Gladitorial arena adds toxic element to politics. Part 1

Mar 11, 2021

Upper houses of parliament usually have a better gender balance. While often explained away by being a result of proportional representation, a better explanation is that the most ambitious men – the megalomaniacs – have no interest in being senators. They know the locus of power is in the lower house.

Last century when I interviewed members of the NSW Parliament about the influence of gender on politics it was clear that power was unevenly distributed between the sexes.

That this imbalance is a reality in federal politics in 2021 does not establish it as the natural order of things. Indeed, the imbalance was a distortion of democratic values of equality then and remains an aberration in Canberra today. The disparity could even be deliberately built and exploited by cynical men to maintain their power.

In the state parliament, women held 15% of the seats in the lower house and a third in the upper house. I was privileged to get access to 34 members and remain grateful to them for granting interviews. When I asked how many women there should be, interviewees gave various responses including 50-50 and ‘as the electorate decides’ – a glib answer considering that at best, parties ‘decide’ the sex balance during pre-selection.

One interviewee gave a surprising answer. He said of women that ‘we are surrounded by them here!’ As the interviews were confidential I could not ask female colleagues for their reactions but suspect they would have included amusement, bewilderment and perhaps a nomination for the annual ‘Ernie’ awards for misogynistic statements.

The comment could be a great compliment to female MPs. Although in a minority, perhaps they were so busy, hardworking and conscientious that they gave the impression of being everywhere.

A less flattering interpretation is that this interviewee, like many males, felt that women tend to make common cause. They recognise shared disadvantage and this makes them critical of the men who established the oppressive parliamentary cultures.

In the mid 1990s, the state had been functioning with an elected parliament for 140 years but for the first 70 years, there were no female members. That is a good time to embed misogynistic attitudes and practices.

When I explained my research project into gender, some males misinterpreted this as being about female MPs. Males tend to assume that women have gender but that men do not. They think they are neutral and the normal, not ‘male MPs’ but simply MPs.

Perhaps they felt there was no need to think about their roles, while women did. Indeed, every woman I interviewed or observed took her role very seriously. Some men, by contrast, took themselves very seriously. Men felt they belonged and had a right to be there. None of the women had so much comfort in the role.

There is an argument that parliament is a human and imperfect institution – that parliament is a microcosm of society and so will share its faults. This is a tiresome argument.

First, parliament is elected to provide leadership. It should set standards and work to make society better, not be content with the lowest kinds of behaviour.

Second parliament is not representative of society. If it were then women would hold more than 50% of the seats.

It is sometimes pointed out that women are better represented in upper houses such as the Senate. Commentators have tried to attribute the difference to the proportional representation electoral systems. This is a good try but not quite correct. PR gives minor parties a better chance but candidates still depend upon endorsement.

A better explanation is that the most ambitious men – the megalomaniacs – have no interest in being senators. They know the locus of power is the lower house where government forms, and where the prime minister and other powerful cabinet ministers are. They regard upper houses as backwaters.

Interestingly, however, many senators, especially women, observed that the upper house is more attuned to rational debate. The Senate does not accentuate the same government versus opposition, the either-or competitiveness typical of lower houses. There is less political point scoring and less hysteria than in the lower house forum where the men strut their stuff.

Senators often say the strong crossbench removes the emphasis from the gladiatorial combat so beloved of lower house members (males). Power is not simply in balance between two sides but among three. Moreover, service in the stronger Senate committee system means that members get to know one another and stop regarding their opponents as intransigent monsters. Calm, rational debate and co-operation is more likely to prevail.

Part 2: Do we need to remove men from power?  

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