In July, Victorian Liberal Senator Judith Troeth called for a quota system to be introduced in the Liberal Party to bolster the number of female Liberal MPs. The op-ed, published in The Age, advocated requiring 40 per cent of pre-selected Liberal candidates to be female in the first Federal election after 2010-2011.
I disagree with Senator Troeth regarding the need for affirmative action in the Liberal Party. We need only look at the embarrasing results of parliamentary quotas in the Australian Labor Party to see the negative consequences of affirmative action.
The enforcement of gender quotas upon the pre-selection of ALP candidates has resulted in the election to Parliament of some female MPs who are, to put it politely, not exactly rising stars of the Labor movement. Take, for instance, Amanda Rishworth, Labor MP for Kingston, who is known widely by her ALP colleagues and Press Gallery journalists as “Noddy Rishworth” due to her only apparent role in the Labor Party - to nod vigorously behind the person at the dispatch box during question time.
Or, consider Julie Collins, Labor MP for Franklin, whose only claim to fame has been to provide the Liberal Party with advertisement fodder by spectacularly failing to answer a question on the Government's tax on mining - you can see the ad here.
Indeed, male Labor Senators are so disparaging of their female colleagues and the fact that they had a more cushy ride to pre-selection that they openly refer to female Senators as “quota queens”. Gender quotas have only bred hostility and resentment between male and female MPs in the ALP, rather than creating a more gender-equal caucus, as proponents of affirmative action envision.
Of course, some might argue that without Labor's affirmative action policies, we may not have a female Prime Minister today. This argument looks tenuous, however, when you consider the fact that if Julia Gillard is ruthless enough to roll an elected Prime Minister to get to the top office, then she is probably not so oppressed or victimised as to need a quota system to get her in to Parliament in the first place. Her victorious battle against the Victorian ALP factional heavy weights to achieve pre-selection is a testament to just how much she didn’t need affirmative action to get into Parliament.
By contrast, female Liberals around the country occupy important leadership positions and have done so without the help of affirmative action. Consider the Deputy Federal Leader, Julie Bishop, South Australia's Opposition Leader, Isobel Redmond, and Victoria’s Deputy Liberal Leader, Louise Asher - all women.
Many of the Party’s rising stars around the country are also female - Shadow Cabinent Minister Sophie Mirabella, recently elected member for Higgins, Kelly O’Dwyer, and preselected candidate for Corangamite, Sarah Henderson. The next NSW Liberal Government is likely to feature many senior female frontbenchers, including former Sex-Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward. Indeed it was the Liberal Party, under the Howard government, that saw the nation’s longest serving female Cabinet Minister - Amanda Vanstone.
In the youth wing of the Liberal Party, female members are also taking on leadership positions. The Immediate Past President of the Federal Young Liberals is Rachel Fry, while the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation have just elected Sasha Uher as President.
To suggest that any of these talented women would have required affirmative action to get where they are today is frankly an insult to them. The problem with any sort of quota system is that it assumes that women are too weak, too incompetent and too lacking in political skills to get to the upper echelons of politics without a helping hand. Instead of obsessing over the percentage of women in Parliament, proponents of affirmative action should instead consider just how talented the women who are already in Parliament are, as well as those women who have been pre-selected by the Liberal Party to run for Parliament.
The outstanding calibre of women in leadership roles in the Liberal Party is something to be applauded, not shamed because the number of those women fails to meet some arbitrary percentage.
In my current position as the Secretary of the University of Melbourne Student Union, I see the result of affirmative action policies on a daily basis. Women at the union demand that Students’ Council meetings be conducted to a “progressive speaking list”, whereby females are given first priority to speak on issues ahead of male councillors because of supposed gender inequality. Do we expect the Liberal Party Room to conduct its meetings in the same way? Or should female MPs be given their own Party Room to meet in, so that they can conduct meetings in a “safe place” away from the male dominance of Party Room?
I know that such a scenario sounds far-fetched, but it’s important to remember that while quotas may seem relatively innocuous, they hail from the same ideological space as the policies I outlined above do.
I believe that the Liberal Party is an attractive organisation to many women because it treats females as equals, not weak incompetents who need a quota to be elected as they cannot succeed on merit alone. This is perhaps the reason why the Liberal Party has attracted and continues to attract so many women of such a high calibre. To adopt the affirmative action policies advocated by Senator Troeth would jeopordise the Party’s appeal to the next generation of outstanding female Liberals.