Labor is struggling to abide by its self-imposed affirmative action policy, which aims to preselect women as candidates for a minimum of 40% of “winnable” seats.

The policy states the intention of the affirmative action rule is to “produce an outcome where not less than 40 percent of seats held by Labor will be filled by women, and not less than 40 percent by men”.

Federal Finance Minister Penny Wong has called for a woman to be preselected for former frontbencher Martin Ferguson’s prized Melbourne seat of Batman. Held with a margin of 24.8%, Batman is the safest seat in the country.

Labor Senator and powerbroker David Feeney has announced he will seek preselection, further angering some female Labor figures after the candidacy for former health minister Nicola Roxon’s safe seat of Gellibrand went to Tim Watts. Watts won preselection amid rumours of a s-xist smear campaign against Roxon’s ex-staffer and preferred successor, Katie Hall.

Wong voiced her support for a female candidate for Batman, tweeting:

“Strong women are key to the modern Labor Party. I urge local ALP members to consider supporting a woman for the seat of Batman.”

Disability Reform Minister Jenny Macklin also backed a female candidate:

“If a woman is not preselected for Batman, the ALP in Victoria will have only 27 per cent of candidates in held seats who are women. This is well short of the 40% required by the National Rules.”

So will Labor run the risk of breaking its own rules on women in Parliament if the party opts for Feeney in Batman? Tanja Kovac, national co-convenor of Emily’s List Australia, a Labor-backed organisation that aims to elect more women to Parliament, told Crikey she “strongly encouraged” the preselection of a female candidate.

Current rules would require a spill of all Labor-held seats if the quota isn’t met. This would include the Prime Minister’s Melbourne seat of Lalor.

If Labor were to win all the seats it hopes to and retain government, the number of federal female Labor MPs would be just shy of the 40% minimum, at “around 39%”, says Kovac. But that seems highly unlikely.

Kovac says there is a massive variance in the application of the 40% female quota across the country. Of the “traditionally old-guard safe Labor” seats, around 20% go to women and 80% go to men. In NSW the administrative committee can install its preferred candidate in important preselections under the N40 rule, which was ironically first implemented as a means to meet the affirmative action quota.

She says Labor’s poor standing in the polls has caused “ambitious men” to avoid seeking preselection for marginal seats, leaving a vacancy for more women to apply.

Despite more women taking on the candidacy for marginal seats, more are needed “in safe Labor seats, too,” Kovac told Crikey.

Local branch member Mary-Anne Thomas has announced her intention to seek preselection for Batman, and former Emily’s List national co-convenor Hutch Hussein has withdrawn from the race to increase the chances of another female winning.

The Greens do better than Labor in electing female MPs, with women accounting for five of the eight current Greens senators. The party states in its official charter that it will “provide affirmative action to eliminate discrimination based on gender”.

However, Labor still remains ahead of the Liberal Party when it comes to affirmative action. Shadow parliamentary secretary for the status of women Senator Michaelia Cash told Crikey the Liberals had no affirmative action policy in place.

The Liberal Party believes pre-selection “should recognise merit and excellence rather than be based on some unilateral quota,” said Cash. “Affirmative action] could be intended or interpreted to placate women rather than promote excellence and advance the cause of Australian women.”

Of the 150 current members of the House of Representatives only 37 are women. Of these, 23 belong to the ALP, 13 to the Liberals and a single member of the Country Liberal Party.

We may have a female Prime Minister, but politics remains a boys’ club.

Peter Fray

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