Labor Leads On Women


Labor’s gender agenda has, over the last five years, consistently delivered for women.

Paid parental leave, childcare rebates, increasing the tax free threshold to $18,000 for the benefit of part time working mums and pay equity for workers in the highly gendered community sector. All of these reforms are the legacy of a female Prime Minister and the highest number of women Ministers in history.

These achievements would not have been possible without the Australian Labor Party’s Affirmative Action (AA) rule.

In a little over 15 years, AA has transformed the Australian Parliament, increasing women’s representation by 110 per cent and delivering a raft of public policy reforms that have benefited Australian women. Affirmative action is a good news story for Labor and a significant point of differentiation from the Coalition and the Greens who both lack an enforceable target to promote women.

Labor’s AA rule is the only one of its kind within any Australian political party and mandates that women be preselected in a minimum number of winnable seats at every election.

In 1994, when the rule was first introduced into the ALP Constitution, the target was set at 35 per cent. In 2002 it was lifted to 40 per cent, following a campaign by EMILY’s List Australia.

Today, the AA rule (or 40/40/20 as it is sometimes referred), requires all ALP, trade union and public office selection positions to be split along gendered lines with 40 per cent of positions going to men; 40 per cent women and 20 per cent to either gender.

Responsibility for implementing the rule rests with each state branch, resulting in different outcomes for women across states and territories. But, ultimate enforcement of the rule rests with the party’s powerful National Executive.

The impact of AA is clear. In lower houses across the country, the ALP has the highest number of women representatives of any political party, with Labor sitting on 38 per cent, the Coalition on 23 per cent and the Greens on 12.5 per cent.

AA enjoys mass support within the party because women from all groupings — left, right and centre – recognise that equity in candidate selection is as important to their interests as patronage of a faction. Without it, talented women would languish on the sidelines, as they do in the Coalition.

The rule – championed so hard by progressive women from the past – demands eternal vigilance from Labor women of the present and the future.

A seat that is winnable at one election, might be unwinnable at the next. The number of seats caught by the target depends on Labor’s fortunes overall. A sudden resignation from a sitting member immediately represents a potential threat or opportunity for the AA target.

In the last 12 months, three long serving Labor MP’s in Victoria have announced their retirement. There’s nothing unusual about this. What is unusual is that each of these seats has been a safe Labor seat.

Andrew Giles has been preselected for Scullin and Tim Watts for Gellibrand.  Both Andrew and Tim will be effective, powerful champions of the Labor cause – but there were equally talented women in the movement who could have been preselected for Labor in these seats.

The long term pattern of men being preselected for the safest seats in the country continues. Labor men hold 73 per cent of the safest seats in the country. The ALP’s gender success has taken place in the margin(al)s.

Sometimes, the predominance of women in marginal seats is not a bad thing, delivering an unexpected boon to women. Men, fearing a Labor loss, abandon opportunities to run in hard to win seats. A change of fortune in the polls suddenly shifts in Labor’s favour; an unexpected election win occurs and a tide of women MP’s flood the House. This is what happened in Victoria when Steve Bracks swiped victory from Jeff Kennett in 1999.

But when Labor looks set to lose, women start losing too. Men, who already have a stranglehold on the very safe seats, tend to hold onto the diminishing spoils for themselves.

Last week, when Martin Ferguson’s sudden resignation put the safest Labor seat in the country in play, there was a strong call, including from senior Labor women Ministers, for Batman to go to a woman.

Batman isn’t personal, it’s political. It’s not about Senator Feeney, who has always been a progressive, pro-choice and equal marriage supporter, committed to increasing the representation of women in parliament. It’s about the party’s overall strategy and commitment to the implementation of the Affirmative Action Rule, particularly in the safest seats in the country.

If Batman, Gellibrand and Scullin all go to men, despite all of the past gender success and a woman occupying the top job in our Parliament, there will still be a long way to go.

On the current rate of change in parliament, it will be 2038 before we see anything like parity between the genders.

Women’s fortunes, in more ways than one, are tied to the fortunes of women in the Australian Labor Party.

At the 2008 WA election, the Liberals elected only two women out of 28 MPs to the lower house, delivering women the lowest representation in an assembly across the country; just 18.6 per cent.  In Queensland, the election of the Liberal-National Party not only wiped out Labor but the majority of women MPs. Women make up only 17 per cent of the Newman Government, compared to 49 per cent under Labor Premier Anna Bligh.

Increasing the numbers of women in parliament rests, as it has done for over 20 years, on the courageous tenacity of Labor feminists from all factions championing the cause of women.

EMILY’s List is proud of its record, not just holding the Labor Party to account on its rules, but also by providing mentoring and other support to progressive women who are ultimately successful in winning preselection.

New Matilda has approached Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Status of Women Michaelia Cash and Greens spokesperson on women Lee Rhiannon for comment on the representation of women in politics.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.