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Affirmative Action Has Worked For Labor

New Matilda

To mark International Women’s Day, Sharman Stone, the outspoken Liberal member for the Federal seat of Murray, called on the Liberal party to introduce a gender quota system to lift the number of conservative women in parliament.

The third high-profile Liberal in 18 months to speak out in support of quotas, Stone joined conservative historian and sometimes IPA fellow, Margaret Fitzherbert and Senators Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce, in calling for affirmative action strategies in the Coalition.

Twenty years ago, when the AA rule was in its infancy and Labor women were first establishing EMILY’s List Australia, conservative women were among some of AA’s harshest critics. But almost two decades on, AA has proven to be a successful progressive strategy capable of transforming not just a political party but the Parliament, delivering the nation its first female prime minister.

As Liberal women fall further and further behind, struggling to even take up a seat in the Abbott Cabinet, progressive Labor women are making extraordinary gains.

If impact was measured just in numerical terms, EMILY’s List would have a lot to celebrate. For nearly two decades, it has been raising funds to increase the number of progressive women in parliaments across Australia, providing training, mentoring and personal support for Labor women leaders. The organisation has raised more than $4.5 million and helped over 155 women to take up seats on the green and red leather seats.

In 1996 — the year EMILY's List Australia was born — only one-fifth of ALP House of Representatives candidates were women. By the 2010 election, this had risen to 31 per cent. According to the Australian Parliamentary Library's latest breakdown of Australian parliaments by party and gender, just over 38 per cent of House of Representative MPs are Labor women and 55 per cent of Senators.

Increasing the number of women in Australian parliaments is one thing; measuring their collective impact for Australian women is another. This year, for the first time, EMILY’s List Australia is able to report on the very significant effect that a critical mass of women can have on the levers of power.

Our research, Impact Analysis: Legislative and policy achievements of EMILY’s List Women in Power 2007-2013, adds to an increasing body of international comparative evidence that women legislators “raise distinctive concerns and issue priorities” when they are elected to parliament.

The research, released to coincide with International Women’s Day, identifies some 35 pieces of legislation passed during the Rudd-Gillard years, which put the wellbeing of women at the centre of decision-making.

From financial assistance for working women using child care to eliminating discrimination because of gender or sexual identity and protecting women and children from family violence, the legislative achievements for women during this period are nothing short of extraordinary.

Our research shows very clear links exist between the Labor Government having its highest ever proportion of women MPs and cabinet members to the passage of cutting edge reforms, such as Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme, pay equity for community sector workers, and tax and superannuation changes which benefited working women.

The Rudd-Gillard years delivered many gender records, including the highest number of women in Cabinet. Julia Gillard, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Jenny Macklin, Catherine King and Julie Collins — all long-time EMILY’s List members — were heavily involved in setting the legislative agenda that delivered Disability Care, placed RU486 on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and greatly expanded the provision of quality, affordable child care.

In 2012, the UN reported that the ALP’s affirmative action rule and EMILY's List's efforts showed how concerted strategies to increase women's political leadership had benefited Australian women. Labor's push for women's health programs, domestic violence laws, parental leave and pay equity, the UN report said, had changed the perception that these policies were women's issues, transforming them into matters important to all Australians.

Increasing women’s representation is much more than a numbers game. It is about advancing a substantive policy agenda for Australian women and leaving a legacy of strategic legislation aimed at removing gender disadvantage, poverty and exclusion.

During 2007-2013, Labor women in parliament, working together, did just that. The pressure is now on Coalition women to prove that they can lift their numbers in parliament and achieve the kind of pro-women, legislative output that marked the Rudd-Gillard years.

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