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 http://www.pm.gov.au/media/2013-09-16/press-conference-parliament-house), 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 http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/voters-need-time-to-size-up-gillard-government-says-tony-abbott/story-e6frf7jo-12225884956016).
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’ (www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-16/abbott-unveils-new-ministry/4960186).
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 (www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-16/abbott-unveils-new-ministry/4960186).
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 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/liberals-despair-at-jobs-for-boys/story-fn59niix-1226720519559).
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, http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm).
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, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/latest-news/shorten-backs-non-union-labor-members/story-fn3dxiwe-12274457307761).
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, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-28/liberal-mps-reject-call-for-female-quota/6654906). 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, http://www.northerndailyleader.com.au/story/3270167/nationals-push-for-more-female-mps/?cs=12).
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, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/liberals-despair-at-jobs-for-boys/storyfn59niix-1226720519559).
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, http://www.afr.com/leadership/coalition-leaders-are-beginning-to-embrace-gender-targets-20150824-gi6jzm).
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, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/news/article-cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11150903). 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, http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/political/213762/national-critical-of-labour-quota-system-for-women). The current Key National government, in contrast to Abbott, has 6 women in its 20 member cabinet and 3 women ministers outside cabinet (www.dpmc.govt.nz/cabinet/ministers/ministerial-list).
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’ http://policybristol.globs.bris.ac.uk/2014/09/12/missing-women-its-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, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-15/liberals-urged-to-attract-women-into-parliament/6699818). 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 (www.smh.com.au/federal-politics-political-news/prime-minister-tony-abbott-calls-for-more-women-in-parliament-20150815-gizw3a.html).
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’, http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1314/ElectoralQuotas.
Dr Gwynneth Singleton
29 August 2015