The “broad church” messaging from the Liberal Party is self-evidently in disarray. The Member for Cook’s eagerness to spend a little shy of $7m on a re-enactment of the Captain Cook circumnavigation-that-never-was may be his major gaffe this past week. Or that dubious prize may go to his choice of newly-hatched Liberal, ex Labor President, ex-Liberal Democrat Warren Mundine as the PM’s preferred candidate for Gilmore, confirming the cherished “base” has no meaningful voice or power at all. A loss of even the outer forms of democratic engagement is deadly serious. But the LNP’s most consistent electoral problems are surely around gender, along with urgent, central issues of social inequity and race that are even further off their radar.
On the question of women, and female representation and survival in the Parliament, it was evident from Kerry O’Dwyer’s high profile decision to jump ship that their much-discussed troubles aren’t over. We’ve no reason to doubt Minister O’Dwyer’s preference to be with her own children rather than the adult squabblers of her party, for it was she who was overheard to say late last year that Liberals are now viewed as “homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers”. She’s not wrong.
Liberal heavies will try to find a convincing female Liberal candidate for Higgins, even while the Nationals replacement candidate for Mallee, Anne Webster, states she doesn’t endorse quotas and has been selected solely on merit. None of this will help the Government’s “women problem”. Nor will it (I hope and pray) do anything for their survival. And maybe that’s because what more truly ails the Coalition parties and the micro-madness to their right is a fatally entrenched “men problem”: a serious inability to accept that the world has changed decisively and that an entrenched ideology of white male entitlement, along with unexamined reactionary priorities, is not merely outdated but dangerous.
Offering a few more women the chance to stand as LNP candidates will change nothing. Nor will it change the landscape or tone of Australian politics. Women in all conservative parties are required to accept and promulgate a view of the world that is in its essence divisive and unjust. Until that shifts, women seeking power in and through those parties are wasting their political energy, acting against history – and against their own and the vast majority’s interests.
We need only ask when genuinely progressive policies have ever been fought for (rather than strenuously resisted) by right-leaning politicians of either gender? When have they spoken up to shelter the many against the ruthlessness of the few? When have they made protection of the planet an absolute and inarguable priority, rather than seeing every aspect of it as the chance for a quick quid. O’Dwyer, for example, was as keen as any of her male colleagues to delay or block the banking royal commission, predicting nothing but a “talk-fest”.
“Ordinary hardworking Australians” are evoked ad nauseam by conservative politicians claiming to protect them, claims about as convincing as trickle-down economics. Social class and racism even more than gender inequity increasingly determine educational, housing and work opportunities in “Fair go” Australia, as well as health and life expectancy.
If you’re poor, you will die a decade sooner on average than if you are rich. If you’re poor and black, you will die sooner still. If you’re poor, black and living in remote Australia, you may die from a preventable disease of poverty. Right-wing politics in Australia are aggressively, narrowly self-interested. Is this what remotely forward-looking women should support? Is this what any forward-looking person should support?
Even when it comes to the Liberals’ much flaunted economic management, there are fails at every turn. How else should we assess the increase in national debt from $174,577 billion in September 2013 – following the general election – to $341 billion at 1 July 2018 (figures from The Conversation’s “Fact Check”). Or lazy, undisclosed billions for weapons while food insecurity affects 3.6 million Australians and while Australia spends little or nothing on researching conflict resolution – or peace? Or the privatising of essential services with the profit gouging that follows? Or the unprecedented privatisation of health and education dividing us ever more relentlessly? Or the homelessness of our abandoned ones, up 14% in the last five years? Or the leeway given to tax-averse multi-nationals even as they trash irreplaceable resources? Worse, how can a government claim any financial credibility when it hides from a sustainable future, even while the country dries, cracks and swelters?
Should women care more than men about these inequities? In fact, let’s all care. But when it comes to politics, the limits of our care have consequence and meaning. Offering a few more Coalition women the chance to share power with men won’t change or enhance Australia’s future. Not while their vision of power and its privileges and responsibilities goes so perilously unquestioned.
Gender disadvantage cannot be disentangled from issues of class, poverty and race. Nor can the protection of people be disentangled from protection of the planet. In an ideal world, women might have more insight about disadvantage than men do. But gender alone won’t guarantee it. Women in politics, at least as much as men, need to encompass a bigger picture. And then judge where the future lies.
Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick has been a social activist and writer for decades. You can engage with her on Twitter or her public Facebook page. Stephanie Dowrick’s books include Seeking the Sacred: Transforming Our View of Ourselves and One Another (Allen & Unwin).