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.


Activist Wendy McCarthy believes that not much has changed for women in politics in the last ten years.

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.