Australian elections emphasise competition between alternative governments and premiers. Local government elections are exceptions but federal and state campaigns are highly centralised around leaders and dominated by major parties hoping to form government. Campaigns should perform many functions such as allowing expression of public will around issues, rejuvenation of democracy and securing representation. In New South Wales next Saturday, 494 candidates will contest 93 separate lower house electorates. For various reasons however, the media reduces the choice to that between Labor Premier Kristina Keneally, a candidate in the seat of Heffron, and Liberal Leader Barry O’Farrell, running in Ku-ring-gai.
Concentration of interest is understandable because when members of the Legislative Assembly return to Parliament, they choose a premier and government from their number. Curiously however, while there is wide interest in the partisan composition of the parliament after 26th March, other aspects of the parliament’s aggregate membership receive scant pre-poll attention. There has been little comment about the extent to which parliament will reflect the state’s diverse population in age, gender or ethnicity. While individual MPs will provide excellent representation for constituents, collectively parliament’s image might seem to be dominated by elites.
It is widely believed among both politicians and the general public that more broadly representative assemblies make better decisions. In relation to gender it is accepted that ideally, males and females should be present roughly in proportion to their presence in the population. For reasons of equal opportunity and improved legislation, about half of our MPs should be women. But while this principle is widely approved, there is no consensus about how this balance should be achieved. Suggestions include electoral reform and introduction of quotas within parties. Some observers expect incremental progress parallel with women’s rising social and economic status.
Female MPs generally acknowledge that their predecessors made it easier for them. As more women are elected and become role models, women will be seen as normal MPs and so their numbers will increase. After critical mass is reached growth will be self-generating. Yet despite the obvious abilities of current female MPs, women’s numbers are unlikely to grow after 26th March. At the 2010 federal election, women’s numbers in the House of Representatives fell from 41 to 37. The state election imminent in NSW could well see women’s numbers reach a plateau there too.
The Legislative Council
Antony Green’s peerless election guide (www.abc.net.au/elections/nsw/2011) shows every candidate for the 93 Legislative Assembly electorates and the lists for the return of half the Legislative Council (21 members). Over recent decades the Council has had a higher proportion of female members than the Assembly. About one in three MLCs have been female, with 13 of 42 currently. Since 1995, when just 15% of MLAs were female, women’s numbers in that chamber grew to over 25% at the 1999 election.
Unfortunately, there are poor prospects for the return of female MLCs after 26th March. Unless five females are returned among the 21 newly elected MLCs, their numbers will fall. That seems a modest demand, but many advocates of female representation believe that women are actually favoured by the upper house electoral system, proportional representation (PR). A more realistic view, if perhaps a cynical one is that it is not PR systems as such that favour women candidates but the attitudes of party preselectors. Older major parties (Labor and the Liberal and National Coalition partners) regard upper house seats as career backwaters not coveted by ambitious men. Newer parties such as the Greens and the once influential Democrats are advantaged (relative to single member constituencies) by PR systems. These parties, which formed in the modern era, are less prejudiced against women’s public roles.
The candidate lists are instructive. There are so many candidates (311) that the ballot paper is known colloquially as ‘the tablecloth’. Voters can cast their ballots by numbering (at least 15) squares next to individual candidates, names ‘below the line’ or by endorsing ‘group’ tickets ‘above the line’ (at least one). As the vast majority of voters opt for the simpler solution of voting for groups, the order of candidates on the group (usually ‘party’) lists is vital. In a polarised campaign, it is possible that the major parties could share the 21 seats. In recent times however, about a third of MLCs have sat on the ‘crossbenches’. This has reflected the statewide vote. Assembly elections however, return predominantly major party candidates and a sprinkling of Independents but no minor party candidates, although their vote in the lower chamber is often just as strong as in the Council.
Among 16 groups competing for Council seats in 2011, only one is headed by a woman, Pauline Hanson. The Coalition ticket, which opinion polls suggest is likely to be strong, has men in the first six positions. Labor has women at positions three and seven. Of the minor parties, only the Greens and the Christian Democrats are running candidates in most electorates in the lower house and so they are the most likely to succeed in the Council. The Greens have female candidates at two and four. The Christian Democrats have a woman at number five. These are the parties most generous towards female candidates.
The Legislative Assembly
The gender balance amongst Assembly candidates is better but hardly approaches 50:50. Of 494 candidates, 148 (about 30%) are women. If one-third of successful candidates were women, then this would mean the election of 31 women, which would seem like progress. Such aggregates can be deceptive however because many candidates – male and female - are ‘flag-wavers’ for parties with no hope of election. They gain experience and party gratitude and help to boost the vote in the Council. They might hope to influence outcomes by advising followers how to distribute preferences, but their chances are slim.
Ideally, gender politics should not be just about women MPs. Ignoring males means that they escape critical scrutiny and suggests that they do not have and use gender politically. Continual concentration on women tends to make it seem as though they are the problem. On the other hand, observers who are interested in gender are usually advocates of a better balanced parliament, and as there are fewer women candidates, an examination of their fortunes in an election is simpler. As parliament is comprised of males and females, ratios can be reversed to focus on male success rates.
Prior to the 2011 election there were 24 females in the 93 seat Assembly (16 Labor members, five Liberal, two Independents and one National Party MP). Labor has had more female members than other parties in recent parliaments, currently two-thirds. The numbers of females returned in 2011 will almost certainly reflect the relative fortunes of the parties and it is no secret that Labor is expected to lose many seats. Antony Green’s ‘Calculator’ based on swings predicted in recent Newspoll surveys of opinions and voting intentions suggests that Labor could be reduced to about 18 seats. Women currently constitute about a third of Labor’s MLAs and it will be interesting to see whether that fraction grows or falls post-election.
Among 93 electorates, eight have no female candidate and must return a male MP. Every electorate has at least one male candidate. Many other electorates (48) have no major party female. Two of these, Sydney and Dubbo, have sitting female Independents, but even omitting these (and so 46) brings the total of seats that must have male MPs to 54.