Julie Bishop and Michaelia Cash
Liberal Party MPs Julie Bishop and Michaelia Cash

There’s no other way of putting it: the parliamentary wing of the Liberal Party is haemorrhaging women. And yet like Monty Python’s black knight, it keeps insisting the problem is only a flesh wound.

The Libs went into the election with 23 female MPs out of a hundred: 17 in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate. Four of those in the lower house and one in the upper were defeated on July 2, leaving a paltry 18 women in the Libs’ entire parliamentary wing.

One of the four Liberal women who lost was essentially redistributed out of a job when the new electoral boundaries were established. The others were marginal seat holders, two of which were caught up in the tide that turned against the Coalition government in western Sydney. The fourth, Natasha Griggs, lost due to issues in her home base, the Northern Territory.

Such is the fate of a marginal seat holder. Yet if the Liberal Party were serious about increasing the representation of women in the national Parliament, it would have ensured that female candidates were preselected in safe seats to secure their place in the next Parliament.

This is the true test of the Liberals’ commitment to women: how many of the coveted safe seat sinecures is the male-dominated and largely conservative party willing to hand over to female candidates?

Nine safe Liberal seats became vacant over the past year and in only one did a woman successfully gain preselection. That was Nicolle Flint, who was chosen to run for the Liberal seat of Boothby, which has a healthy margin of 7.12%.

However, seven Liberal seats with much stronger margins went to men: Andrew Robb’s old seat of Goldstein (margin of 11.03%), the late Don Randall’s Canning (11.81%), Dennis Jensen’s Tangney (14.67%), Joe Hockey’s North Sydney (15.89%), Ian Macfarlane’s Groom (16.47%), Bronwyn Bishop’s Mackellar (18.84%) and Phil Ruddock’s Berowra (19.07%).

A man was also chosen for Bruce Billson’s old seat of Dunkley, even though it sported a more modest — but still reasonably safe — margin of 5.57%.

In the upper house, three of the Liberal Party Senate tickets were veritable sausage fests. Not one Liberal woman was placed in a winnable position on the Liberal tickets for Queensland, Victoria or Tasmania. In fact Liberals in the island state — yes, those that placed former minister Eric Abetz in the No. 1 position — did not even bother to put a token woman on the ticket.

As a result, Flint and Julia Banks are the only new female recruits to join Liberal MPs after the election. Banks picked up the marginal Labor seat of Chisholm after the retirement of former Speaker Anna Burke.

Meantime, Labor — which by no means has an unblemished record when it comes to advancing the prospects of its own women — managed to increase its number of female MPs to 28 at this election. That’s just over 40% of Labor MPs in the lower house being women compared with just over 30% of Liberal MPs.

Labor has at least implicitly recognised that men in positions of power, particularly political power, will not voluntarily share that power with women, let alone relinquish it. The party has adopted quotas to overcome this inertia by requiring a minimum number of women to be preselected for winnable seats as well as hold key decision-making roles within the party.

[You might hate gender quotas, but they work]

Mind you, it has taken Labor 22 years since the party first adopted its affirmative action policy to get the proportion of women in parliament to 40%. This perhaps explains the discernibly modest ambition adopted just last year to increase the quota to 45% by 2022 and 50% by 2025.

Given the glacial pace at which even quotas are delivering for Labor, this prescriptive approach doesn’t necessarily bring about cultural change within a party. And it is that fundamental type of change that is needed if more women are to become involved in the political process, let alone put their hand up for elected office.

The example set by political leaders plays a significant role in realigning a party’s culture, which is why relevant actions by Labor leader Bill Shorten and the PM Malcolm Turnbull can only be seen as undermining their stated support for more women MPs.

Shorten refused to intervene in the demotion of talented young frontbencher Lisa Singh when the Tasmanian Labor Party relegated her to an unwinnable position on its Senate ticket. Somewhat ironically, Singh may get back in anyway after running a strong campaign to get below-the-line votes.

However, the Labor leader’s refusal to back the factionally unaligned Singh sends a message to Labor women that affirmative action is less important — to him at least — than factional manoeuvrings.

And even though Malcolm Turnbull claims there are no factions in the Liberal Party, he subliminally sent the same message as Shorten when rearranging the ministerial deckchairs this week.

Admittedly it was always going to be a challenging task for Turnbull to balance the competing interests of Liberals and Nationals as well as conservatives and moderates, but it was nevertheless difficult to ignore that it was the female cabinet ministers — namely Marise Payne, Kelly O’Dwyer and Fiona Nash — who had responsibilities taken from them to reward or placate their male counterparts.

[Turnbull’s new ministry: Nationals, conservatives winners]

Labor’s quota system at least acknowledges the diabolical tension that exists between its affirmative action policy and its faction-based power structure by forcing the factions to increase the number of women in their ranks.

The Liberals have made a start, admitting they risk a complete disconnection with one half of the Australian community if they don’t do something about their “women problem”. But like the black knight they have underestimated the extent of the damage and what is needed to heal it.

Instead of mandating a way forward, the Libs have adopted a voluntary target of 50% by 2025 (which is the same as Labor’s). Given the drop in the number of Liberal women in Parliament after July 2, that task is going to be even more difficult than it was when it was adopted last year.

Also the Liberal Party is a federal body, meaning it will be up to the state divisions to determine how this can be accomplished. According to one report, that approach could include better recruiting, mentoring, training and networking processes, and making sure women who unsuccessfully run for preselection stay connected to the party.

But considering how long it’s taken Labor to get to 40% even with some enforcement mechanisms, the Liberals’ approach appears to lack any way to convince its factional powerbrokers to make room for women candidates in their dealmaking.

The Labor system may not be perfect, and is certainly less ambitious than it should be, but at least it is slowly increasing the number of women in the national Parliament.

If the Liberals don’t work out a way to do so as well, the party’s lack of diversity will place it at even further electoral disadvantage from the increasingly competitive Labor Party.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey