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Quotas – how affirmative action changed the Labor Party for the better

Parliaments are traditionally male bastions of power, but you would think that in all the years since women’s suffrage in Australia there would be greater change. The right for women to be elected to office was first achieved 137 years ago, but the current representation of women in the Federal Parliament is only 38%.

The need to have a representative democracy, one where the members of our parliaments truly reflect the communities in which they live, has become glaringly obvious over recent weeks.  Women, 51% of the population, astonishingly are a minority group on our Federal Parliament.  This is most stark on the conservative side of politics. There are only 30 Liberal, Country Liberal and National party women in the Morrison Government.  That is 27%, compared with 60% of the Greens caucus, 48% of the Labor caucus and 45% of the cross benches.

The World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap report tells us there is not a single country has yet achieved equality. It will take at least another 100 years to reach this goal at the current rate of change, and that was before the global pandemic which has more severely impacted on women and widened the gender gap.

The safety of women in their workplaces, their homes and everywhere they go, depends on having an equal society. Positive action must occur to create change and it can happen most rapidly in our parliaments. Australia needs to be part of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator program, it needs to set targets, including women in leadership and in parliaments. Targets that enforceable with consequences if they are not met.

Of the parties that form government, the Coalition and Labor, the difference in the number of women MPs has not always been this great. Labor similarly had fewer women MPs than men and more were in marginal seats. Women had to work hard to maintain their electorates attention precluding them from senior roles, and the ebb and tide of party-political favor with the voters saw proportionally more women lose their seats with changes in government.

Political patronage happens in all parties. Men were more often feted to be candidates in winnable seats than women. Even with second wave feminism, the rate of change was too slow. It was this recognition that galvanized women across the ALP to demand change.
Affirmative action, quotas with consequence if they were not achieved, were fought for, and introduced in the ALP in 1994. At the time women represented 14% of the Federal Labor caucus. The first target set was 35%, it was raised to 40% in 2002, and since the 2015 ALP National Conference, it was lifted to 45% by 2020 and 50% by 2025.

The process has spanned several election cycles with each increase in target. It has not force men to resign their seats but it does have consequences if the targets are not met. Affirmative action has had many advocates, both women and men, who spoke up for positive change and against those that resisted. There have been times when the men who were the leaders came out strongly in support, and it started with Paul Keating.

There are now Federal coalition women speaking about the need for change, the need for quotas. Where are the men in the Coalition willing to support this change and back the women who would stand for election?

What we do know is that this mechanism works. The evidence is in the numbers on the ALP benches across the country. Most recently in Western Australia where it is likely the Labor caucus will have achieved 51% women when the votes are finalized. This is similar in the Labor party rooms across all state and territory parliaments with 62% women in Tasmania, 60% in the ACT, 50% in the Northern Territory, 48% in Victoria, 42% in New South Wales, 41% in South Australia and 40% in Queensland. Labor is likely to achieve the 50% target ahead of the 2025 schedule at the next Federal election.

There can be no more bleating that women are only there because of quotas or that they did not achieve their preselection based on “merit”. There is not one Labor woman in the Federal Parliament who could be labelled a “quota-girl”. It is now a reality that women are equally capable, or not, of representing their communities. They will be assessed by the voters on their performance as a member of parliament and as a member of the party they represent at each election, just as are their male counterparts.

Having more women in our parliament does not guarantee the toxic culture and the obscene, vile and criminal behaviour of men will change. But it does give 51% of the population a voice who bring their own lived experience to this crucial decision-making table.

Women are but one minority group underrepresented in our parliaments and women of all political persuasions need to be present. Much more work is needed for a truly representative democracy of all its diversity, but it has been shown that affirmative action is the only way to break through this bastion.

Get involved in EMILY's campaigns and support us in getting more progressive women to our parliaments.

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