Liberal party women
Outgoing Liberal member for Stirling Michael Keenan (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Four women and one man walk into a Liberal Party preselection.

If that sounds like the set-up to a joke, the punchline as delivered by party delegates in Western Australia on Saturday was all too predictable.

In choosing Vince Connelly over four female contenders to succeed Michael Keenan in the Perth northern suburbs seat of Stirling, preselectors passed up an opportunity to balance a parliamentary line-up that currently consists of 63 men and 19 women.

As illustrated by the chart below, this is a situation that is not going to improve at the next election — nearly half the Liberal-held seats where women have been preselected are marginal, and gender parity is approached only in seats the party does not already hold, and thus stands little or no chance of winning.

The least that can be said of the Stirling result is that it hasn’t made the situation any worse, since one man is replacing another. In contrast to the scenario that nearly played out in Victoria yesterday, when Katie Allen narrowly prevailed over Greg Hannan in the vote to choose Kelly O’Dwyer’s successor in Higgins.

However, the result went against the wishes of local luminaries including Michael Keenan and Mathias Cormann, who favoured the claim of Joanne Quinn, legal counsel for Edith Cowan University. The apparent rebellion against the leadership reflects a mood within conservatism both here and abroad that rejects the moderating electoral calculations of party elders in favour of the full-throated populism of the right-wing media.

For the party’s political professionals, the immediate imperative was to address the electorally menacing perception of the party as a boys club incapable of treating half the voting population with due respect.

However, their pitch (tellingly) failed to gain traction with a rank-and-file that has little time for appeals to enemy concepts such as gender equality and social justice.

In fairness to Connelly, it should be acknowledged that he has a fair bit to recommend him as a Liberal candidate, holding a senior position with resources giant Woodside as a crisis manager — a role that can only stand him in good stead in politics.

But according to party sources cited by The Western Australia, the decisive point in his favour for preselectors was his army background, and the promise of using it to reinforce the party’s advantage on border control. If so, the outcome may well have been influenced by the near disappearance of Labor’s lead in last week’s Ipsos poll, and the resulting barrage of commentary to the effect that Labor’s weakness on border protection had cruelled its chances.

After consuming endless column inches in the nation’s newspapers and correspondingly voluminous screen time on Sky News, such assessments are now looking threadbare after last night’s Newspoll, which recorded no improvement in the Coalition’s position on a fortnight ago.

Whatever the motivation, the outcome in Stirling has cost the Liberals an opportunity to persuade women in Perth that they should keep faith with the party despite the snub it delivered to Julie Bishop, the outstanding Western Australian figure in federal politics for over a decade.

Bishop’s own vacancy will be filled at a ballot next month, and once again, party heavyweights are making known their determination that it should go to a “high quality” woman.

In this case especially, preselectors will ignore them at their party’s own peril.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey