Ideology aside, let’s hear it for the sisterhood
That apt French phrase about the more things change, the more they stay the same could have been minted to describe this election campaign, maybe even all election campaigns in two-party democracies.
It’s the same dispiriting stuff every time, is it not? Each side disparaging the other, every candidate in every electorate seemingly basing his or her re-election strategy on avoiding controversy, on staying “on message” (read, repeating their party mantra ad nauseum), on probing for any opportunity to diminish an opponent’s credibility, on getting their smiling face on as many bill-boards, as many newspaper pictures, TV grabs as possible.
And well, why not? With every aspiring and/or sitting MP under the absolutely microscopic scrutiny which an increasingly pervasive and diverse news media is now able to bear, any blunder by any candidate has the potential to be an election-winning tipping point. So the tactic of being the “small target ” has become more or less universal.
But for all that, one thing has changed in Australian politics. In Blanche d’Alpuget’s much-discussed new political tome, Hawke, The Prime Minister (Melbourne University Publishing), there’s a “class photo” of the first Hawke cabinet standing together on the steps of the old Parliament House. They’re all there, all 27 of them getting their picture taken with then-Governor General Sir Ninian Stephen; Hawke, Keating, Senator John Button, Tom Uren, Gareth Evans, Mick Young, Kim Beazley, John Dawkins, Bill Hayden – a cavalcade of the best-known and most influential men in the post-war history of the ALP.
And that’s the point. In that picture, one person stands out as unique in that collection of parliamentarians. She’s the back row, if you want to Google the picture, third from the left. And that’s the point – it’s she not he. It’s Senator Susan Ryan, the only woman among that distinguished alumni.
Now, Ryan was not the first woman to attain the status of cabinet member in Federal Parliament. That honour goes to Tasmanian Dame Enid Lyons, who was given the “grace and favour” position of Vice President of the Executive Council by Liberal Prime Minister Bob Menzies. In that role Dame Enid had no direct ministerial responsibility, but the post did give her a spot at the cabinet table.
Next came Victorian Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, who became a Minister in the Fraser Government in 1976, and then Senator Ryan, who was - in that first Hawke cabinet - Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. So, in that government, sworn in 83 years after Federation, Susan Ryan became only the third woman to attain cabinet rank. Equality for women, eh? We were pretty slow on the uptake, you might say.
Well, fast forward to today. We’ve got our first woman Prime Minister, and in the last parliament, 33 members of the Lower House were women. In the last Government, seven women held ministerial responsibility, four of them in the cabinet. There were also two women parliamentary secretaries. On the Opposition side, eight women held shadow ministries, and there was one female shadow parliamentary secretary. So women are making progress in terms of attaining a more proportional share of parliamentary representation.
Among the current crop of women MPs, perhaps the Member for Bennelong, Ms Maxine McKew is emblematic of both the scale of the challenge women still have to overcome to win a seat in parliament, and of the huge progress they have made in the past three decades. McKew, the former television and print media journalist – as all Punch readers will know - famously displaced John Howard in the last federal election, becoming just the second person in Australian parliamentary history to oust a sitting Prime Minister.
McKew was Parliamentary Secretary for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government in the Rudd-Gillard government and at present, the betting is that she will retain her seat, and perhaps win a spot in the ministry, should Labor be returned on August 21.
The key success in politics, she says, is commitment; commitment to being a hard-working local member, and to the causes to which your party is committed. McKew made a strong show of that sense of commitment, moving with her long-time partner, ALP elder statesman Bob Hogg from Mosman to Epping well before the 2007 election. She’s waiting, she says, for her rival in this campaign, former tennis star John Alexander, to do likewise.
Commitment to the electoral process – making sure that everyone who is entitled to a vote, to their proper share of the democratic process, is also big on McKew’s agenda.
In Bennelong, wth its increasing migrant population, getting people signed up to vote is critically important, and McKew believes the system of voter registration is in need of improvement.
“The present system is all far too complex. The system of postal votes, of pre-polling – people travel overseas a lot, particularly in this area – it’s way to complex. The system’s crying out for much greater simplicity,” McKew says.
And why not? The quality of democracy is determined by the principle of one person, one vote of equal value, so the systems giving us access to the voting process need to be as good as they can be.
But then comes the question as to whether gender ought to be considered a matter of any relevance whatsoever when it comes to our elected representatives. Would a parliament with an equal balance of men and women serve us any better than the still disproportionately male-dominated Federal legislature we have now? Well, we won’t know that until we elect such a parliament, but going on the philosophical conviction that men and women appear to have a roughly equal capacity both for wisdom and for stupidity, it follows that a half-male, half female parliament would be no better or no worse - for that reason alone - than our traditionally present male-dominated governments.
But that’s not really the point, is it? Surely the thing about representative government is that our MPs should not only represent our interests, but also be representative of our community. And an all male parliament is not so.
So let’s hear it for the sisterhood. Gender equity in parliament might not guarantee us a better quality of government – but it would be a step in the right direction.
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