What is the Liberal Party’s definition of ‘merit’? And why is it preventing women from reaching executive-‐level positions? Steph Nash reporting.
The year is 2004.
Parliamentary senior, Judith Troeth, sits silently in front of her pre-selectors. She is cool, calm and collected, having been through this process many times before.
Her competition is stiff: a mixture of young blood, and a surprise former-MP who has just come out of retirement.
But with 13 years in parliament, and 64 years of life experience, Troeth is relaxed about scoring a place on the Liberal ticket to the Senate.
That was until the man on the other side of the table shook his head and grumbled:
“I can’t believe you’re contemplating going on. You’ll be 70 when your term finishes.”
Disgruntled and annoyed, Troeth reassured him that her age and aptitude was her own business, and that she did not appreciate that her own judgment was being questioned.
Especially by a man.
Ten years on, Troeth says that this is just one example of the many ways in which the Liberal Party pre‐selection system fails women.
“I’ve seen men in their 60s and 70s be interviewed for pre‐selection, and the matter of age has never come up,” she says.
“[The pre‐selectors] ask women questions about their parental and marital status in the round-table and open-forum part of the pre-‐selection. They don’t ask these questions of the male candidates. Certainly, branch members do not seem to see the urgency of selecting women.”
The Liberal Party have copped quite a lot of flack for their majority‐male cabinet, with Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, justifying his ministry as the result of a ‘merit-based’ criterion.
According to academic Joy McCann (2014), the numbers of female representatives in the Lower House are highly disproportionate. As of the 2013 federal election, 25 per cent of members in the Lower House are female. For the Liberal Party, 20 per cent of all members are women, with only 24 combined female members and senators.
With these statistics in mind, one has to ask: why are there so few meritorious Liberal women? Do they exist? Or are the Liberal Party’s pre-selection methods a disguise for darker motives?
Since October 2013, all Australian businesses with 500 or more employees have had to report specific details of their culture back to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). CEOs have been quizzed about the male‐to-female make-up of their workforce, and asked to reveal what policies they have in place (if any) for promoting gender equality.
As a governmen-owned entity, the WGEA only acts as a gender equality watchdog for private companies.
But parliamentarians can make hundreds and thousands of dollars a year. Surely, Parliament House as a workforce would be held to the same standards as everyone else?
Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The WGEA’s standardised questionnaire provides a list of acceptable options for employers to select if they declare that they have no policies in place to support gender equality. These options include:
“No, [we] are currently under development”;
“No, [we have] insufficient human resources staff”; and,
“No, [that is] not our priority”.
There is no option on the list that says:
“No, we hire employees based on merit”.
The Coalition’s meritorious means of pre‐selecting candidates has been widely criticised by the Australian public. In the eyes of the WGEA, it probably wouldn’t fare as an ethical way of ensuring equal opportunity for promotion – especially given the current male‐to‐female ratio of the ministry.
Women’s activist and academic, Wendy McCarthy, is disgruntled by the Coalition’s misappropriation of the term ‘merit’. She argues that merit is far too subjective a term to be used as form of pre‐selection criteria, and that its use only hurts the credibility of the Liberal party.
“When you say a ‘merit‐based’ system, it sounds completely compelling, charming and logical, but clearly if there’s only one woman in cabinet, then it suggests that there are no women of merit in the Coalition,” McCarthy says.
“I don’t think that’s true. I think a merit-‐based system needs a gender‐lens run over it. It doesn’t get that. We’re not seeing strong women in the Liberal Party, despite the fact we know they’re there.”
Senator Michaelia Cash disagrees. Forged from a hard corporate background, Cash strongly believes that she is the type of meritorious woman that was built to succeed in the Liberal Party.
Once a solicitor at top-‐tier law firm, Freehills, Cash is now one of five women in the Abbott ministry, acting as the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women. Having strongly upheld her ticket to the Senate for the last six years, Cash maintains that, despite the majority-‐male cabinet, the Liberal Party will not be changing its methods of pre‐selecting candidates or promoting members. The party completely rejects the use of quota systems, arguing that they are, in fact, contradictive to women’s empowerment.
“The Coalition holds the view that appointment of women to positions for reasons other than merit would be counter‐productive and work against the long-‐term interest of women.” Cash says.
“Research shows that that [quotas] can actually cause resentment to women within organisations. I don’t ever want to be part of a government that is able to be accused of actually causing resentment against women because we mandated something, as opposed to encouraging long‐term cultural change.”
Unlike the Liberal Party, both the Australian Labor Party and the Greens Party use a combination of quotas and targets to encourage fair political representation of the Australian public. As a governing body, the Liberal Party has many policies for guiding the public towards developing practices of gender equality.
An example of this is the Paid Parental Leave Scheme, which is currently being amended to ensure that women on leave receive superannuation and appropriate remuneration. But to suit the party itself, the Coalition falls back on its ‘merit-‐based’ methods of employee promotion, which offers no strict criteria for advancing employees to executive positions.
Greens senator, Lee Rhiannon, argues that the Coalition uses the term ‘merit’ deceptively, in order to appear as the most credible political party. She says that the Coalition is not alone in its use of merit‐based candidate selection, stating that the Greens too use merit as a guide for selecting male and female candidates.
“I think that when there’s a democratic pre‐selection of some form or another, you would trust that most of those people are making their decision on the basis of which candidate will do the best job. So, that’s where I think the Liberals are kidding themselves a bit, as though they’re the only ones who do merit.” she says.
With the crippling statistics in mind, it is very easy to assume that the term ‘merit’ is being used to veil a much more worrying issue at hand. Recently retired senator, Sue Boyce, says that the current methods used by the Coalition to encourage female membership are not working, and may actually be preventing women from achieving executive positions.
During her time in parliament, Boyce was never afraid to make choices that were uncharacteristic of her party’s values, having openly supported the same-‐sex marriage bill, and Labor’s carbon trading emissions scheme. Having formerly chaired the Liberal Women’s Council in Queensland, Boyce recognises that women have been treated unfairly by the Liberal Party, and suggests the party rethink their options.
“I have never, ever, in my entire experience heard anyone worry about whether we have men of merit. So to me, it looks more like a filter used to somehow keep women out, rather than any sort of way of encouraging women to come in,” she says.
“I don’t think you can represent Australian values of community if you’re not reasonably representative of the diversity of our community, and I think it’s a problem for the whole party – to look at themselves and look at what they’re doing to encourage diversity of membership.”
In rather stark contrast, the ALP and Greens are both enjoying solid numbers of male and female membership. Around 40 per cent of ALP members are women – six of whom were in the last Labor cabinet. In 2010, the Greens Party had a record high of 71.6 per cent female members.
So if both of these parties can get the numbers of women together, why can’t the Coalition?
Gender quotas, that’s why.
“I’d always been an office bearer in the party, but the minute you stop making tea and scones, your status changes immediately” – Judith Troeth
The ALP have had a number of quotas and targets in place since the birth of Emily’s List in 1996. What was once just a pro-‐women’s group is now one of the biggest political factions in the country, with Emily’s List formally supporting Labor’s gender target of 40‐40‐20.
As for the Greens, quotas are very much representative of their entire grassroots organisation – so much so, that gender quotas seem to be ingrained in their constitution. With this in mind, it is no wonder that they are the front-‐runner when it comes to equal gender representation.
Labor Senator, Claire Moore, says that it’s no surprise that the Coalition’s meritorious means of pre‐selection have been widely criticised by the Australian public. In the eyes of the WGEA, it probably wouldn’t fare as an ethical way of ensuring equal opportunity for promotion – especially given the current male‐to-female ratio of the ministry. Moore acknowledges that the Coalition reject the effectiveness of quotas, but says that their reasons for doing so are contradictory.
“I think merit is an excuse. It’s demeaning in my opinion, which is actually the same argument that people who are against quotas use,” she says.
“Apparently [Labor] are somehow imposing a result, and therefore not miximising merit? All you have to do is wander through corridors in places like [Parliament House] and see the pictures on the wall, and for generations women of extraordinary merit were not able to break through and be elected to parliament.”
Judith Troeth did eventually get pre-‐selected as a Liberal candidate for the Senate back in 2004, but missed out on the top-‐spot to candidate Michael Ronaldson – a former Liberal MP who had just come out of retirement after three years. To Judith, this was an unfair pick, and she felt that her years of experience as a senator and parliamentary secretary had accounted for very little.
“On any criteria I would’ve thought that I had more merit to be on the top of the ticket, but such was the view at the time. With a bit of factional wheeling and dealing, I was demoted to number three.” Troeth said.
“You would think in selecting people for something as prestigious as state or federal parliament that a lot more thought would go into it. It’s all about merit when it comes to women, but its not about merit when it comes to men … I’d always been an office bearer in the party, but the minute you stop making tea and scones, your status changes immediately.”
Having noticed that the progression of the party had hit a bit of a reckless downward spiral, in 2010 Troeth wrote up a draft policy paper suggesting that the Coalition adopt another technique for pre-‐selecting candidates.
Her paper was called “Modernising the parliamentary Liberal Party”, and through the implementation of gender quotas, she aimed to help her party move towards a positive gender equality image.
The paper was circulated to around 100 members.
She received only five responses Australia‐wide, ranging from luke‐warm agreement to flat‐rejection.
Four years on, Judith Troeth still believes that a quota system is the way to go for the Liberal Party. She says that in terms of progress, the Liberal Party don’t seem to get it, and that the dismissal of her paper was a big mistake indeed.
“Since then, the numbers have not improved,” she adds.
“Which I think makes my point.”
So if the WGEA were to assess the gender equality practices of Parliament House, what would be the outcome?
The authority would most likely recommend that the Coalition adopt gender targets – just like the ALP, and just like the Greens. The representation of women in these parties is almost one‐to-one.
The results speak for themselves.
In any case, Parliament House should be held to the same gender equality standards as the rest of the private sector. If it did, we might see more women in parliament.