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Coalition will lose more female talent unless it acknowledges Labor got quotas right

Tanja Kovac, Women's Agenda

If the Liberal Party had an affirmative action target, Mary Wooldridge would not have lost pre-selection for the blue ribbon seat of Kew, in Melbourne’s leafy inner east, to young wunderkind, Tim Smith.

Women hold only nine out of the 36 Liberal seats in the Victorian Parliament. An AA target, like Labor’s, would have put pressure on the party for Mary to keep her seat in the lower house and also created space for another nine conservative women on the front bench.

But the Coalition doesn’t have a quota and affirmative action has long been mocked by the Liberals and the Nationals as an unwelcome strategy to lift women’s participation in parliament. This is because Australian Conservatives see any form of positive discrimination as unnecessary social
gerrymandering cooked up leftists.

Regardless of the empirical evidence of the strategy’s success around the world at tackling disadvantage, the Coalition opposes it because it’s a progressive policy reform. Publicly, though, they rely on the merit argument; that ability alone will help conservative women rise. But it’s pretty clear from the Liberal pre-selection in Kew on the weekend, that if merit worked, Wooldridge, the capable Community Services Minister in her political prime, would have seen off a boyish newcomer.

It’s time for the Coalition to acknowledge that the ALP got it right on AA. Twenty years of affirmative action practice by Labor has delivered unequivocal evidence that quotas work. AA is now a proven strategy, addressing the under-representation of women in decision-making, in two key ways.

Firstly, AA has delivered an incremental power-shift across parliaments, with women increasing their participation on the green and red benches by 110%. Today women’s participation across parliaments in Australia sits at 29.2%. It’s still a long way from 50/50, but it’s a remarkable improvement on the single digit numbers that dominated the first ninety years of the Federation, before AA was adopted by the ALP.

The second way that AA addresses the under-representation of women is by delivering critical masses of women, over time, into parliament. Together, these women are shaping the legislative agenda of Parliament; addressing the very disadvantages that preclude women from participating in powerful institutions in the first place.

Last week the Australian Parliamentary Library released its latest update of the, Composition of Australian Parliaments by Party and Gender, comparative table which records the breakdown of parliamentary representation along gender lines. Revised to include the outcome of two recent by-elections, which saw Labor women Terri Butler elected to the Federal Seat of Griffith and Yvette D’Ath to the Queensland seat of Redcliffe, the table tells a vivid story of the success of Labor’s Affirmative Action strategy.

The ALP’s representation of women in parliaments across the country now sits at 42.7% — almost double the number of women on Liberal benches (22.5) and triple those of the Nationals (16.9). Only the Greens have a higher rate of women’s participation, with women making up 44.8% of its MP’s, although the small number, just 13 Green women, must be compared to the 119 women who make up the current Labor caucus.

Increasing women’s numbers in Australian Parliament is one thing; measuring their impact for Australian women is another.

This week, EMILY’s List Australia, the guardian of Labor’s affirmative action target, will release its first Impact Analysis, research which looks at the influence of progressive women in Labor’s federal parliamentary years, 2007-2013. The research, to be launched in the lead up to International Women’s Day, identifies 35 pieces of legislation passed during the Rudd-Gillard years, which put the wellbeing of women at the centre of legislative decision-making. From financial assistance for families, childcare rebates to increasing the representation of women on boards and eradicating family violence — the program of achievement for women during 2007-2013 is extraordinary. The women beneficiaries of Labor’s AA target worked hard to deliver reforms for Australian women.

Affirmative action is a Labor success story, giving it the winning edge in the gender wars. But it is also a narrative of the success for Australian women, with targets helping to enact legislation that impacts on their daily lives.

Conservative institutions around the world are having a change of heart about Affirmative Action. The use of targets and quotas is gaining momentum across the world. Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, during her recent visit to Australia reflected personally on the rethink:

“I was not in favour of quotas when I was a young woman. That was many moons ago. Faced with the harsh reality of working in a big international law firm, I certainly changed my mind and I do believe that quotas, targets, whatever you want to call them, are a necessity.”

Now the IMF delivers an annual report on staff diversity and inclusion strategies, publicly reporting against benchmark targets. The 2013 report shows the effectiveness of quotas, and the way they are achieving incremental progress to equality within the IMF.

Largade has admitted, “We have set quotas, we have reached the quotas, we have re-set quotas..We’re not there yet…When we miss, we are going to reschedule, we’re going to put more effort into it in order to reach our objective.”

Largarde is not a leftist. She is the first female chairperson of international law firm Baker & McKenzie, a member of a centre-right French political party and the head of the leading voice in the free market economy. Largarde is a leader, in all senses of the word. And she knows what
works to give women a leg up in the economy; in business and in parliament.

It’s time for good Conservative women like Mary Wooldridge and others within the Coalition to say “enough is enough”. Time for the Coalition to admit that it got it wrong and that it’s misplaced ideological opposition to AA no longer stacks up against the overwhelming evidence of its effectiveness.

The absence of quotas in the Coalition is failing conservative women, and also the Australian public, for without a commitment to broadening diversity, electing another Conservative, Christian, white, anglo-saxon man to parliament is inevitable. And the diversity of opinion and expertise we need to shape good public policy and creative legislative solutions to complex problems goes wanting.

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