The Politics    Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Work in progress

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with the female members of his new ministry, June 1, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with the female members of his new ministry, June 1, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

For how long do we pretend “better than the Coalition” equals “good enough”?

When the new front bench was sworn in this morning, it was hard not to feel a moment of pride, even if Labor didn’t make it to gender parity. Anthony Albanese’s 10-woman cabinet has easily broken the record that Scott Morrison used to crow about (30.4 per cent), reaching 43 per cent, with the front bench sitting at 45 per cent. After a dark decade for female representation in parliament, it’s important to appreciate this impressive group of diverse and talented women. But it’s also important to note that the new leadership team is far from perfect. As the ABC’s Brett Worthington writes, women hold just two out of seven senior leadership roles, while the front bench could easily have been gender-balanced had the factions allowed it. (Albanese has vowed to reach parity “soon”.) Worthington was immediately criticised for his analysis, just as I was when I expressed disappointment at the failure to reach parity, which many nations have already achieved. But what is wrong with calling for more, calling for better, while also acknowledging the progress that has been made? Why must we pretend that “better than the Coalition” equals “good enough”?

A similar debate has broken out today over two pieces that, with some nuance, warn the Greens against “letting perfect be the enemy of good” on climate – one from Shaun Carney in the Nine papers and one from Chris Wallace in Nikkei Asia. Amid the news that Labor had deliberately designed its policies so that they wouldn’t require legislation, and therefore wouldn’t need to negotiate with the Greens in the Senate, the suggestion seems to be that the minor party ought to “play nice” this time around, with the climate wars of 2009 (and the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) being relitigated again.

As many have pointed out today, the “good” that the Greens are being asked not to quibble with would see Australia contribute to warming above 2 degrees, resulting in “the death of much of Australia’s environment as we know it”. Times have clearly changed. Poll after poll show voters now rank climate change as one of the most urgent issues, and the Greens (along with the independents) have just scored a major win in our “climate election”. And yet it is the Greens, whose primary vote increased to 12 per cent, who are being told to sit down and be quiet, to accept the mandate of the party whose primary vote fell to a historic low.

It’s not just climate change, of course. We’re already getting a painfully familiar taste of what Labor’s version of “good” feels like in other areas, including immigration, where the party has already followed through on its promise to continue with boat turnbacks. Even in the space where Labor has acted compassionately – in allowing the Murugappan family to return to Biloela – the party has not gone far enough, leaving the family on bridging visas when there is no reason not to have already granted them permanent residency, as Michael Bradley writes in Crikey. Why run with good here when better is so very attainable?

Labor finds itself in a difficult position on so many of these issues, particularly on climate, where for years it has been bullied out of offering ambitious goals. Even those who want the party to go further can sympathise with its fear of News Corp (though there’s less sympathy for its cowing to the fossil-fuel lobby). But that is certainly no reason for people not to push for more, or for the Greens to simply roll over and accept a climate target that poses an existential threat.

Today was a huge day for women’s representation in this country, and in some ways it feels ungrateful to find fault with Labor for falling short on parity – except that it didn’t have to. When it comes to gender balance (or 2030 emissions targets, for that matter), 43 per cent might be considered “good”, but it’s certainly not the best we can do.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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