Gender Representation in Aust Politics

I’m pleased to say that I was given a High Distinction for my recent essay below. Much reading, blood, sweat and tears were put into this one. I’m glad it paid off.Smiley face

What explains unequal gender representation in Australian Federal politics?

Women have been able to participate in Australian politics for some time, gaining the right to vote and hold public office in 1902. However, unequal gender representation has been a perpetual feature of Australia’s political landscape since Federation. This paper will analyse why an increase in political representation for women has been relatively slow. Consideration will be given to the obstacles that need to be negotiated and traversed, and what the future might hold.

The origins of unequal gender representation in Australian politics harkens back to notions that women were considered to be incapable of serving any other purpose other than domesticity. As Van Acker wrote, “…there was the view within much conventional liberal political theory and political practice that men have the ability to function in the public world in ways that women do not” (1999, p. 25). There was an almost primal hunter/gatherer approach to what was considered to be men’s and women’s roles in society. Women had to cross the boundaries of the private sphere and enter and participate in the public political sphere – the idea that women could establish public identities in their own right was considered a threat to society’s sexual and social order (Sawer & Simms 1993). It is important to understand this historical backdrop in Australia in order to scrutinise the reasons why unequal gender representation has been a consistent feature of the political landscape.

Women’s participation in Parliament remained low for many years after being granted complete licence. When they increasingly participated in politics and were being actually elected to office on a larger scale, they were given traditional, domestically oriented roles. These ranged from only being wanted “to pour the tea” (Lyons, cited in Langmore 2012, s. 13) in the early days, to, in more modern times, being given ‘nurturing’ portfolios such as education and health, or even being blatantly discriminated against and completely disregarded for ministerial positions “…despite …considerable years of service” (Crawford 2009, p. 303).

These examples align with Van Acker’s contention that “…the best way to avoid overlooking women’s views is to make sure women not only participate, but are represented in person to contribute to the law-making process” (1999, p. 27). Such representation of women is far from straight-forward. True gender representation is fraught with debate regarding best practice and striking the right balance between men and women in Australian society. There have been many road blocks to achieving equality in this area, some of which will be discussed below.

Parliament has traditionally been a “male realm” (Parliament of Australia 1992,  s. 8) – such gender partiality saturates recent and historical accounts of political life. Interestingly, there has been investigation into how much gender can be played out in political institutions. It has been observed that “…senior parliamentary positions such as cabinet posts are still predominantly held by men and that entry to these positions is mediated by involvement in male dominated networks and/or factions” (Broughton & Zetlin; Edwards & McAllister; Ross, cited in Crawford & Pini 2010, p. 608).

Crawford and Pini (2010) bring attention to the fact that federal parliament is acknowledged by male politicians as a masculine space, but also observe that “…there was no critique of this or sense that this could or should be changed” (p. 612).  Of particular note are comments akin to recognising that the differences between men and women are innate and fixed – thus, “Women aren’t as robust in debate… wouldn’t like to be seen as vocally verbose as men… [who] use particular types of adjectives, but it would be unbecoming for women to use some of those adjectives [too]” (p. 613). As one becomes aware of these kinds of statements from male politicians whilst considering the level of women’s representation in Australian politics, the complexity of the issue is apparent – there is a need for a cultural shift in the political sphere. Women should enjoy equal representation in federal politics – they speak for more than half of the Australian population and they bring a distinctive array of principles, understandings and skills to parliament for debate (Van Acker 1999, p. 27). To ignore these facts can prove to be to the detriment of Australia’s political climate.

The assortment of opinions gathered from male politicians regarding gender equality in national politics by Crawford and Pini (2010) highlights an important factor that deserves a much greater level of attention. As such diverse opinions were sampled in their paper “…from 15 semi-structured interviews undertaken” (p. 610), how can addressing such potential diversity of opinion in an entire nation be achieved? As Van Acker states, “The presumption that all interests can be articulated and satisfied when equal numbers of men and women participate in politics is hopeful but unconvincing” (1999, p. 27). It is a challenge that cannot be ignored – even narrowing these conceivable considerations down to the segment of Australian society that are women imposes a significant societal undertaking. This can be considered to be the ultimate goal for Australia and her peoples.

Thus far, Australia has made slow, but sure, progress towards women’s contributions to such a goal. The nation has seen relatively few, but highly significant female leaders in its history, having recently experienced Australia’s first female Prime Minister in office. The concept of meeting quotas for women’s political participation, as ascribed to by the Australian Labor Party (ALP), provides a good start for ensuring such progress for women entering the political landscape. It is worthwhile noting that “There has been a great increase in numbers of women in parliament largely due to the quotas adopted by the ALP in 1994” (Curtin & Sawer 2011, p.50).

The Liberal Party’s (LIB) notion that representation based on meritocracy would be a better solution (Van Acker 1999, p. 101) has been called into question by organisations such as the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), agreeing with decisions based on merit, if “…the meritorious qualities of women as individuals would be recognised if merit was truly objective, and gender would be irrelevant” (Van Acker 1999, p. 186).

Given that “Research demonstrates that if women’s participation reaches 30 to 35 percent (generally termed a ‘critical mass’), there is a real impact on political style and the content of decisions, and political life is revitalized” (CEDAW, cited in Freidenvall & Sawer 2013, p. 271), it seems that the concept of critical mass has managed to exert actual influence in rallying support for quotas at the national level (Freidenvall & Sawer 2013; Van Acker 1999).

However, it is crucial to appreciate that, upon entering the political arena, “…female politicians face special problems in ‘walking the tightrope of gender expectations,’ particularly in the requirement to combine masculine traits such as strength, and feminine traits such as compassion” (Johnson, cited in Denemark, Ward & Bean 2012, p. 565). Such an onus is placed on female politicians not only by their male counterparts, but by the media and the general public. Women in higher ranks in politics are forensically dissected, with the anticipation from the media and the public that they will falter or fail. Leaders such as Julia Gillard, Carmen Lawrence, Cheryl Kernot, Christine Milne, Kerry Chikarovski, Natasha Stott-Despoja, Kristina Keneally, Lara Giddings and Joan Kirner have all been portrayed negatively by reason of their gender. Special attention is paid to their appearance. More so than men, women are likely to be ridiculed by the media and the public, whereas male counterparts tend to be portrayed with humour (Van Acker 1999, pp. 148-149).

These portrayals were magnified when Julia Gillard became the first Prime Minster of Australia: “…it is Gillard who is having to negotiate a path-breaking gender identity for an Australian Prime Minister and therefore faces greater conundrums, for example, how to balance toughness and compassion in a way that makes her appear neither too weak nor too unfeminine” (Johnson 2013, p. 24). Gillard attracted an inordinate amount of vitriol in the press, on the radio and from parliamentary members in the opposition. The sheer amount of negativity surrounding the existence of Australia’s first federal female leader hit its peak, when, in parliament, Gillard could finally endure no more. Her father’s recent death, the constant stream of insults emanating from prominent media shock jocks like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, the braying, harassment and innuendo springing from those in the opposition during parliament question time (Summers 2013, p. 113) – all culminated into the reaction of what is now commonly referred to as ‘Gillard’s Misogyny Speech’ (ABC News 2012). This speech made an unprecedented impact on the nation and on women around the world. As Senator Penny Wong commented, “It was a speech that sparked furious debate [and] interestingly, one of [its] themes… was reprised with much criticism of the mainstream media for missing its significance” (Wong  2013, p. 260).

Such persistent negativity was also experienced by the former West Australian Premier, Carmen Lawrence, albeit in a different way. Initially, she “…was linked to the matron saint icon stirred by the hope for a new, clean ‘womanly’” approach that aligned with Australia’s extensive media history that expected women to “… clean up parliamentary politics” (Eveline & Booth 1997, p.106). She was represented in the media as a political saviour. Even though she never made promises to women in the areas of health, education and child care, Lawrence came under immense pressure when she had to “…clean up the aftermath of the economic debacle that the term represented” (p. 107), effecting cutbacks to women’s services and resources. The example of Carmen Lawrence highlights inherent problems that women can face in politics. One instance is the apparent need for female politicians to distance themselves from ‘women’s issues’ in order to ensure their survival in a male-dominated political arena (Freidenvall & Sawer 2013, p. 265). Another is the concept that one woman can speak for all women’s needs, viewpoints, principles and diversity. The idea that all women’s interests can be represented and articulated because of equal numbers of women and men in parliament is aspirational and implausible in actuality. Eveline and Booth concur with this notion as they ask “For who and what will determine just what the ideal of the feminist politician will be, given the variety of feminisms and their shape-shifting dynamics?” (1997, p. 116).

In light of such deliberations, how can such diversity best be served? It is easy to assert that women’s voices amount to a whisper merely because of political underrepresentation. However, such a statement would only be partially accurate. Women’s voices can be silenced or barely spoken about for the sake of political point-scoring. The 2007 federal election campaign, “…was the first time for more than 20 years that the ALP had gone to the polls without a women’s policy” (Sawer 2008a, p. 263).  Sawer goes on to detail what can only be described as an effective suppression of any commentary and proposed policies promised on the status of women under a Rudd government.

It is also worth mentioning that former Prime Minister, John Howard, had gone to some effort to preserve a male-dominated atmosphere in Australia during his time in office. It appeared that the words feminism and women’s rights practically became dirty words. As Anne Summers documented, “The women’s watchdogs in Canberra have been silenced, the once influential ‘femocrats’… gone or gagged… the government had ensured there was no one to speak up and denounce what was happening… [it] could now move on to its real agenda: to force women out of the workforce and back to traditional roles” (2003, p. 141).

However, such contentions are incomplete.  Sawer (2008b) contends that “from the 1990s …shifts in the political landscape and the increased dominance of the language of the market made it more and more difficult for equity arrangements to be heard. WEL was reduced to having to argue… in terms of the cost to the economy of lost working days and the use of emergency services, not in terms of women’s rights” (p. 278). It is apparent that market-oriented reforms undid a lot of WEL’s work. This opinion is supported by Bloodworth (2005), who maintains that “The fact that women’s oppression is a product of class society explains why we can win reforms if we fight for our rights, but cannot achieve liberation while capitalism continues to exist” (p. 110).

Bloodworth’s contributions are valuable to ponder. The rise of neoliberalism, which marked a shift away from traditional political ideology (Miragliotta, Errington & Barry 2013, p.207), can be considered to be contradictory to increased gender representation in politics. Neoliberalism places an emphasis on the individual and his/her choices, rather than collective empowerment, which is what is needed to ensure change for gender-balanced representation in Australian federal politics. It is exemplified by “…the rise of a democratic deficit discourse, with its emphasis on special measures to increase women’s representation” (Freidenvall & Sawer 2013, p. 261).

Nuances such as the discursive move from women to gender were not undisputed, especially in light of the organised and mostly successful women’s movement in Australia during the 70s and 80s. However, the implications of slashing plans which originated in the women’s movement were viewed as more difficult to justify. One could argue that the following statement is a realistic one:

“The expectation that the presence of women would change the way politics was done and ensure that the interests of women were taken into account was often doomed to disappointment for a variety of reasons, including institutional dynamics, party priorities, and the rise of neoliberal discourses hostile to the public provision on which women were disproportionately dependent” (Freidenvall & Sawer 2013, p. 270).

From this statement alone, one could infer that the desire for equal representation in the Australian federal parliament is idealistic. Pay equality, flexible working arrangements and greater budget allocations to childcare, education, health and other community services may hit the same impermeable ideological wall: that the welfare state and workforce regulation are valid reasons for society’s woes and that neoliberalism and its free-market policies are the solution. As our current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, emphatically declared in his acceptance speech on election night in 2013: “Australia is open for business” (Bornstein 2014, s. 35). Is there a place for increased equal gender representation in such a neoliberal world?

This paper has attempted to address reasons and explanations for Australia’s unequal gender representation in Australian federal politics. However, it is also evident that such an examination is complex and highly contentious. The length of this paper does not do the topic justice. Although, one thing can be stated conclusively – unequal gender representation is a moveable feast, dependent on a variety of factors apparent in Australian society at any given time. Perhaps the proposed solution to such a conundrum lies in the remembrance and revisitation of Australia’s history, along with a willingness to adapt to modern needs and a fearlessness to stand up for the best we can achieve as a nation. 

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