SUSAN RYAN. Ladies in Red.

In the late 1970s, federal Labor, still in opposition after Whitlam, was struggling. New polling research enabled me to advise national conference that Labor would not regain office unless it increased its support among women voters. If women had voted Labor in the same proportion as men had, Labor would have won every election since World War 2 , with the possible exception of the Chifley loss in 1949.With these findings, measuring the gender  gap in polling analysis was introduced, and has remained there ever since. 

The new  advice immediately galvanised Labor. There was only a small handful of women in parliament. That had to change. The strongest message  was about policy. Women would respond , I argued ,to commitments that recognised their needs and offered practical improvements. Such policy was developed . After consulting women all over Australia, in 1980 under Bill Hayden’s leadership we presented a strong set of policies to attract women along with a larger number of female candidates.

Under Hawke’s leadership at the 1983 campaign , having kicked off with  detailed  policies for women: sex discrimination laws, affordable childcare ,access to  good jobs ,more education ,better  healthcare and crisis services, we elected a record number of women.

The promised  policies were largely implemented during the first and second Hawke governments. The office of Status of Women became a part of the Prime Minister Hawke’s department. All submissions to cabinet were analysed for the effects on Australian  women.

An innovation, Women’s Budget Document included a full analysis of the effects of all  budget  decisions on women . Responsibility for contributions to this formal budget document lay with ministers and departmental secretaries.

By the late 80s the rate of increase in female representation was slowing .In 1994 federal conference accepted a policy of affirmative action. Quotas , ultimately  one half of all seats, had to be allocated to female representatives, who still went through a rigorous preselection process against other candidates but were given a 20% loading on their vote. All of this was contentious at the time and resisted by many in the party, especially those men who could see their hoped for and expected federal seats slipping from their grasp. 

The long-term result is that now the federal parliamentary Labor party is almost half women. Experienced, capable and electorally popular women occupy senior and leadership posts , and a raft of impressive women are just behind them in the pipeline. There have been no reports of Labor women in parliament being bullied or harassed by male colleagues.

The Liberal party got off to a good start for women and elected the first female MP, Enid Lyons. Fraser appointed the first female cabinet minister with portfolio, Margaret Guilfoyle. By now they have lost that impetus completely and failed  their female members badly and  publicly.

Less than a quarter of the liberal parliamentary party is female. It has been  reported that after the next election, the Liberals could be reduced to five or six female members. Public complaints of bullying and harassment made by current female MPs, already leading two of them to decide to leave parliament, cannot be ignored. The voting public is not ignoring it. The damage done to the Liberals’ standing with women, as well as their overall standing in the electorate, by their rejection of Julie Bishop’s leadership bid is massive.

A belated request from Prime Minister Morrison that the Wentworth pre-selectors choose a woman was ignored, despite three  women contesting that ballot.

When it comes to women, it seems all Liberals are  conservatives. Their default worldview is the status quo of the 1950s,that women should occupy an inferior and basically domestic role and don’t really belong in parliament. Liberals  display a  deeply ideological resistance to the concept of equal opportunity for women. They continue to refuse  to adopt quotas, or other effective measures to level the playing field for female candidates. They are trying to deal with current accusations of  sexist bullying and harassment behind their own closed doors.

When it comes to policy, where are the women friendly programs? Child care, education, workforce training, superannuation, and aged care: all these areas  of intense concern to female voters are in administrative or funding chaos. Liberal governments long since  abolished that great tool for transparency ,the Women’s Budget document. Finding out how each year’s budget decisions affect women is hugely challenging for analysts and advocacy groups, and  more so for individual women. 

The new prime minister recently dealt with the gender gap in  proposed tax cuts by pointing out that as women are not required  to file tax returns on pink paper, nor men to file on blue paper , he sees no gap to concern himself with.

In Albury ,during his first prime minister’s public speech, he described his ideal family gathering- the men are telling the stories, the women are making a rug.

Current Liberals not only lack female representatives, they lack deep understanding of equal opportunity, and fail to design policies that deliver fairness to women. They rarely include   gender perspectives in economic or industrial relations policy.

They could deal with some of this failure by new rules, quotas if you like, to bring more women into their decision making. It appears they won’t. 

Just how ongoing reports of sexist aggression, of  bullying and harassment of female members by male members and  party operatives relate to all this one can only surmise. Senior respected liberal women, former MPs, commented on radio this week that such behaviours are worse than when they were there. They were in parliament at a time when the Liberals had significantly more women. Connections? Causal relationships? The Liberal  ladies who have taken to wearing red in the Chamber these days  seem to think so.

Susan Ryan was Minster Assisting the Prime Minister on the status of women in  the Hawke government 1983-1988.     

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