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The 2011 NSW election lowers the Bear Pit's glass ceiling

By Tony Smith - posted Wednesday, 6 April 2011

As predicted in opinion polls the Coalition parties swept to power in the 2011 New South Wales elections. Premier Barry O'Farrell will lead a government with 69 or 70 of the 93 seats in the Legislative Assembly. The Labor Opposition is likely to have 20 seats. The result raises major challenges for both sides. The winners must address key policy areas and show that it can act with greater integrity than characterised Labor's final term. The losers, after 16 years in power and election wins in 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007, must diagnose its difficulties accurately and take vigorous remedies to rebuild its reputation.

While most attention has been drawn to the contrasting performances of Labor and its Coalition opponents, other features of the election deserve consideration. An important question is whether the 55th parliament would be more gender-balanced than the 54th. When the Legislative Assembly was dissolved 24 of the 93 members (26%) were women. Some optimists believe that once the proportion of female MPs reaches a critical mass, variously estimated at 15, 20 or 25%, then growth would be self-generating. Natural increase would see female MP numbers continue on an upward trajectory.

Several factors prior to polling day cast some doubt on the possibility of an increase in 2011. Firstly, the number of female members of the House of Representatives fell at the 2010 election campaign although the Labor leader Prime Minister Julia Gillard was female. Slightly over 25% MHRs were female but natural increase did not apply in Canberra. Secondly, as Labor had some two-thirds of the female MLAs 2007-2011 and a massive swing was expected against the party, it was unlikely to have the 16 females it previously had. Thirdly, of the 93 seats, 54 were sure to return male MPs (8 had no female candidate and 46 had no major party female candidate). An examination of the 39 seats where women were contenders showed that 17 were very likely to return female MPs and another two likely. Another four seats seemed probable gains for Coalition women and seven other seats held various degrees of possibility for female candidates. So in reality, women could have filled about 30 Assembly seats.


On the Sunday after the election, 20 female MPs had been elected, and female candidates were involved in four of the nine contests where the seats were close and undecided: Balmain, Newcastle, Wollongong (Labor defenders) and Toongabbie (Liberal challenger). By Monday afternoon, Labor had lost Newcastle. Of the seats remaining as undecided on Antony Green's website, Labor defenders were ahead in all three. Five days into the count, Labor was ahead in Wollongong and Toongabbie, but not Balmain.

Predictably, Labor women held the safe seats of Heffron, Auburn, Bankstown, Canterbury, Shellharbour and Wallsend (6). Two others defied the swing to hold Marrickville and Kogarah. Some seats defended by Labor women changed hands. The sitting member lost in Strathfield and new candidates lost Blue Mountains, Menai, Mulgoa, Gosford and Miranda. So, Labor women held eight seats and Wollongong made nine. In the previous parliament about a third of Labor MLAs were female. In this, the nine females constitute 45%. While the number of Labor's female MPs fell, the number of males fell more dramatically.

Liberal women easily held Willoughby, North Shore, Vaucluse, Goulburn and South Coast (5). Liberal challengers took Blue Mountains, Mulgoa, Menai and Maitland. Among the Nationals, the Burrinjuck MP will be joined by the Member for Port Macquarie. The Coalition doubled its female numbers and now has 11 female (16%) and 58 male MPs (84%).

Among Independents Clover Moore held Sydney but Dawn Fardell lost Dubbo.

In the 93 seat Assembly, 21 female MLAs hold 22.6% seats. The 72 males hold 77.4% seats.

The relative success of candidates according to gender is interesting. The aggregates for the Assembly elections show that 148 of the 494 candidates – around 30% - were female. This suggests that women should have won about 27 Legislative Assembly seats. The 70% candidates who were male could have been expected to win 66 seats.


The success of female candidates can be assessed in various ways. Successful candidates can be measured against total candidates. Statewide, 93 of 494 candidates won seats, a success rate of 18.82%. Twenty-one of 148 female candidates won, a rate of 14.2%. Seventy-two of 346 male candidates won, a rate of 20.8%.

Such aggregate measures ignore political realities. While some 54 seats were for all practical purposes reserved for male MPs, many other male candidates simply had no chance of success. This applied as much in the 54 seats as elsewhere. Most Independents and minor party candidates, male or female, had no chance of success. In the special circumstances prevailing few Labor candidates, male or female, had much chance of success either. When the preference count is completed, it might be possible to consider the swings for and against male and female candidates.

In the upper house, the Legislative Council, the terms of half the members (21) expired. The gender balance would change slightly unless five females were among the 21 MLCs elected. While it seemed likely that one Labor, one Coalition and one Greens woman would be returned, the situation of Coalition women was more precarious. The Liberal females at positions seven and eight must have been quietly confident but the National at 11 seems to have been fortunate that the Coalition achieved such a landslide. It appears then that the gender balance in the Council remains unchanged. The five females elected on Saturday restore the total to 13 among 42. Interestingly, the final quota was being contested by Pauline Hanson and the third Greens' candidate, a male. A Labor MLC blamed the Greens for resurrecting Hanson's political career by refusing to direct its preferences. The ABC's analyst Antony Green thought that Hanson's chances were slim.

Some observers think that the gender ratios in parliament are important. Some do not, but there are valid reasons that males should not occupy seats in overwhelming numbers. While elections have the appearance of offering equal opportunities to all candidates, a snapshot of assembled parliamentarians suggests that politics is an occupation for which males are particularly suited. This can also lead to an assumption that parliamentarians must conform to a masculine paradigm. Many women who are determined to adopt their own styles can then be deterred from pursuing political careers. When women enter parliaments in small numbers, they might be acculturated into the ethos constructed by men over the decades. When they achieve promotion then they are accused of being token women, more masculine than the men or puppets of male power brokers.

Such arguments about the participation of men and women in politics are controversial. There is some agreement that better balanced, more representative assemblies make better decisions because they draw on a broader range of skills. Some observers have argued that more women will become MPs as their general status in the community rises. But parliaments should provide leadership and role models, not be used to justify disadvantage. Indeed parliaments make laws which determine women's socio-economic status.

While some attention has been paid to the gender of our parliamentarians, less has been directed at other potentially significant characteristics such as age and cultural background. It would be difficult to guarantee greater parliamentary representation to people of Indigenous origins or who speak languages other than English at home, and it would be impossible to ensure that parliaments reflected precisely the distribution of age cohorts in the population. When parliaments assemble however, and it becomes obvious that some segments of society are missing while others are grossly over-represented, the explanation that everyone is entitled to nominate for election will simply not do. Gender, along with many other characteristics of our parliaments, remains an important focus for research. To ignore gender is to avoid some difficult questions that any democratic system must consider.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.

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