The Labor Party’s Victorian branch has increased the proportion of ALP women it sent north to Canberra by 5 percentage points at the federal election — but only because there were fewer men (and fewer Labor MPs in general).

An internal affirmative action election postmortem presented at last week’s meeting of the party’s powerful administrative committee shows that seven of 19 Victorian federal Labor MPs are women in the current reporting year (37%), compared with seven of 22 in the previous year (32%).

EMILY’s List women made gains at the expense of ALP men in Hotham (Clare O’Neil) and Bendigo (Lisa Chesters), while the male-held Corangamite and Deakin and Laura Smyth’s seat of La Trobe went to the Liberals. Tim Watts picked up Gellibrand after Nicola Roxon resigned.

Labor’s national affirmative action rule mandates that 40% of all preselections in winnable federal and state seats should be won by women, 40% by men and 20% by either gender. Out of the 20 winnable federal lower house seats in Victoria, eight were contested by women, right on the 40% knocker (and it could well have slipped to 35% had O’Neil not replaced Geoff Lake in Hotham at the last minute).

The private summary also contains gender divisions for upper and lower houses of State Parliament (31% and 44% respectively), state and federal conference delegates (44% and 42%) and the admin committee itself (40%). On Spring Street, women make up 24 of 59 state ALP caucus members, or 41%.

But based on current national numbers, Victorian Labor is still dragging the chain. A fresh gender breakdown of all 822 state and federal members across all parties and parliaments published last week by the federal Parliamentary Library’s Politics and Public Administration Group shows that of 277 Labor MPs, 116, or 42%, are women. This represents a massive 21-percentage-point lead over the across the combined Liberal, National, Liberal National and Country Liberal parties, where just 21%, or 101, of 474 MPs around the nation aren’t men.

In the 86-member Labor caucus that will serve up to July 1 next year, there are 36 women, representing 42% of the total. After July 1, depending on the recount in Western Australia, Labor women will comprise either 34 of 81 caucus members (42%) or 33 of 80 caucus members (41%). The current Senate is ground zero for equality, with women making up over half (53%) of Labor MPs. Labor’s shadow cabinet comprises five women, with a further six in the outer ministry, for a total of 11 out of 30 federal Labor frontbenchers (37%).

The numbers are streets ahead of the ruling Coalition, where in the 123-member joint party room there are just 26 women, or 21% of the total. After July 1 that will fall to 25 when Sue Boyce and Helen Kroger step aside, counterbalanced by Linda Reynolds’ election, presuming the Coalition is able to retain three WA Senate seats. And that’s before considering the 19-member cabinet, where there’s only Julie Bishop (there are four women in the outer ministry and one female parliamentary secretary).

Neither the Liberal nor National parties possess an affirmative action requirement, with most MPs believing that such a rule would encourage sexism, rather than remedy it.

Overall, 29% of all Australian MPs are women. Of the minor parties, the Greens are a beacon of equality, with 13 of their 29 state and federal MPs (45%) boasting two X chromosomes.

An addendum to the Parliamentary Library’s report shows that the number of federal women across all 150 House of Representatives seats increased by two at the election, from 37 to 39.

EMILY’s List co-convener Tanja Kovac told Crikey there was “significant room for improvement at the federal  level … but at the state level we’re pretty happy with what’s going on in the lower house. And importantly, three-quarters of women are Emily’s List members.

“But this doesn’t change the fact that this is an after-the-fact report that is required to be delivered to the national executive to track the preselected AA target, not the achievement of the target to which it relates. In order to change results like the state upper house outcome of about four to one, you have to make sure the target is actually being achieved prior to the election.”

Kovac said EMILY’s List calculated that for Labor to win government, it would need 20 Victorian seats to go the party’s way: “we applied our definition of what we considered was winnable, and in those seats, women held eight of them. The AA stats for Vic were between 40%, right on target.”

“The data varies, of course, depending on what is considered winnable. There is no standard definition of what is considered ‘winnable’ at any one election, nor which seats to take into account. If, for example, we included Melbourne in what was winnable, our stats changed if we didn’t include it.

“We were very concerned, following a number of resignations, that unequivocally winnable, safe Labor seats such as Scullin, Gellibrand, Lalor, Hotham and Batman would all go to men. Gellibrand going to Tim Watts caused AA to slide. Had Geoff Lake not been replaced with Clare O’Neil, we would have fallen below the AA target — 35%. That’s how tight things are for women’s representation — every seat counts!”

A sub-committee of state admin is currently mulling the topic of upper house preselections for the Victorian state election in November 2014 and will decide whether the national executive will again intervene to pick candidates, presenting a potential opening for progressive women.

A senior Victorian ALP source told Crikey it was while it was encouraging that the number of women in the House of Representatives had increased, it was now time for the party to consider the tension between rank-and-file ballots and quotas. During preselections for the 2013 federal poll, there was vigorous debate over Batman, where ex-senator David Feeney won out over Left-backed candidate Mary-Anne Thomas. Thomas’ high-profile federal supporters, including Jenny Macklin and Penny Wong, both cited the affirmative action policy in their endorsements. But Feeney won preselection with significant grassroots support.

“You can’t have local branches having a say and in the same breath say you’re going to shoot or execute sitting members … so there’s this in-built tension and it’s going to take some time to get there,” the source said.

Peter Fray

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