The women and some men pushing for gender quotas in Liberal Party preselection appear to believe that it’s no big deal — as, they also believe, it’s no big deal to start up a discourse about bullying in the party. But acting as if both initiatives can simply be added onto a liberal philosophy, shows how unreflective the party has become about its own beliefs.
There’s nothing contrary to liberalism in the idea that gender quotas should be adopted in an organisation. But it’s a specific type of liberalism — social liberalism — that underpins such a belief, and for decades the home of social liberalism has been in Labor or progressive parties. In the late 1980s, the Liberal Party cleaved decisively to the modern right vision, of free market liberalism, twinned with social-political conservatism, of either a light or dark blue hue.
Within the Liberal Party, that belief has now come into contradiction with the real world, i.e. it doesn’t work. Better quality women candidates have now been reaching preselection panels en masse for two decades, and getting knock-backs so wildly beyond the statistical mean that the realities of structural power now stares them in the face. They’ve faithfully recited the mantra of individual quality, etc etc, until it’s simply degrading to do so.
But because it’s the Liberal Party, there’s no understanding of structural power, no way to talk about it. They skipped all the mandatory legal sociology lectures in their law degree, and they’ve always thought that talk of patriarchy was kinda whinging. So when they meet a process where a genuine commitment to equality is made by many, but the result turns out the same — the abstract process of structural power par excellence — they have no theory “handle” with which to turn it around.
The result is the mess you see now. The party is running a government that suggests that unions that get big wages for their members are illegitimate, that political analysis of Indigenous poverty is making excuses, that poverty is a social issue and solved by having people on benefits bullied, harassed, fleeced, and pushed towards suicide. The Liberal women, it seems, would like to reject structural explanations of power, except in the cases where they don’t have any, at which point they start sounding like the Macquarie Uni Anarcho-Que*r Collective.
So it’s a tough sell, having inner-party gender quotas while people outside fight on. The obvious point is: if quotas are good for the party, why not for the corporate boardroom? For media organisations? And so on. Once you concede the principle that power is structural, often invisible and moves in an abstract fashion, you’ve exposed the ramshackle Thatcher-Reagan-Howard myth of equal opportunity and the sovereign individual as a myth that no one believes in any more.
You’ve also made clear the Liberal Party dilemma: much of its heartland is now social liberal. The old bourgeoisie, with their inherited portfolios and their myths of individual merit, their social conservatism, are yielding now to the broad knowledge-culture class and the professions. The 20- and 30-somethings filling the new apartments going up in inner- and mid-city areas have a lot of interest in a low-tax, property-friendly regime, zero interest in the freak show on the party’s right.
That push for quotas, together with a discourse on bullying, is a measure of the way that side of the Liberal Party is changing — in ways that it will handle poorly. Take bullying. One doesn’t doubt for a minute that intimidation, possibly physicalised, is going on. But some of what is being called bullying is simply business as usual.
Yesterday on RN breakfast, a Liberal woman senator on a panel of three described, as bullying, a party hack threatening any candidate who supported fully legalised abortion with deselection. Well, we call that politics, fighting for your own beliefs and trying to form a party in their image.
If that has come to be regarded as bullying in the Liberal Party, then something epochal has happened: the personal values and ethics of the progressive movement — what one hack once described as the “touchy-feely-greenie-gay” approach — has become that of a whole series of new Liberals. If they believe that, and their answer is quotas, then they are now touching on the outer edge of the Greens.
Maybe if they find bullying so terrible, they should ask how a single mother feels when robocalled about a debt she doesn’t owe.
To be frank, our well of sympathy has more deserving recipients, your party is getting exactly what it deserves, and now is the time for independent high-profile liberals to stand in “social liberal” seats, exchange preferences with the Greens, goddamn use the preferential system as intended, and gut the party like a fish.