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Renewing Democracy: can women make a difference?

By Carmen Lawrence - posted Sunday, 15 October 2000

One of the most obvious and fundamental flaws in the development of democracies everywhere has been the exclusion of women. Debate on democracy proceeded as if women were not there.

Women were belatedly included only after hard-fought campaigns by the suffragists, often in the face of bitter opposition. The failure of the architects of modern (and indeed Athenian) democracies to see women as part of "the people" was a reflection of the almost universal "verity" that women were the possessions of their husbands and fathers.

The most powerful argument to extend the suffrage to women has always been one of simple justice: women should vote and be eligible to be elected to parliaments because they are entitled to equal rights as citizens. However, despite the extension of suffrage to women and their entitlement to run for Parliament, the progress towards equal representation has been glacially slow. Even now, only 22% of members and Senators are women.


Many women have pressed and continue to press their claims for greater representation because they see themselves as bringing new qualities to the political stage. It has been argued, for example, that since women’s exclusion has arisen in part from conventions that distinguish sharply between the public and private, women will necessarily bring these issues to the foreground of public debate, eg. concern for the young, sick, old and disabled, the removal of discrimination based on status and the grounding of the abstractions of economic or foreign policy in more compassionate understanding of people’s daily lives.

Some have held out the promise that women will radicalise the very practices of democracy: that they will cut through the "pomposity" of male rhetoric; subvert unnecessary hierarchies; open up decision making to those who were once the objects of policy and ensure a more responsive and open system. While there is a Utopian flavour to all this, it reflects many of the same aspirations that I hear every day from people who are said to be sceptics about the possibility of reforming our political system.

While there are good reasons to advocate reform, I doubt whether the mere presence of women will prove sufficient. We need to articulate a detailed agenda for that reform based on an analysis of the deficiencies in our system.

Can we improve our democracy?

Whatever its origin or its validity, the perception that more women will make a difference reflects a conviction that our political system needs to change; that the fundamentals of the democratic contract have been corrupted. Many Australians I talk to are disgruntled by a system that does not appear to respond to their needs, and seems increasingly to be in the hands of elites more interested in their own advancement than the general good.

Among the pessimists, this disenchantment spills over into disparagement of government action and a retreat into individual solutions to social and economic problems. This, of course, suits the neoliberal agenda but is anathema to effective joint action necessary to reduce inequality, improve broad social outcomes and to protect the environment. Fortunately, there are optimists who believe it is possible to redesign our institutions.


Whether or not the greater involvement of women in our political system will drive improvements in our political system, it is clear that they are needed.

Representation: One vote, one value?

The minimum requirement of any representative democracy is that governments should be elected and that all adults should have an equal right to vote. We might well ask what kind of accountability it is that operates only once every three or four years and which depends on assessments of performance that are inevitably based on information the government of the day chooses to make available.

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This is an edited version of an address to the Sydney Institute, August 17, 2000.

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About the Author

Hon. Dr Carmen Lawrence is federal member for Fremantle (ALP) and a former Premier of Western Australia. She was elected as National President of the ALP in 2003. She is a Parliamentary member of National Forum.

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