Monthly Archives: August 2015

Abbott’s captain’s pick of his ministry left women out in the cold

Coalition prime minister Tony Abbott selected only 6 women for inclusion in his first ministry: 1 in his 19 person cabinet, 4 in the 11 person Outer Ministry and 1 in the group of 12 Parliamentary Secretaries.

When asked whether the gender imbalance in his cabinet compared to the gender make-up of the Australian population was an issue Abbott replied: ‘I’m obviously disappointed that there aren’t more women in Cabinet and if Sophie Mirabella had been clearly ahead in Indi, Sophie would be in the Cabinet.  So plainly, I am disappointed that there are not at least two women in Cabinet.  Nevertheless, there are some very good and talented women knocking on the door of the Cabinet and there are lots of good and talented women knocking on the door of the ministry.  so I think you can expect to see, as time goes by, more women in both the Cabinet and the Ministry’ (Tony Abbott, Press Conference, 16 September 2013, To rub salt into the wounds Abbott took responsibility for women’s issues with the token gesture of appointing Senator Michaelia Cash assisting the prime minister in that portfolio.

Despite Abbott’s comments about the expectation that more women would be appointed to the cabinet and the ministry ‘as time goes by’ he failed to take the opportunity substantively to improve the gender imbalance when he reshuffled his ministry in December 2014.  His promotion of 1 extra woman to Cabinet left only 3 in the Outer Ministry.  He added 2 extra women Parliamentary Secretaries, but overall the total number of women in his ministry only increased from 6 to 8.

The low representation of women in Abbott’s 1st and 2nd ministries compares poorly with the record of the previous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor governments.  The 1st Rudd Ministry: Cabinet 4, Ministry 3, Parliamentary Secretaries 3 = Total of 10. The 1st Gillard Ministry surprisingly included 2 fewer women: Cabinet 4 (including Gillard), Ministry 3, Parliamentary Secretaries 2 = Total of 8. Prime Minister Gillard explained she wanted to keep changes to a minimum when she succeeded Rudd after the June 2010 party coup: ‘the team is the team as you see it’ but she indicated the shape of the ministry would be reviewed after the August 2010 election (Packham, B. & Schulz, M. , Herald Sun, 28 June 2010

In her 2nd ministry Gillard increased the number of women to 10 – Cabinet 5 (including Gillard); Ministry 2, Parliamentary Secretaries 3. Gillard increased the number of women in her subsequent ministries to 12.   Rudd, who returned to the position of prime minister after a caucus room ballot in which Gillard was defeated, included 14 women in his ministry: Cabinet 6, Ministry 5 and 3 Parliamentary Secretaries.

The Coalition’s Leader of Government Business in the Senate and Employment Minister Senator Eric Abetz is reported as having defended the minimal level of female representation in Abbott’s first cabinet with the comment that having more women in the Labor ministry had not necessarily led to good representation in parliament and to have said: ‘You have to  make very tough judgment calls as prime minister as to who is in and who is out of Cabinet and at the end of the day we, as a Coalition, have always said that these positions should be based on merit rather than on quota’ (

Labor’s Chris Bowen said the make-up of Abbott’s first ministry had ‘taken Australia backwards’ and ‘the fact that the new Prime Minister could only find, out of his entire party room, one female member of Parliament that he regards as being meritorious enough to serve in his Cabinet is a sad indictment’ adding that the cabinet of Afghanistan had more women than the Australian Cabinet (

There was also criticism from within the Liberal Party about Abbott’s selections for his 1st ministry.  Liberal Senator Judith Troeth said ‘the appointments sent a bad signal to women about their chances of promotion if they entered politics’ and would ‘send a message’ to women in business who wanted to enter parliament ‘to not even bother – don’t even try’. ‘Tony Abbott says they’re knocking on the door but why is it shut in the first place?’ (Crowe, D. The Australian, 17 September 2013

Australia does not perform very well in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) rankings of the proportion of women in lower houses of parliament around the world.  In 2011 Australia ranked 38th with 24.7 per cent (see Table 5.6 ‘Proportion of women in parliament, 2011, selected countries’ in Singleton, G. et al, 2013, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia, p. 150). In August 2015 Australia had fallen  to 44th position even though its representation had increased slightly to 26.7 per cent because other countries had improved their performance (Women in National Parliaments: World Classification, Inter-Parliamentary Union, 1st August 2015,

So how can Australian governments improve the representation of women in the ministry? A starting point may be to ensure that more women are elected to parliament. The Australian Labor Party uses quotas to increase the number of women pre-selected for winnable seats (Singleton et al 2013, p. 346).  In July 2015 the party increased the target from the current 40 per cent to 45 per cent in 2022 and 50 per cent in 2025 (Osborne, P., The Australian, 26 July 2015,

Opinion is divided within the non-Labor Coalition parties on this issue.  It has been reported that most Liberal MPs are opposed to the introduction of a quota system (Donovan, S., 28 July 2015, Some Nationals MPs are also opposed to the use of quotas but Federal President of the Nationals Christine Ferguson is reported to favour setting a target of 20 per cent female MPs for the party before 2025 (Fairbairn, M. 10 August 2015,

Setting targets is a softer option than adopting a prescriptive quota system. Liberal Senator Judith Troeth in 2010 advocated targets with the comment: ‘Unless we set an extreme objective like that I can’t see that we’re going to improve the numbers’.  Liberal Senator Sue Boyce said the party needed to look at preselection processes because ‘there are as many women of merit available for positions as there are men of merit, but for some reason we’re not attractive to them’.  Liberal Judi Moylan, a minister in the Howard government, said the Liberal Party had to act on the problem and that ‘by far the biggest impediment to women getting preselection’ was the fact that ‘you get several more men than women standing’ (Crowe, D., The Australian 17 September 2013,

Gladys Berejiklian, Liberal Treasurer in the NSW Baird government, reportedly has changed her mind about using affirmative action, expressing favour of pre-selection targets for winnable seats until at least 50 per cent of elected representatives are female.  She said ‘I didn’t want to be tainted as somebody who got there because I’d been targeted, or because there was a quota system.  I thought I’d got there on my merit and everybody else should do the same. But I realise, when you look around that nothing has changed.  I [now] believe you have to proactively intervene, work out where the barrier is and address that’ (Smith, F., 25 August 2015,

It is interesting to look at the gender balance in the parliaments of other countries.  The United States of America House of Representatives ranks 75th in the IPU league table with representation of only 19.4 per cent women. Neither of the two major parties has formal quotas or targets. There is a marked difference between the parties. Of the 84 women in the House of Representatives only 22 are Republicans while 62 are Democrats.

The New Zealand House of Representatives ranks 31st on the IPU table with 31.4 per cent women of whom the National Party has 16 representing 26 per cent of its sitting members and the New Zealand Labour Party has 12 which represents 37 per cent of its sitting members. The New Zealand Labour Party set a target for at least 45 per cent women Labour MPs to be implemented after the 2014 election and at least 50 per cent women after the 2017 election (Young,A., New Zealand Herald, 3 November 2013, The National Party said that Labour’s proposed quota system would undermine ‘women’s ability to succeed on merit alone’ (Radio New Zealand, 5 July 2013, The current Key National government, in contrast to Abbott, has 6 women in its 20 member cabinet and 3 women ministers outside cabinet (

The UK House of Commons ranks 38th on the IPU table with 29.5 per cent women members. There is a difference between the parties.  The Conservatives have 18.5 per cent women MPs compared to Labour’s 35 per cent.  The UK Labour Party has used gender quotas since 1997 which it has been argued accounts for its success in increasing the representation of Labour women in the parliament (Childs, S., 12 September 2014, ‘Missing Women: It’s Time for Legislative Quotas in British Politics’ Despite the disparity the current Conservative 22 member cabinet includes 7 women.

The Australian Liberal Party seems to be giving serious attention to the use of targets to increase the proportion of women in its ranks.  A report by Liberal think tank Menzies Research Centre in favour of incremental targets was endorsed by Abbott who ‘is open to the idea of setting a target’ but does ‘not want to set a quota’.  He is reported to have told a Liberal Party Federal Women’s Committee that the party must become ‘less blokey’ and if the party doesn’t ‘get the percentage of women up, we will be letting ourselves down’ (Doran, M. 15 August 2015, According to Abbott ‘it would be entirely reasonable for our party to have, not a quota, but a target to increase the number of women in the parliament and in our government at every opportunity’ including increasing the number of women within the ministry at every reshuffle (

An increase in the number of Liberal women MPs is not a prerequisite for improving the gender balance in the Abbott ministry.  The selection of the ministry is ‘the captain’s pick’ and Abbott has the power to increase the representation of women in his team from the pool of talented Liberal women currently in the parliament.

An interesting publication on this issue is McCann, J. 14 November 2013 ‘Electoral quotas for women: an international overview’,

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

29 August 2015


Abbott’s July 2015 COAG: cooperative or coercive federalism?

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) is the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia whose membership comprises the prime minister, state premiers, territory chief ministers and the president of the Australian Local Government Association.  The extent to which the prime minister utilises COAG as a policy forum has depended on the relationship between a federal government and member state governments.  For example, Coalition prime minister John Howard had to deal with a COAG where all state and territory governments were Labor thus making it more difficult to achieve consensus on his policy preferences (Singleton, G. et al 2013, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia, ‘Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and cooperative federalism’, case study, pp 130-132).

At a special meeting of COAG held on 23 July 2015, the membership comprised a Coalition prime minister (Liberal Tony Abbott), 3 Liberal premiers (NSW, WA and Tas) plus the Country Liberal Chief Minister for the Northern Territory and 3 Labor premiers (Vic. Qld and SA) plus the Labor Chief Minister for the Australian Capital Territory.  An historic first Leaders’ Retreat for all COAG members without the presence of supporting bureaucrats was held in Sydney on 22 July.  With this mix of party representation it could have been expected that prime minister Abbott would have had difficulty gaining the agreement of all COAG members to his preferred policy agenda.

COAG outcomes

Signs of COAG working as a forum for cooperative federalism were evident in agreements reached to a coordinated approach to counter-terrorism (Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy), continuation of a national campaign to reduce violence against women and their children jointly funded by all jurisdictions, and agreement by all governments to work with the National Ice Taskforce to develop a National Ice Action Strategy (COAG, ‘Communique-COAG Special Meeting, Consensus was achievable on these issues because they did not cut across party lines or threaten the interests of individual states.  There was also agreement to reform of the vocational education and training sector, including consideration of a federal takeover, unanimous support for the Northern Territory’s proposal to gain statehood by 1 July 2008, and ‘recognition of the need to consider working towards extending Medicare to cover treatments in hospitals based on efficient pricing’ (

The fact that consensus is fractured when federal-state financial relations come into play was brought into focus in my April 2015 blog: ‘COAG April 2015: Australian federalism business as usual’.  A catalyst for the disagreement between the states and the Commonwealth government at that meeting was the Abbott government’s May 2014 budget decision to cut $80 billion from the states’ funding for schools and hospitals.  There was also disagreement between the states over the GST with Western Australia’s premier pushing for a revision of the GST distribution to assist his state’s financial problems which was not supported by other states.

Federal-state financial issues, not surprisingly, were front and centre at the July 2015 meeting with the Abbott government looking for the means to increase its revenue base and the states and territories seeking additional revenue to fund the short-falls in their own budgets, including the federal government’s projected cuts to their funding.  Tax reform, or more aptly, ways of increasing the tax take, was on the agenda.

All COAG members understood the need for additional revenue but there were differences between them as to how it should be achieved.

Prime Minister Abbott had previously expressed an interest in looking at the GST to raise revenue (Singleton, G. Blog, 30 March 2015 ‘Will the Abbott Government increase the GST?).  The GST came on to the agenda for the July 2015 COAG meeting when NSW Liberal premier Mike Baird proposed an increase from 10 to 15 per cent to meet the costs of health care.  He also flagged the need to provide compensation to lower income earners who would be most disadvantaged by any GST increase.

Labor premiers Daniel Andrews (Victoria) and Annastacia Palaszczuk (Queensland) opposed any increase to the GST preferring an increase to the Medicare levy to fund health services. The Queensland premier commented: ‘If Tony Abbott wants to go and put that to the Australian public that is his option’. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr reportedly did not reject Baird’s proposal but preferred the idea of an increase to the Medicare levy (

Consensus was reached by COAG members to extend the GST to include all online sale transactions from overseas valued at less than AUD $1,000 which previously had been exempt.  It was also reported that ‘taken in parallel with the Tax White Paper, leaders agreed there is an opportunity to consider more durable revenue arrangements to address growing financial pressures facing all governments.  Any revenue arrangements need to be fair, efficient and lasting’ said the prime minister  (

This is not going to be an easy task.  Consensus was not achievable at the COAG meeting on a general increase to the GST or an alternative increase to the Medicare levy.  It was reported that Abbott ‘sent a clear signal that he preferred an increase in the GST to a higher Medicare levy, saying a change in the consumption tax could lead to simpler taxes and would rate as a genuine reform’ (Crowe, D. 23 July 2015 The Labor premiers of Victoria and Queensland, however, remained resolutely opposed as did Tasmanian Liberal premier Will Hodgman who said after the meeting that his state’s position in supporting the current GST arrangements had not changed, nor did they ‘support increasing income tax via a higher Medicare levy’ (

The debate on tax reform will not doubt be fuelled further with the publication of the Commonwealth White Paper due at the end of 2015.

Cooperative or coercive federalism?

Cooperative federalism involves mutual agreement and collaborative joint action.  The July 2015 COAG meeting met those criteria on the basis of the consensus reached on a number of issues and the collaborative action to be taken to achieve those strategies and objectives.  However, it fell short on the substantive tax reform issues on which the participants failed to agree. It could be argued that the agreement by COAG to consider ‘more durable revenue arrangements’ and not to take the GST or the Medicare levy off the table, is more a function of coercive federalism.

Coercive federalism occurs when ‘a federal government pressures the states to change their policies by using regulation, mandates and conditions (often involving threats to withdraw federal funding)’.  U.S. federalism has been ‘described as “coercive” on the basis of ‘major political, fiscal, statutory, regulatory and judicial practices’ imposed by the federal government on the states (Kincaid, J. 2008, ‘Contemporary U.S. Federalism: Coercive Change with Cooperative Continuity’, Revista D’Estudis Autonomics i Federals, No. 6 April 2008).  This process can be seen with the Abbott government’s $80 billion cuts to state funding for schools and hospitals, forcing the states to secure an increase in tax receipts and ways of achieving it, hence their agreement at the COAG meeting to keep Commonwealth and State tax changes on the table, including the GST and the Medicare levy for the Commonwealth’s White Paper on Tax Reform (

It must be asked how strong is the Commonwealth government’s commitment to addressing tax reform on a cooperative basis with the states when Abbott apparently has his own agenda on how it should be carried out?  The capacity of COAG to resolve this issue in a cooperative way may be unlikely considering some premiers expressed their strong opposition to any increase in the GST as soon as the COAG meeting was over.  The success of COAG to function as a cooperative forum to achieve tax reform in that context may not be possible.  What we might see instead is what has been considered to be the Commonwealth repeatedly demonstrating  ‘that whatever it cannot do cooperatively it intends to do by legal and financial force’ where ‘the veil of cooperativeness that overlays this shift to “coercive federalism” is increasingly thin and regularly disappears altogether’ (Brown, A.J. 2007, ‘Federalism in Australia – new life or old tricks?’, 26 March. The question raised in my 30 March 2015 blog remains – will the Abbott government risk going to an election having increased the GST by 50 per cent without the consent of all states and territories or with a policy to do so? Pragmatic electoralism may be the determinant of how this issue plays out rather than any deliberations of COAG.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

4 August 2015