that?

  6. Simon

    er… whut? I think you’ve got the wrong end of a casual argument. If we’re talking about representation of women let’s jump to the conclusions after we’ve taken this apart properly.

    What proportion of the Liberal Party membership are women? I don’t think even an estimate has been provided here. The only way to determine if women are represented appropriately is to look at the membership base. Maybe what we’re seeing is entirely representative of the Liberals.

    If the Libs tend to attract male members more than female members and the proportions are in line with the number of women in official positions, then arguments of misogyny are a little bit of a stretch.

  7. godotcab

    And how have women in the Liberal Party responded to Gillard’s speech?

    I haven’t seen even one of them respond with any intellectual honesty to the coherent argument that Gillard delivered. All I’ve heard from them is spin and weasel words.

    Even Amanda Vanstone failed. And she doesn’t have to stick tight to the party nowadays. What’s stopping her from facing the fact, proven in Gillard’s speech, that Tony Abbott is not suitable to lead a major party in Australia.

  8. Norman Hanscombe

    When NSW Labor decided to give a loading in votes for female candidates, a lone male argued that if we genuinely wanted to give women more influence in the ALP, we’d give the loading to women voters to enable them to have a greater influence in making decisions.
    This seemed better than enabling male dominated levels of the Party to decide WHICH females would be chosen by men, and consequently make any candidates fortunate enough to have been chosen by male powerbrokers more likely to be grateful to and/or dependent upon the powerbrokers.
    State President John Ducker told Conference this had been considered and found inappropriate, although we were never told WHY it was inappropriate.
    Can anyone make a good guess WHY the male powerbrokers mightn’t want it?

  9. drmick

    We are talking about 51% of the population in a democracy. Well thats the statistical truth. Now make me a sandwhich and scare the kiddies when they pan the front row Julie, Sophie and the Abbots Bishop pawn

  10. jmendelssohn

    Simon might be right about the Liberal Party being dominated by a male membership, but in the days of Menzies it had a large and significant group of women members – hardly a presence in Parliament, but certainly active in the branches.
    Menzies himself was inclined to listen to women’s voices. I keep on imagining how he would have reacted to Abbott, I doubt there would be any significant common ground.

  11. drmick

    Yeah Simon. Like club membership that excludes women, then incorporates “tokens”,to look like it may have made the great leap from the stone age. Well even their tokens are past their use by date regardless of the sex of their membership; and their tokenism is being seen for what it is. BS

  12. beachcomber

    “Where are the women in the Liberal Party?” In the kitchen where they belong.

    Even worse, Julie Bishop only got the Deputy spot under Malcolm to balance Julia Gillard as deputy to Kevin. And with Sophie the only alternative she remains there, very much a token. Women don’t fare much better in the States either.

    The conservative parties deride affirmative action, saying in their parties women get promoted on their merit. In the Liberal (and National) Party, either the women don’t have merit, or merit alone does not work.

  13. Hamis Hill

    So how come The Greens don’t seem to have a problem with high levels of female representation?
    This, in a matter of fairness or justice, seems to be a deliberate move on the part of male Greens to recognise and redress an historical imbalance.
    Not to forget the Liberal sourced Democrats who have a similar record to The Greens.
    Were they, The Australian Democrats driven out of the then Menzies Liberal party by the likes of Abbott and Howard?
    The branch stacking of the Liberals at the time, by unpunished eastern European Na Tzi war criminals happened about the time that the Menzies Liberal women disappeared from the party.

  14. Gerry Hatrick, OAP

    [continue to debate whether uncharitable descriptions of female genitalia are more or less serious evidence of misogyny than attempting to limit access to abortion]

    So, which party was arguing which line again? And which party can’t find women to take up leadership roles?
    Oh. Continue On.

  15. Malcolm Street

    It’s looking like we’re heading down the US road of a marked sexual differentiation in party support. Over there it’s women who are more likely to support the Democrats, while the Republicans are running vicious anti-women agendas.

  16. pj russell

    Good article. Temperament is part of the complexity of this issue. This might interest you: http://blog.keirsey.com/2012/04/10/the-temperament-gap-guardians-idealists-artisans-rationals-and-politics/

  17. Dan Cass

    Excellent piece, Stephen.

    You probably already know this, but the Coalition is better balanced than its climate denialist ‘think tank’, the IPA.

    Only 23% or 6 of the IPA’s 26 staff are women.

    But when you exclude the junior staff, the proportion falls to a more representative 7%, or 1 out of the IPA’s 13 senior staff.

    The IPA’s board has 1 woman out of a total of 14.

    This might not be due to misogyny, I hasten to add. It might be because of all the freedom at the IPA.

  18. Earth Waratah

    Women in the ALP have a history of failing at their jobs as they have been put there because they are women. The Liberal and National Parties have women who got their on skill. Those women who demand more women in the jobs because they are women, obviously have no belief that they are good enough to succeed on their own hard work.

  19. Stephen Luntz

    Simon, I’d love to get stats on the proportion of women members in the Liberal and National Parties, but have never seen any. Somehow I doubt they would hand them over if I asked.

    Earth Waratah, you may consider that women in the ALP have a history of failing in their jobs, but I’m not sure the failure rate is actually higher than for me. I can’t think of a Labor woman who has brought them trouble of the Craig Thompson sort, for example.

    In the absence of evidence otherwise I’ll start with the hypothesis that women have half the talent in the country and amongst the supporters of all substantial parties, and should make up roughly half the leadership.

  20. Mark Duffett

    I wonder if a bit of historical perspective is in order here. My memory is it’s not that long ago that the Libs were trumpeting how they had more female MPs than Labor, in spite of the latter’s affirmative action policies.

  21. Malcolm Street

    Earth Warratah – examples of ALP women failing pls?

  22. Candice Burch

    This article completely fails to mention that female Liberal parliamentarians are pre-selected entirely on MERIT, as opposed to quota systems. All claims of sexism from the Labor party will continue to be hypocritical until they remove party ‘quotas’ – it doesn’t get much more sexist than that.


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