The Liberal Party has failed to modernise. Having spent years kicking the “we don’t need quotas for women” can down the road, their leaders now feign surprise at how difficult it is for Liberal women to progress.
But the reason it is hard for women in the Liberal Party is because their paths are constantly blocked by men.
High-profile minister Mary Wooldridge lost preselection in Kew to Tim Smith in 2014.Credit:Matt Davidson
It is not just at the federal level where men have refused to make way for the many talented and ambitious women who want to play a serious role in the running of the country. At state level, example after example shows how a hard-fought preselection left competent women stranded. Some male parliamentarians loudly claiming to care about making room for women are only there because they denied women a chance in preselection contests.
Tim Smith, a former local government mayor in his 30s, won a vigorously contested preselection in Kew in 2014 against a former minister and serving shadow minister Mary Wooldridge. Mary subsequently quit politics.
When Louise Asher retired as the member for Brighton in 2018, the well credentialled Upper House member Margaret Fitzherbert sought preselection for that prized safe lower house seat but was also beaten by a less well-credentialled man, former adviser and Young Liberal James Newbury.
When Martin Dixon retired from the state seat of Nepean at the last election, Sarah Meredith nominated. A former president of the Young Liberals and in her 30s, she is CEO of Global Citizen, an NGO dedicated to eradicating poverty. Might make a useful contribution to our political system, do you think? But also nominating was 59-year-old electoral officer Russell Joseph, who won Liberal Party endorsement – but not the seat.
James Newbury after he won pre-selection for the Liberals for the seat of Brighton in 2016.Credit:Penny Stephens
Michael O’Brien, Leader of the State Opposition and a long-term opponent of quotas, fronted the media on Thursday and suddenly announced he is “open to the idea of quotas”. He did not say he supports quotas – he says he is “open to the idea”. Whatever that means. If he cannot offer a more positive commitment, then he only has himself to blame if voters doubt his strategy for lifting female participation.
O’Brien squibbed it when he claimed it was “up to the administrative wing” of his party. He may as well have said “I lack the power and internal authority to do anything about it”. And that is even before Jeff Kennett takes on the party presidency.
At a time when the state government may be vulnerable – Dan Andrews is still away, his budget is in tatters, the Belt & Road commitment is becoming untenable [has he tried acupuncture for his back injury?], the hotel quarantine failures are again front of mind as a re-launch gets underway – but all O’Brien gets asked about are Scott Morrison’s failings. Frustrating.
A generation of young women who try to enter conservative politics end up walking away, disillusioned and often angry at the school cadet camp ambience. The Prime Minister says the solution is tighter rules. No, like the bonk ban, rules are not needed – don’t they know the difference between right and wrong?
It’s been a difficult month for the Prime Minister and the federal government. Credit:Illustration: Matt Davidson
With the current malaise infecting his government, Scott Morrison will almost certainly now need the remainder of 2021 to reset and try to achieve something other than daily crisis management. The next federal election will be pushed as far away as possible.
This has direct impact on the Victorian political contest. The state Liberals were hoping the federal election campaign would be out of the way well before they start campaigning a year from now for the November 2022 poll. They need clear air, but now may not get it. They need money – but now may not get it. They need women for winnable seats – now the feds will recruit any potential female candidate.
There is no formal training for politics. There is no TAFE certificate. If interested, a novice can progress from student politics to being a junior staffer and then, if surviving the rough and tumble, can progress to contesting a seat.
Most MPs and senators have served as advisers. The system is self-replicating, which preferences opportunities for insiders, which mistakenly gets described as a meritocracy. Unconscious bias keeps diversity of all kinds at bay.
Labor women at the Emily’s List launch at Parliament House in 1996.Credit:RICHARD BRIGGS
If women are pre-selected without decent training, their party is simply setting them up to fail. The ALP has used the wildly successful Emily’s List since 1996 to inject political smarts into generations of Labor women and provide vital mentoring. The Liberals have nothing similar.
There is however a bi-partisan “finishing school” for women who want to go into politics at any level – local, state or federal. Since 2016, Pathways to Power has been offering training to any aspiring female politician.
Funded by philanthropist Carol Schwartz, and conducted in partnership with the University of Melbourne, it takes 25 women at a time and puts them through a part-time “politics for beginners” course over many months.
Participants come from all the major parties and some independents. They currently have 400 applicants for the 25 places next semester. The program is being replicated in Sydney and Brisbane.
If the conservatives need even more guidance, they could always look to Aretha Franklin. Respect.
Jon Faine is a regular columnist
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