How to win back women: The Liberal Party review

Jan 11, 2023
Silhouettes of multicultural women's faces in paper.

The Liberal Party Review has once again recommended a 50 per cent target for women but the apparent belief that this will win back electoral support from women is misplaced.

The Liberal Party’s Review of the 2022 Federal Election, co-authored by former federal party director Brian Loughnane and Senator the Hon Jane Hume, makes a number of reasonable observations and recommendations. However, some are internally contradictory, such as the need to improve the flow of preferences from minor parties while at the same time wooing back women voters. Given that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the United Australia Party attract more male than female voters, particularly angry white men, it is hard to see how better reflecting their values will be an answer to female disaffection. In 2022 two thirds of Australians had little confidence in the Liberal Party regarding equality for women and they had even less confidence in the minor parties further to the right.

This contradiction highlights a more general problem with the review – the assumption that measures to increase the number of women in the parliamentary party and at senior levels in the organisational wing will be sufficient to bring back women voters, in particular the female professional voters lost in 2022. As pointed out by Jack Waterford, the senior women in the Morrison Government did little to increase confidence in the Liberal Party’s commitment to gender equality. The Minister for Women, Senator Marise Payne, was ‘unavailable’ for any debate on women’s issues during the campaign.

In general, while having plenty to say about the negative effects of factionalism in the party, the decline of its volunteer base and the outsourcing of candidate vetting (!), the Review says very little about policy or why the Coalition government was rated poorly by women’s advocacy organisations. Scorecards on party policy noted that while lipservice had been paid to how women bore the brunt of the COVID pandemic, economic stimulus investment was in manufacturing and construction rather than in social infrastructure. The Coalition produced nothing like the emphasis on the care economy to be found front and centre in Labor’s campaign policy. As Labor said, ‘one of the main causes of the gender pay gap is low pay and poor conditions in care sectors like aged care, early childhood education and care and disability care – where the vast majority of workers are women’.

The Coalition had made some significant investments in areas such as women’s safety and women’s economic security (encouraging more women into STEM). However, despite appointing Senator Hume as a dedicated Minister for Women’s Economic Security in 2021, some policy developments were leading in the opposite direction. One example was the decision in 2020 to allow early release of up to $20,000 from superannuation to help those under financial stress due to the pandemic. This had disparate impact on women, already very disadvantaged in post-retirement income. More women than men completely emptied their super accounts and, as a result, the gender gap in superannuation balances widened over the period 2019–2021.

The Coalition Government did introduce free childcare for three months during the pandemic, but unfortunately childcare was then the first sector of the economy to lose the jobkeeper wage subsidy. Some improvements were made to the childcare subsidy system, but not enough to deliver affordable quality care for most families. Although there was a welcome increase in funding for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, there was no commitment to closing the gender pay gap by doing something about its main cause, low pay in care sectors.

While changes were introduced to make paid parental leave more flexible, the planned removal of ‘use it or lose it’ dad and partner pay was highly controversial. It was justified by Senator Hume in terms of the government’s commitment to freedom of choice rather than social engineering. The Work + Family Policy Roundtable said this unpicked good policy architecture designed to ‘nudge’ men to take leave.

The Review notes ‘a sense that the Liberal Party is failing to adequately represent the values and priorities of women in modern Australia’ yet there is nothing on issues such as climate change, one of the priorities of the professional women being targeted. Instead there is emphasis on career opportunities rather than policy. It is recommended that a network be established, to connect Liberal women with opportunities for employment in parliamentary offices and party divisions, hopefully leading to ‘high-quality female candidates’ contesting key seats.

The Review refers to ‘mechanisms used by other parties’ but it is clear that the proposed Dame Margaret Guilfoyle Network differs in significant ways from EMILY’s List, which helped achieve the transformation of the Labor Party. The Dame Margaret Guilfoyle Network is to be run through the federal secretariat of the party and report to the federal director, rather than being independent of the party as insisted on by EMILY’s List founder ex-Premier Joan Kirner. Independence enabled EMILY’s List to operate effectively from outside as a ginger group on gender equality, only supporting women candidates with demonstrated policy commitments in areas such as abortion law reform and childcare.

The Liberal Party currently has a lack of credibility on many issues of particular concern to women, including gender equality, the care economy and climate change. On gender equality, the Liberal Party has in fact had a target since 2016 of women being 50 per cent of its federal candidates. Instead, after the 2022 federal election, the party has the lowest number of women in its parliamentary ranks since 1993.

A renewed commitment to getting women into winnable seats and supporting them once elected is welcome but is not the answer to winning back women’s votes. For that, some attention is need to policy matters and not just to career opportunities. And it needs independent organising by women, as with the Liberal Feminist networks of the 1980s, as well as leadership from the top.

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