A Message for Women Seeking a Political Career — Quotas Work!
Dr Liz van Acker and Associate Professor Linda Colley
How to increase women’s representation in Australian parliaments is a contentious issue. Women on the conservative side of politics have been outspoken about gender politics, accusing colleagues of bullying and being excluded from decision-making within the unstable Morrison government. Indeed, Liberal parliamentarian Julia Banks’s ‘defection’ to the cross-bench positioned the federal government into minority status on 27 November 2018.
Banks stated that she could no longer support the increasingly ‘reactionary right-wing’ faction of the party, and criticised the ‘blinkered rejection of quotas and support of the “merit myth”’. Other senior women such as Julie Bishop and Kelly O’Dwyer have also been very critical of their party’s approach towards gender issues.
The case of Queensland
These national events are in contrast to the Queensland state parliament, which has a healthy representation of women in its parliament. In 2017, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk made history as the first Australian woman who had been elected for two terms as a state Premier. Women also hold senior cabinet positions such as Deputy Premier, Treasurer and Attorney-General. Queensland was the first ministry in Australia to hold a female-dominated Cabinet.
This is not to deny that recent achievements for women are uncharacteristic of Queensland’s history. Queensland was one of the final states to provide the right to vote for women in 1905, but it was third in giving women the right to stand for parliament in 1915 (after SA and Commonwealth). Progress has been slow and late, and only 11 women had held a seat in Queensland Parliament in its first 130 years up to 1989. The first woman was elected in 1929, and felt very isolated as there were no female amenities for her, and her male counterparts proposed that she eat her meals on the parliamentary building’s veranda. Women have never represented more than 39 percent of any Queensland parliament. The majority of female Queensland state parliamentarians have been representatives of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which means that progress has not only been slow but also not sustained with changing electoral outcomes. As recently as 2014, following a landslide conservative election win, Queensland had the lowest female parliamentary representation of any Australian state at 21.3 percent.
The 2015 election delivered Queensland’s second woman Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk — the first Australian woman to win the Premiership from Opposition — and a hung parliament. The Premier’s electoral success symbolised a significant development for women’s representation in parliament. ALP women were preselected for around 40 percent of seats contested, and won the same proportion of ALP held seats. In contrast, Liberal National Party (LNP) preselected around half that number, and LNP women comprised 19 percent of elected LNP representatives — their best performance upon election, although nonetheless inadequate by national standards and in comparison to the ALP.
The 2017 Queensland election provided another high point in women’s representation in Queensland Parliament. There were several factors at play here, including strong affirmative action rules, and an additional bonus of an electoral redistribution that created four new seats available for potentially interested parties. The ALP quotas worked in terms of ensuring access to winnable seats: they exceeded even the 2023 target of 45 percent. In contrast, women had been preselected for the highest proportion of LNP contested seats to date, at 28 percent, but only won 15.4 percent of the LNP held seats. These results intimate that women were not contenders for safe seats. The current leader of the LNP is Deb Frecklington which indicates that the LNP is providing some political opportunities for women.
Explanations for success
The major parties have adopted different strategies in attempting to help improve women’s political participation.
A critical explanation for the ALP’s ability to tackle the barriers to women entering parliament is the utilisation of quotas. For several decades, the ALP has had affirmative action rules that have gradually increased the target for women from 25 percent to the current policy target of 50 percent by 2025. These formal rules have not been an instant panacea, and depended on informal support. For example, Queensland women made limited initial progress under the 1994 rule due to lukewarm support from some political and parliamentary leaders, but they thrived under the same 1994 rule under new leaders who were more supportive of women’s participation. The most recent rules have removed some of this potential for passive resistance.
At its 2015 national conference, the ALP approved an affirmative action policy that included a target of 40 percent immediately, increasing to 45 percent in 2023 and 50 percent in 2025 and enforcement mechanisms for not meeting the targets. The Queensland ALP state conference adopted this policy, and met these quotas in the preselection processes for the 2017 state election. This suggests a direct link between using formal rules in conjunction with sanctions and positive election results for women.
In contrast, the LNP perceives quotas as patronising, so it persists with its less effective tactics of targets, training or mentoring. It wishes to avoid tokenism which the party sees as connected to relying on formal rules; rather it maintains that the best candidate should be selected for every seat, regardless of gender. The proportion of LNP women contesting elections has fluctuated, but the percentage of women in LNP-held seats has remained below 20 percent of their total elected representatives. Opponents insist that quotas are discriminatory, because they could permit women to displace more qualified and “meritorious” men. In fact, men’s merit is never questioned, but seems to be taken for granted. LNP women have had less opportunity and success in attaining parliamentary roles, with women never holding more than 20 percent of LNP-held seats.
There are also situations where informal barriers and practices influence the broader political context of women’s participation. Women are more likely to gain access to senior level positions when there is a greater risk of organisational failure. The metaphor of the ‘glass ceiling’ is an invisible barrier to advancement. This term has extended to the ‘glass cliff’ to capture this precariousness during times of crisis or failure. It is likely that men compete less seriously for positions which offer fewer appealing prospects. The glass cliff concept, therefore, can be applied to selecting women candidates in the political arena: the “winnability” of the seats in which they run is an important incentive.
Another issue to consider is the dominance of a two-party system. Party discipline drives strong voter support (although ‘marginal’ and ‘safe’ seats are becoming more difficult to predict), which is potentially a more important factor than whether the candidate is a man or woman. While voters do choose between candidates, parties decide on who the candidates will be. In turn, women’s opportunities for selection as the candidate may depend on the gendering of formal and informal rules. For instance, women may be more likely to be selected to contest less winnable seats, as per the glass cliff phenomena discussed above. For women in the Queensland government, recent successful increases were underpinned by a range of circumstances. These included the sweeping opportunities in the aftermath of the 2012 wipe-out election. The glass cliff effect of limited expectations of winning the 2015 election also assisted women. The ALP’s affirmative action policy ensured that ALP women were preselected to a fair share of the held and winnable seats for the 2017 election.
The structures of parliament have been male dominated and shaped gender, so that improvements in women’s participation — in Queensland and elsewhere — have been protracted. Introducing change is difficult when informal systems of privilege have maintained men’s representation at much higher levels than women’s. Party organisations, rules and ideology help explain the success in boosting women’s presence. The increase in women representatives has been gradual, but the ALP’s quotas and reforms have largely overcome the matter of women’s relative invisibility and the need to advance participation. If a political party is recognised as ‘women-friendly’ and victorious women are acknowledged, more women are likely to engage and participate in political activities.
Women’s participation provides new opportunities to embrace and transform politics. The gender ‘problem’ at the national level of politics, where a woman resigns from a conservative government to sit on the cross-bench and her colleagues also criticise the dominance of men in parliament, confirms the gender problems. Women’s representation and lower participation than men’s in parliament will continue to be illuminated.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
LIZ VAN ACKER
Dr Liz van Acker is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. Her research interests include gender and politics.
Associate Professor Linda Colley is Discipline Leader HRM at CQUniversity, and her research interests include public employment and gender equality at work.