Thursday, July 14, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly

You do the maths, Barnaby
Women are still missing out in parliament

“If the terminology of ‘target’ is I pick someone regardless of their capabilities then I don't like the word ‘target’,” said Barnaby Joyce.

Perhaps, you think, Joyce was referring to the number of Nationals MPs to be included in the new Turnbull ministry? After all, the prime minister announced yesterday that soon there will be two more of them than currently.

The line of reasoning behind Turnbull’s decision is simple. It’s because of what John Howard once referred to and Turnbull currently does as the “iron laws of arithmetic”. The number of ministries the Nationals get is dictated by how large a share they have of the Coalition party room. The Nationals gained a bit at the election relative to the Liberals, so they get more power.

It’s a simple fairness argument: the more Nationals there are, the more positions of power they should have.

That’s regardless of their capabilities, by the way. It’s an iron law of arithmetic.

I’m labouring the point, because of course Joyce wasn’t talking about the Nationals. He was talking, earlier this year, about the representation of women in parliament, in response to a suggestion from deputy Nationals leader Fiona Nash, who said the party should have a target of 50% of its MPs being women.

It’s hard to see how Joyce could argue himself out of this corner, should he be called upon to do so. If his defence of the Nationals’ share of the ministry is fairness, then surely that should apply to female MPs too, given women make up half the population. If his defence of not having a target for women is a dubious argument about “merit” (dubious because how is it that when ‘merit’ becomes a factor it is always women who miss out?), then shouldn’t individual Nationals have to fight for their share of ministerial responsibilities on their own talents, rather than being assured them due to a mathematical formula?

What this really rests on is convention. Conventions can be important, representing a consensus over time that an effective way of doing things has been found. But they can also act as barriers to important change, rhetorical camouflage for protecting a broken status quo.

It’s true that conservatism is often defined as a reluctance to change things for change’s sake, a belief that one should be careful in seeking to mend what might not be broken. And there are arguments that can be made for this as default mindset. But intelligent conservatism is also able to make the argument, when pushed, that the object in question is not broken.

And intelligent conservatives defending the status quo should, in every case, be pushed to make this argument, if for no other reason than that another question hovers always just out of sight: for whom, precisely, are things “not broken”?

Fairfax today reported that female representation in the Coalition party room has fallen to its lowest levels since Paul Keating was prime minister.

No doubt the 83% of Coalition MPs who are men are all there entirely on merit. For these meritorious men, the status quo is very far from broken. 

Labor, it should be said, is doing much better, but according to Fairfax will still only hit its current target of 40% should its female candidate end up winning the lineball contest in Herbert. Both Labor and the Coalition have gone backwards on the number of female senators at this election.

Barnaby Joyce may be a conservative, but he is not a predictable slave to tradition. The Nationals, over the past few years, have developed their own convention, of being seen but not heard, like children in the Victorian era. Joyce has made clear this is one convention he is not interested in. He will speak out for the regions, he will make his party’s voice heard. If that creates some difficulties for his coalition partner along the way – as his comments this week on greyhounds have for NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird – then convention be damned. And perhaps you could begin to hope that a similar attitude might creep in to his approach to all so-called settled questions – a belief that all conventions should be treated with equal scepticism?

Unfortunately, some conventions, it seems, are more equal than others.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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