“It’s the numbers, stupid!”

Women in the Queensland Parliament.

by Ainslie Meiklejohn and Dr Liz van Acker

While there are no formal barriers or impediments excluding women from the Queensland Parliament, why are there fewer women politicians than men?

The historical under-representation of women in the Queensland Parliament is due to numerous barriers that are cultural and nuanced and through which, implicit discrimination occurs.

Women are yet to hold prominent and powerful positions in a sustained manner, indicating the persistence of the ‘glass ceiling’ in the Queensland Parliament and raising once again, the perennial issue of quotas.

In 2015 the ALP national conference endorsed pre-selecting 50 per cent of women candidates by 2025. Their quota system has led to more women in Parliament when compared to other political parties in Queensland, suggesting that quotas are more effective than an approach based on ‘merit’.

Over the last century, 85 women have sat in the Queensland Parliament with a majority elected post 1989. In 2001, 33 per cent of the representatives were women, the highest of any Australian parliament and one of the highest in the world.

However the level of women in the parliament has not been sustained and while there is currently an influx, as recently as 2011, they made up only 28 per cent of the parliament. Current numbers indicate women are yet to represent more than 36 percent of the Parliament, once again reinforcing the need for further scrutiny.

However, the 2015 election, which delivered a hung parliament, saw Queensland’s second woman Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, come to power. She has increased the number of women ministers by nearly 50 per cent with eight women in cabinet, and Jackie Trad as Deputy Premier — another milestone.

Despite reaching leadership roles, the quantitative data indicates women are under-represented, by means either explicit or implicit. Women are now more likely to be better educated than their male peers, implying that men do not attain their roles in parliament due to merit-based practices or because they have more skills than women.

We argue that male politicians sustain their ascendency, in this context, through gendered cultural assumptions and the reproduction of ingrained political expectations that they belong in parliament. In short, due to gendered assumptions of one’s ability and who has the appropriate mix of qualities required for political life.

Women and Politics

The under-representation of women in the Queensland Parliament and elsewhere has a long history. The recognized barriers for women in politics include a suite of biases inherent within the electoral system, education, socio-cultural biases, political party processes and the challenges associated with workplace and family balance.

Under-representation results in incomplete solutions, particularly detrimental for social justice. Since women experience life within a culture that attributes different gendered meanings, it is not possible for women to experience social justice without representatives who have a perspective into women’s lived experiences.

In the context of the parliament, gender is liable to go largely unnoticed for male candidates, legitimising and normalising masculine qualities. The inescapable social construction of gender sees the dichotomy of ‘male’ and ‘female’ play out within the context of the hegemonic social status

Political parties also contribute to women’s under-representation. Norris and Lovenduski (2003) found while women have a tendency to be less conservative, they act first and foremost in the interests of their respective party.

Arguments about the need to increase women’s representation based entirely on substantive claims are flawed, since the inclusion of women in Westminster parliaments does not automatically improve women’s autonomy, conditions or social issues.

In conjunction with this, Julie Ustinoff suggests the success of women in politics relies on gendered ideals about women and media portrayals. When women do enter parliament, it is expected they will fit certain roles, specifically that of a wife, or mother.

Cathy Jenkins states “from the time the first woman set foot in any Australian parliament in 1921 until the present, the expectation has been that female politicians should be wives and mothers”.

Further, Dahlerup explains that voters do have some control over the candidate’s success, but the political parties in their gatekeeper functions determine who sits in which seat. Therefore parties have the ability to change the under-representation of women or other minority groups. Unfortunately, in Queensland politics we see that the discrimination against women is dependent on unsupportive political practices.

Queensland Politics

Queensland has a specific cultural identity, variously described as the masculine bucolic state and as a frontier state with a strong reputation for loud politicians and leaders with large personas. This is amplified by Queensland’s geographic specifications, with a large proportion of electorates located outside the capital city.

The Premiers of Queensland have also left a legacy of male dominance and power, creating a unique environment and culture. Williams describes that this leadership culture as “‘pragmatism’, ‘regionalism’, ‘state development’ and ‘Queensland chauvinism’ — has been exploited for electoral expediency, in varying measures and with varying success, by most premiers, with elements of that pattern still evident today”.

Implicit and Explicit Discrimination

Queensland has had three women Governors, two women Premiers, one women Speaker, and 85 women have sat in Parliament. This number is far less than the many men who have held these and other important governance roles. Thus it is possible to claim that women in the parliament are not a normal or everyday occurrence. As Sawer indicates, women experience discrimination in a unique manner:

“ The presence of women in Australian parliamentary politics was far from normalized. While women were occupying the positions of Governor-General, Prime Minister and Speaker of the House of Representatives they were also being subjected to violent and degrading sexual commentary on the internet and elsewhere.”

Sawer’s argument criticizing sexual commentary and discrimination is reinforced by Summers, who describes the language which is used exclusively to demean women with words such as bitch, slut, menopausal monster, cow, witch, hag and barren. Women experience gendered insults in Queensland Parliament, as commonly found in the Hansard, including:

Parliament of Queensland Hansard, 2015
Parliament of Queensland Hansard, 2012

McCulloch further outlines how women are scrutinized: “the media has not completely come to terms with treating women MPs seriously — it is still obsessed by their clothes, their hairdos, their families and trying to take unflattering photographs of them”. For example, during the 2012 election campaign, images of Premier Anna Bligh were painted on Wicked Camper vans which were depicted the premier naked and urged voters to ‘tick the right box’.

When Kate Jones lost her seat of Ashgrove in the 2012 election, she was described as wearing a bright pink dress before any analysis of her policy or actions was undertaken. Most recently, the Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, was described as a “doting aunt with a legal mind, but lacking a political plan”. Thus women are not met with the same respect as their male counterparts and still perceived as outsiders.

Political Parties

Throughout the history of Queensland, there have been numerous political parties which conduct pre-selection methods differently.

The barriers for women associated with political parties include pre-selection and party policy. The ALP is the longest running political party in Queensland while the Liberal and National Parties joined a coalition in 1957 and they made an official merger in the September of 2008 to become the Liberal National Party.

The Queensland Greens, Katter’s Australian Party (Queensland Division), Democratic Labor Party, One Nation Party, Australian Democrats and various Independents and other minorities have contested seats in the Queensland parliament . However only three women Independents have held seats: two were One Nation members before the Party’s demise.

Women representing the Greens and the now defunct Democrats have never been elected to the Queensland Parliament, despite both minor parties strongly supporting the empowerment and rights of women.

Table one (above) displays women’s rates of participation according to their political party since the 1989 election when the ALP won government. The figures indicate that women do best in the ALP. In the 1998 Parliament there were 12 ALP women which increased to 27 in the 50th Parliament of 2001.

However, in the same years for the Liberal and National Party representatives, the figures never reached more than two women. The 2012 election resulted in 13 women from the LNP and 5 from the ALP (out of a total win of seven seats). The 2015 Parliament holds 17 women from the ALP, which is in contrast to eight from the LNP.

The Australian Labor Party

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) built on working class consciousness, operating at industrial, social and political levels. It initially supported the concept of enfranchisement for women, however the governments of the early parliaments were unsettled and as Queensland had plural voting, the ALP was more concerned with one man, one vote than the specifics of women’s voting rights.

The Party held traditional conservative views, which were entrenched within the factions and the trade union movement. It was, however, a Labor-led government that finally passed the enfranchisement bill in 1905. Despite the apparent support for women as voters, the ALP in Queensland did not endorse a woman candidate until 1960 with N. T. Carver in the seat of Aspley.

The party however has dramatically modernized its approach with the affirmative action policy which arose from the 1994 conference “whereby women would constitute 35 per cent of all its parliamentary parties by 2002”. This policy change did not happen without dispute and the Queensland branch of Labor opposed it the most.

Since this Affirmative Action change, the ALP has more women in the Federal Parliament; after the 2015 Queensland victory of a Labor Government, women occupy 28 per cent of the Parliament, 57 per cent of the Ministry, and the Premiership and Deputy Premiership.

When the Affirmative Action plan was first introduced, the state made little progress because Premier Wayne Goss opposed the concept of quotas for women as he saw no evidence for women missing out on seats due to merit.

Premier Peter Beattie was more supportive, appointing five women in Cabinet in his second and third ministries. The number of women in the house did eventually increase: in 2001, Queensland Parliament attained the highest proportion of women representatives of any Australian parliament with 33 women from the 89 elected members.

Despite record breaking numbers of women and the ALP’s Affirmative Action Plan, closer scrutiny indicates that this plan is challenging to implement. Reynolds argues,

“after 2001, while women were as a whole a secure fixture of the Parliamentary Labor Party (PLP), with 55.6 per cent in Gold or Silver seats, there was an unmistakable tendency for them for them to be over- represented in the more vulnerable Bronze and potentially very vulnerable marginal electorates”.

This vulnerability supports Ryan’s argument which suggests women’s lack of electoral success is not due to their inability to convince the voters, but rather, consistent with the notion of the glass cliff, to the winnability of the seats in which they ran. Thus, there is room for more work and investigation into Affirmative Action, and as the pattern from the ALP shows, improvements take time.

The Liberal Party

The conservative parties initiated many firsts for women, appointing Joan Sheldon as the first woman leader of any party in Queensland. However this has not translated into a critical mass of women in either the party nor extensive roles in Cabinet. The Liberal Party specifies that women are promoted on talent and merit and their policies are based on fairness for all members, regardless of gender.

The early Liberal Party, post-World War II was based on the Australian Woman’s National League, which aimed to counter the Labor movement by educating women about politics while ensuring that women maintained their homemaker status.

The Liberal Party created women friendly networks, but although they were given important administrative positions, women still held traditional positions within the party. That is, although women in the Liberal party were encouraged to work within the organization, they were expected to maintain traditional conservative values where feminism or gender equity is tolerated but not encouraged. However, women such as retired Senator Sue Boyce of the LNP recognize the need for more formal practices and targets for promoting women in the parliament.

The National Party

The National Party has a long history in Australia, campaigning on regional and rural issues with a focus on the agricultural benefits to the economy. The predecessor to the Nationals, the Country and Progressive National Party was the first party to nominate a woman, Irene Longman and to include a woman in the Cabinet with Yvonne Chapman and the first woman Speaker, Fiona Simpson.

Irene Longman, Member for Bulimba. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Despite these firsts, Fiona Simpson recognized the need for cultural change, maintaining that men need to drive this change. In 2003, two thirds of the Queensland Nationals in parliament were elected prior to 1989 and, unsurprisingly were more likely to have rural backgrounds. This longevity can be attributed to strong patterns of tradition and conservatism. Cribb and Boyce also attribute this to Queensland’s ‘pervasive “countrymindedness”’.

Rae Wear explains how countrymindedness — which expressed the values and mythos associated with agrarian life — was authenticated by agriculture’s economic contributions. Sawer indicates that women’s interest groups formed and organized the Party’s early years, but there was no formal candidacy process and again, women’s involvement was connected to traditional values rather than equal representation.

Structures of Inequality

The metaphor of the ‘glass ceiling’ denotes that while women can see the next step in their career trajectory, they confront external impenetrable barriers preventing any further success. This is also classified as “‘glass walls’ and ‘sticky floors’ where women are segregated into a small number of occupations and industries, with many women working part-time… Career barriers also have no single origin, having many cultural, organisational and individual dimensions”.

This ‘glass ceiling’ metaphor can be expanded into the ‘glass precipice’, which implies that women can be found in precarious situations. A clear example is the role of former women Premiers throughout Australia. Joan Kirner in Victoria, Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia, and Anna Bligh in Queensland were appointed mid-term replacing their male counterparts, but only Anna Bligh achieved the position of leader due to prior planning.

Both Kirner and Lawrence became party leaders at a time of volatility and scandal. As a result, they faced unwinnable elections, which they went on to lose, while Bligh won the position in her own right.

Additionally, Kristina Keneally the former Premier of New South Wales lost the 2011 election after numerous party scandals. Most recently, the appointment of Annastacia Palaszczuk to leader of the ALP in Queensland after the 2012 election when the party held seven of 89 seats cannot be overlooked in terms of the glass precipice.

Choosing women in times of crisis and scandal indicates the stereotypes associated with men and women and their leadership capabilities. They explain how male dominance assures success, while the communicative skills of women are useful in times of volatility; these stereotypes maintain the organizational structures.

It is important that Parliament welcomes women and that the political system encourages more women to nominate for pre-selection. However, this does not always occur effortlessly. A straightforward way of increasing women’s visibility to the electorate is to pre-select them to safe seats. This then will lead women on the road to enhanced participation.



Ainslie is a PhD student at Griffith University. Her main interest is the gap between women’s rights and cultural expectations. Ainslie investigates this gap, exploring the use of gender as a form of capital in her PhD.


Dr Liz van Acker is a Senior Lecturer, in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.

Liz’ research interests include gender in politics and feminist approaches to marriage-related policies.

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