With the likely victory of Independent Dr Kerryn Phelps in the Wentworth by-election, the issue of women in politics will be a hot topic in the lead up to the Federal poll.
Resistance to quotas and claims of bullying by women within the government ranks are forcing a public debate around the recruitment of women to bring balance to Federal parliament.
While Dr Phelps is leading the count with 51.18 per cent of votes ahead of Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, other high-profile women are making noises about contesting seats, including commentator Jane Caro in former Prime Minister Tony Abbott's electorate of Warringah.
For decades, the federal electorate of Wentworth in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs had belonged to the Liberal Party but a swing of almost 20 per cent means the Federal Government is set to lose its prize ‘blue-ribbon’ seat, and its majority in the House of Representatives.
Inaction on climate change and the chaos of the August leadership spill were key in the swing against the government, but the other factor at play is gender.
Leading up to the by-election, the Morrison Government faced mounting pressure to pre-select a female candidate following numerous allegations of gendered bullying within the party.
The underrepresentation of women in the party room and in key cabinet positions has also become a sore spot for the Liberals who have lagged behind the Labor Party (ALP) for many years.
According the Australian Parliament House website, the highest proportion of women to serve in any ministry was under Kevin Rudd in June 2013, with 11 out of 30 ministerial positions being held by women.
When Tony Abbott was elected less than four months later, his ministry initially included just one woman; a point for which he was widely criticised.
While the number of female ministers and overall proportion of women in parliament improved under Malcolm Turnbull and now Scott Morrison, in 2018 women are still underrepresented in Australian parliament.
The number of women currently in the House of Representatives is 44, which makes up 29.3 per cent of a total 150 seats.
With the addition of Dr Phelps, as the likely new member for Wentworth, that figure will round out to 30 per cent.
The proportion of women in the Senate is slightly higher, with women accounting for 39.5 per cent of seats.
In the state and territory parliaments, the proportion of women is slightly higher at 35 per cent, with women accounting for 212 of a total 610 parliamentary positions.
Including Dr Phelps on the cross-bench, the total number of women in both houses of federal parliament will increase to 75.
Coincidentally, it is now 75 years since the first woman was elected to the Australian federal parliament.
Dame Enid Lyons became the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives on 21 August 1943.
On the same date this year, Peter Dutton mounted the first of two leadership challenges, setting into motion the events that led to the resignation of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and triggered the Wentworth by-election.
Data collated by the Inter-Parliamentary Union shows Australia is currently ranked 50thin the world by proportion of women in its federal parliament.
Although representation has improved over time, a widening disparity between the number of women in the two major parties has stunted progressin recent years and Australia’s international ranking has slipped as a result.
The highest ranking was 14th in 1999, under the Howard Government.
According to the latest ABS data, Labor women in the federal parliament account for 46.3 per cent of Labor seats, while women in the Liberal Party account for 23.8 per cent of Liberal seats.
“Australia has the largest gap between left and right parties found in any comparable democracy apart from the USA,” said Emeritus Professor Marian Sawer, an expert on gender politics and policy from the Australian National University.
“While the ALP has had an effective system of gender electoral quotas since 1994, the Liberals have not followed suit. In fact, they have moved backwards since 1996 in terms of the proportion of women in winnable seats,” Professor Sawer said.
When Labor first introduced quotas in 1994, the percentage of Labor women in federal parliament was 14.5 per cent. Today, that figure has more than doubled.
“I support targets because they work,” said Federal Shadow Minister for Women Tanya Plibersek in a statement.
“When we achieved our 35 per cent target we lifted it to 40 per cent. When we achieved that we lifted it again to 50 percent by 2025. And we’re nearly there,” the Shadow Minister said.
At the state level, the number of Labor’s female parliamentarians has also steadily increased.
Currently, the Northern Territory has equal representation of men and women, while the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmanian Labor Party rooms have higher proportions of women (ACT: 58.3 per cent, TAS: 64.3 per cent).
“The numbers speak for the themselves,” said Western Australian Minister for Women’s Interests Simone McGurk.
“The McGowan Labor Government’s policy is to establish a quota for female representation and it works. 40 per cent of Government members in the WA Parliament are women,” the Minister said.
According to data compiled by the ABS, the number of female parliamentarians from the Labor Party across all state and federal parliaments is more than double that of Liberal female parliamentarians.
Professor Sawer predicts that the gap between the two major parties will only widen after the next federal election.
International research has shown gender electoral quotas to be effective, but they remain a controversial measure for increasing diversity in politics.
The Labor Party remains an outlier when it comes to quotas.
The Liberal Party has consistently rejected the proposition on the grounds that candidate selection should be based on merit.
While some members have recently called for quotas to be considered, the party’s official policy remains unchanged.
Similarly, the Australian Conservative Party, led by former Liberal Minister Cory Bernardi, also rejects quotas.
The party’s South Australian Senate candidate Rikki Lambert said, “We do not want to see people elected to make decisions about something as important as our nation, its national security and economic future, because they met a quota target.”
“More women should stand for office if women are concerned they do not have enough representation,” Ms Lambert said.
Professor Sawer said quotas are rarely supported by conservative parties, and yet, on the progressive end of the political spectrum, the Australian Greens have also steered away from them.
The key difference however is that, at the federal level, the party has been able to achieve equal representation of men and women without implementing a quota system.
Internationally, models for achieving gender parity vary depending on electoral and party systems.
“Since 1981 many countries, particularly in Latin America but also in Europe, have adopted legislated quotas that apply to all parties,” said Professor Sawer.
“But other countries like Sweden have followed an 'incremental track' to reach gender parity, whereby parties on the Left have introduced party quotas and parties on the right followed suit in increasing the proportion of women on their party lists.”
Professor Sawer said establishing a ‘ginger group’ for women in the Liberal Party, as Labor has done with EMILY's List, would help to speed up progress.
“Such a body is long overdue on the conservative side of politics,” Professor Sawer said.
Earlier this year, the Federal Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer established the ‘Enid Lyons Fighting Fund’. She personally contributed $50,000 to set up the fund which aims to provide financial support to women in the party.
In a statement, the Minister said,“The Liberal Party has a long history of pre-selecting and supporting women to serve in Parliament.”
“If you want to get good women into the Parliament and keep them there, you need to be able to fund their campaigns,” she said.
While the fund is a step in the right direction, before any candidate can campaign for election, they need to be preselected by their party first and, unsurprisingly, women are underrepresented in preselections too.
At the last election, women were preselected for 31.4 per cent of seats in the House of Representatives and 36.2 per cent of seats in the Senate across all parties, according to data by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
Women accounted for 40 per cent of Labor candidates for seats in the House of Representatives, while women in the Liberal Party represented 27.1 per cent.
For seats in the Senate, Labor women represented a majority of Labor preselections at 55.1 per cent, while women in the Liberal Party represented 38.2 per cent.
While the Liberal Party has not announced any official policy changes to address the diversity of its membership or preselection process, there has been ongoing discussion about the need for change following the August leadership spill.
Minister Kelly O’Dwyer was one of a number of Liberal Party women to publicly call out bullying during the spill which has prompted broader debate about prevailing attitudes toward female politicians.
“It’s undeniable there is a toxic culture in Canberra,” said Greens Senator Larissa Waters.
“My colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young bravely spoke out about the sexist taunts and innuendo she’s copped from political opponents over her career. There’s no doubt it’s a big issue, but many MPs don’t speak out for fear of retribution so it’s hard to say just how big,” the Senator said.
Responding to statements made by women in the Liberal Party, Shadow Minister Tanya Plibersek offered support saying, “We stand ready to support the efforts of Liberal women to [reject sexism], to share our experiences and improve our political culture, for the benefit of all Australian women.”
“It just makes sense that senior women in political parties should show leadership in promoting and supporting other women – in their own party, and across the aisle,” she said.
Senator Waters believes that increasing the number of women in parliament is part of the solution.
“It will help drive culture change to stamp out bullying and intimidation which women seem to be bearing the brunt of,” she said.
For Western Australia Minister Simone McGurk, the need to increase representation is simple.
“The Parliament should reflect the community it serves,” she said.
“The Representation of women in politics sends an important message to the community, and importantly to future generations, that diversity and inclusion are important, and that they can and should aspire to a role in Parliament if they wish.”