While the Coalition government can boast about a record representation of female ministers in parliament, a major young conservative group in Australia fails to mirror the trend.
The Australian Liberal Students’ Federation (ALSF) — a national body connecting university Liberal Party clubs and includes MPs among its members — elected an all-male senior executive committee this year, stirring up internal concerns about attitudes towards women.
Described to Crikey as a “boys’ club”, the representation of women in the upper ranks of the ALSF lifts and wanes. Last year, there were two women on the executive committee of four, and the year before, in 2017, no women were elected.
The ALSF is an independent, student-run organisation that “exists to promote centre-right policies across the country” according to its new president, Hugh Sutton. Formally, it has no affiliation with the Young Liberals. However, its members are from Liberal Party campus groups.
A member of the students’ federation who did not want to be named told Crikey: “I am ashamed that no women have — once again — been elected to a peak Young Liberal body.”
Sutton says positions are based on “merit, not on quotas”.
“Last year the ALSF had a 50/50 gender split on the top four executive positions, however that was based on merit, not on quotas. We elect office-bearers based on their capacity, and there are a number of capable women who sit on the ALSF executive this year.”
Including the positions of officers and state and territory representatives — which Sutton says makes up the executive — 13 men hold 17 of the positions.
A culture of sexism festering
But there are worries about the culture of not only the Liberal Party — with The Sydney Morning Herald today revealing that two female Liberal Party staffers have made sexual assault allegations against other staffers — but the culture among younger political aspirants.
Representation of women only scratches the surface. During the ALSF’s annual conference in July (earlier this month), members also debated a motion that athletes must only compete against people who were born of the same sex.
“The ALSF believes that athletes must compete against the same sex they were born,” the motion read, which was proposed by the University of Adelaide Liberal Club.
The implication is that women should not be allowed to play against men in competitive sports. The motion would also exclude transgender people who may no longer identify with the sex they were born with.
The conference, held at the University of Adelaide from July 4 to 7, resulted in the election of Hugh Sutton as president, Oliver McGibbon as vice-president, Lewis Hutton as treasurer and Blake Keating as secretary.
The other senior positions — mostly held by men — went to Kael Sharp as publications officer, Michael Stubley as disputes resolution officer, Zedekiah Sparks as social director, Ambrose Berlin as policy officer and Malachi Lavy as membership officer.
Alex Betheras is communications officer and Kate Pryce is fundraising officer.
The anonymous ALSF member who does not want to be named said: “This is the future of the Liberal Party, and women aren’t a part of it … and the Young Liberals think this is okay.”
A history of sexism
Allegations and concerns about sexism and misogyny among the Young Liberals and their ilk are not new. Earlier this year, four Young Liberals were expelled for lewd comments made about women. In 2017, the former president Melbourne University Liberal Club Xavier Boffa told a woman she was not invited to an event because it would make some of the men uncomfortable. Boffa was later elected president of the ALSF.
In 2014, members of the Melbourne University Liberal Club were caught describing women as “sluts” and Muslims as “degenerates”.
Last year, federal MP Julia Banks left the Liberal Party over claims of sexism and the mistreatment of female colleagues.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison also faced backlash after a speech made on International Women’s Day stating that he did not want to see women rise on the basis of others — presumably men in this equation — doing “worse”.