Julia Gillard, former prime minister, first ever woman prime minister of Australia, and member of a party with nearly 50 per cent representation in the parliamentary Labor Party has some advice for the Liberal Party.
Not that she’d characterise it as advice for the party she hopes will soon be in opposition. Why give them the benefit of her expertise? Nevertheless, she explained to a packed gathering in Sydney yesterday exactly how the Labor Party went about getting near equal representation.
Gillard was there to introduce Elise Delpiano, the winner of the inaugural Next Generation Julia Gillard AC scholarship, organised through the Emily’s List network. Delpiano has spent the last six months getting her head around what challenges women face in order to fully participate in politics, interviewing politicians in Australian and New Zealand. The about-to-be lawyer says there urgently needs to be a revision into the processes for getting women into Cabinet. It needs to be on merit.
But years ago, Gillard was having her own battles and on Thursday, she took us back to the mid 1990s. The difference in gender representation between the two major parties wasn’t actually that big then. Liberal and Labor were neck and neck, ALP was at 14.5 per cent and the Libs at13.9 per cent. Close run thing.
Gillard paused: “One of the things that contemporary political events, particularly some of the dialogue in the Liberal Party should be proving to us, is that we’ve got a lot of things right on the Labor side when it comes to gender equality.”
Labor now has close to 50 per cent. The Liberals just over 20 per cent.
And what did Gillard say made the difference? Affirmative action. Quotas. Emily’s List.
Gillard recalled the endless arguments about gender equality, the divisiveness.
“Isn’t it about merit, as if merit disproportionately lies in the hands of the men of the Labor party,” men would ask, she said.
Former cabinet minister Julie Bishop has taken aim at the "appalling" conduct of her parliamentary colleagues, saying she never would have accepted it while running a major law firm 20 years ago.
These are the same arguments you hear in the Liberal Party today: we don’t need a target, it’s all about merit, targets would be distorting to merit, we can deal with gender equality in other ways. And those views are held even though former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has just revealed the Liberal Party does indeed have a woman problem. She’s dead set in favour of targets now – and that’s a big step for the Liberal Party.
She said yesterday: “At a grassroots level our Party – in fact, all parties – recognise that they have a problem in attracting and maintaining women and diversity in general.”
There is, sadly, yet to be a Liberal woman who comes out in favour of the quotas Labor used, although I reckon Kelly O’Dwyer must be close to having had enough of these male buffoons. As Bishop said at Australian Women’s Weekly Women of the Future awards lunch this week, “I say to my party, the Liberal Party, it is not acceptable for us to have in 2018 less than 25 per cent of our parliamentarians as female.”
"It is not acceptable for our party to contribute to a fall in Australia's ratings from 15th in the world in terms of female parliamentary representatives in 1999, to 50th today.
But that’s where we are at.
All this in a week where it’s very clear that the path to equality is blocked by entitled millennial men.
When the University of Canberra’s 50/50 Foundation released its report into gender equality, the news was shocking. What the report said was this: millennial men believe women are favoured in the workplace. They believe their male gender works against them. They think women are taking their jobs. In other words, there is a generation of men who are finally being treated as equals in the workplace and who see equality as a way of undermining the privilege they thought was theirs forever.
But Coleen MacKinnon, advisor to Consult Australia Male Champions of Change, thinks I’m unkind. She says we have to bring men along with us on the equality trip, otherwise we may well be waiting another 200 years. But none of those men – perhaps just a few of those men in power – ever thought to bring women along and Mackinnon is clearly a more patient woman than I am.
The Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins sums it up well.
“My general sense is that the vast majority of people are supportive of the work I do in theory. But when you start saying we might need to put in place special measures to rectify [inequality, the response is] that is not going to be how we do it.”
But yes, the 50/50 report is depressing reading. As Virgina Haussegger and Mark Evans wrote in their report, “Not only did the Australian Liberal Party fail to replace its outgoing leader and Prime Minister with a politician perceived by many to be the most qualified and popular person for the job, Julie Bishop, but a growing number of Millennial and Gen X men appear to be alienated from the process of change and are backsliding into traditional value systems.”
Fortunately, it truly is #notallmen, just about half of them who hold these views. Still, we must explain to men that losing privilege is just not the same as experiencing oppression.
Jenna Price is a Canberra Times columnist and an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.