ROGER SCOTT. The prominence of women in Queensland politics.

May 18, 2018

Until this week, JANE PRENTICE was not on the roll of women prominent in Queensland politics, a short list which includes two ALP Premiers but also a number of women of alternative political persuasions, starting with Lady Flo and including two current party leaders.

Prentice’s current status may well prove a flash in the pan, as the media attention relates to the manner of her departure. I have lived in her electorate of Ryan for the length of her eight-year tenure and her prior period of service in local government. I perceived her as a suitably-rewarded loyal foot soldier, first of Campbell Newman and then of Malcolm Turnbull. (It is a measure of the temper of the local and perhaps the national scene that Turnbull has not been able to offer the level of support that she offered him in the leadership ballot.) 

I also perceived her as a not especially enthusiastic local member, beyond the formulaic use of parliamentary allowances to provide newsletters by post or email. Community gatherings were much more likely to be attended by State and local government Liberals, one of whom is now her designated successor. The succession plan for Alderman Julian Simmonds to take over was well known locally and there appeared no policy discontinuities involved between them – the issue appears to have been the timing of the departure, with Prentice doing a Hawke over her own ‘Kirribilli’ deal. 

A well-placed journalist reported in detail on ‘the many examples of Prentice treating branch members with a touch of apathy’. (Renee Viellaris, Brisbane Courier-Mail, 14 May 2018). Prentice used her husband Ian as a proxy too many times and failed to turn up herself to fulfil personal engagements. She responded to her replacement’s active stacking of branches with his supporters by circulating endorsements from national rather than local figures. She lost the pre-selection local vote conclusively, 256-102.

Given the Liberal Party predilection for advancing eager young men, the public reaction to the gender issue must have come as a surprise to locals. Perhaps there is a whiff of resisting ageism in the objection raised by local NLP figures like Warren Entsch, calling the decision ‘a bloody disgrace’ and suggesting that ‘the LNP will pay a price for that’. (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 14 May 2018). Nevertheless the issue gained national traction for those inside and outside the Liberal Party and awkward contrasts were drawn between the Queensland defence – ‘the consequences of having a grassroots political party’ – and the willingness of both Turnbull and Morrison to condone central intervention to get a more preferred outcome in similar circumstances in other states. 

As Crikey noted the same day:

The deselection of Malcolm Turnbull’s Assistant Minister for Social Services and Disability Services Jane Prentice in her Queensland seat of Ryan is – rightly – being seen through the prism of the LNP’s, and the federal Coalition’s, problems with women. But it also has resonance for the broader disaffection currently felt by voters for mainstream politics. … Simmonds is the perfect example of Australia’s emerging governing class. His trajectory, from university to staffer to minor public office to preselection for a federal seat, is the model that so many young political professionals on both sides of the political divide now aspire to. … Politicians like Simmonds are part of the reason why the electorate is so disengaged with mainstream politics; they see a professionalised industry that serves its own interests and operates as a career entirely within and around access to power, rather than a genuine extension of the community will into the political process.

For the moment, the debate has been framed in terms of the barriers created for women and the ingratitude represented by the apparently shoddy treatment afforded a long-serving and nationally successful MP. Parallels are drawn with similar difficulties and lack of representation for women in other states and nationally. 

But Queensland is a bit different on the issue of gendered leadership, as in so much else. The ALP has a proud record in providing two State Premiers (even if the first has now defected to defending the indefensible Big Banks) and the local ALP has significant female representation inside Cabinet and Parliament. Country women have also been prominent in what is now the National component of the Liberal National Party, and one currently heads the State LNP. 

However, the most recent opinion polls suggest that Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington is finding it hard going, tracking backwards since February to now rate as preferred Premier at 27%, lower even than her male predecessor. One reason for this is, perhaps, the price of inexperience or an innately combative style which produces negativity whenever asked for opinions on a range of issues, some of which often bear little partisan content. Her lack of nuance makes for a strong contrast with Premier Palaszczuk’s capacity for ambiguity.

 A second reason is that the perceived enemy of the LNP regaining its previous dominance is yet another woman, now experienced enough to be perceived as a feisty matriarch. This week revealed the new national constitution formulated in August which entrenches Pauline Hanson as President and Senior Executive Officer for life, including untrammelled control of party processes, appointment of subordinates and election finances. This will free her from the embarrassment of previous campaigns which I described in Phoenix: Pauline Hanson and Queensland Politics (TJ Ryan Foundation Research Report no 54, October 2017) in which she was hampered by stupid candidates and the self-aggrandisement of her inner circle. Her continuing celebrity status makes her a force to be reckoned with in the allocation of preferences at both State and National level.

Hanson may be less of an influence in the specific setting of the Ryan electorate, a middle-class heartland more resistant to covert appeals to racism, climate scepticism and working-class misogyny. It is customarily dismissed as Blue Ribbon Liberal, full of blue-rinse activists. It has been held by MP’s who built careers beyond the locality – first John Moore as Trade Minister, then the extraordinary Michael Johnson who was accused of jet-set branch stacking, and now Prentice. There was a brief ALP interlude when the extremely able Leonie Short held the seat at a by-election after Moore’s resignation.

The recent experience of Maiwar, the new State constituency embedded within Ryan, suggests that a Green candidate with the sort of professional qualifications and qualities offered by Short might recreate the same sort of alliance which delivered the seats to the Greens on ALP preferences. Gender might become an issue if there are many Liberal voters energised to lodge a personal protest vote against the treatment afforded Jane Prentice. 

Roger Scott, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Policy Futures, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, UQ. 

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