The Politics    Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Women’s Lib(eral Party)

By Rachel Withers

Image of former defence minister Linda Reynolds during Question Time in the Senate, June 17, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Former defence minister Linda Reynolds during Question Time in the Senate, June 17, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Linda Reynolds’ newfound enthusiasm for quotas ignores the many reasons women are turning away from her party

There is no doubt that the Liberal Party has a lot of work to do in order to, as deputy leader Sussan Ley kept saying on Monday’s explosive Four Corners, “get our house in order”. Last night’s airing of grievances over the NSW preselection stoush made everyone look bad. What’s more, it confirmed that the NSW factions still openly hate one another – viewing each other as a “cancer” – and have learnt little from their loss at the federal election. Neither, it seems, has Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. Although he is on leave this week, Dutton made it clear on his way out the door that he ain’t spending any time on it, telling The Australian that he would not be wallowing or conducting an extended election post-mortem. “It’s important for your supporter bases, whether it’s members or general supporters, to have something to fight for and not constantly be on the defensive,” he said. Sure, Peter. There is one woman, however, who thinks she may have a solution to the party’s woes: former defence minister Linda Reynolds, who has this week launched a campaign for gender quotas. But only temporary ones. “Targets with teeth”, as she called them on ABC radio this morning, in a reminder that using the word “quota” is still akin to pulling teeth for the Liberal Party.

The reason Reynolds has used her leader’s absence to launch this campaign is hardly a mystery. Dutton fiercely opposes quotas, and he expressly ruled them out after announcing his shadow cabinet, which contains 10 women (he was “proud” to say they were all there on merit). Ley, who is conducting the Coalition’s “listening” tour to find out why it lost female voters, has previously called for a 40 per cent quota in preselections, but she sounded less enthused about them yesterday, saying that the party should stick to its “target” of 50/50 representation by 2025. But Reynolds, who has previously opposed quotas, has now come to the realisation that the unenforceable target is not working. The recent election, as she pointed out in The Australian, saw the lowest number of Liberal women enter the House of Reps since 1993. Just 21 per cent of the Libs’ lower-house MPs are women, with the party’s overall representation of women at just 28 per cent. “Inaction is not a strategy,” she told Sky News, suggesting that quotas could maybe be a short-term thing until the problem is solved.

It’s nice that Reynolds has finally clued into the fact that a “target” isn’t getting the Libs anywhere. (The odds of the party getting to 50/50 by the next election seem… remote.) It’s also encouraging that she is willing to acknowledge that something’s got to give here (although it’s disappointing that she didn’t do so when she found herself near the centre of the party’s 2021 gender reckoning). And it’s good to hear her acknowledge the hollowness of the “merit” argument against quotas, telling RN that “continually having no more than two out of 10 of our candidates as women does not reflect the number of meritorious women in our party”.

But there’s also something hollow about Reynolds acknowledging the disparity and pushing for quotas while failing to accept the deeper reasons why many women wouldn’t want to run for the Liberal Party. Reynolds, like Ley, continues to insist that the party is actually really great for women, that women simply didn’t understand that, and that the issue is one of “cut through” rather than major policy shortcomings. She has repeatedly acknowledged that women are “not happy” with the party. But in the next breath she claims, laughably, that her government “did more for women than any other”. This is the same government that saw Australia slip further and further down the Global Gender Gap Index.

Quotas, if Reynolds can get her party to listen, would no doubt be a good start. They would go some way to addressing the blokey culture, the clueless comments and the rampant sexism. But solving the party’s “woman problem” is not just about getting more women into the party. It’s about the party acknowledging that its policies have fallen short, that it has not been “a party for women and of women” for some time. If the Liberal Party wants to win back women, to get out of “the electoral wilderness”, it needs to do more than run them for office. As host Hamish McDonald asked Reynolds on RN this morning, “What woman in their right mind would want to be in the Liberal Party right now?” Reynolds admitted that it was a “good question”. But until there is a good answer, the Coalition’s women woes will remain.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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