Liberals shoot down internal push to oppose gender quotas

Liberals shoot down internal push to oppose gender quotas

12/05/2021

The Victorian Liberal Party has shot down an internal push to formally oppose gender quotas – decried by one member as “Marxism” – and has instead committed to adopting programs to recruit, train and mentor more female candidates to increase their numbers in state and federal parliaments.

With low numbers of women in Liberal parliamentary ranks, the party has been divided on how to boost female representation, despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Matthew Guy being open to supporting gender quotas in order for the party to better reflect the make-up of the electorate.

Opposition leader Matthew Guy says the Liberals need to reflect the state it wants to represent. Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Party members defeated a motion at Sunday’s state council to oppose gender quotas for preselection, warning the Liberal Party needed to tackle the problem and introduce mechanisms to diversify before the 2022 state and federal elections. However, a push to implement a quota system was ditched ahead of state council, as the party grapples with how to boost the number of women while safeguarding the party’s ethos of grassroots democracy and merit-based preselection of candidates.

The Age on Friday revealed the New South Wales Liberal executive unanimously, and quietly, adopted a 50 per cent target for female candidates at next year’s federal election, in consultation with the Prime Minister. This is an aspirational target, and not a binding quota system.

The Victorian division did not adopt targets, but committed to establishing a Women2Win committee to support identifying, training and backing female Liberal candidates. The committee would also encourage and support women through the preselection process.

The debate on quotas came as a challenge to party president Robert Clark was defeated in a blow to the conservative faction aligned with the most senior Victorian Liberal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.

Borondoora deputy mayor and Liberal member Cynthia Watson said while she was not pro-quotas, the party needed to have a more complex conversation about its merit-based system, which she said overwhelmingly rewarded white men who were either current or former staffers, private-school educated, and had university degrees.

“That does not reflect [the electorate],” Ms Watson said. “The Victorian people and the Australian people say that you’re putting up a team that does not represent them. We’re losing the women’s vote. So, I oppose this motion because I want us to take a step back from talking about quotas to say, ’let’s have a look at the merit system and see if we can come up with a system … that delivers diversity of our elected representatives into Parliament.”

Seven of the Liberal Party’s 31 current Victorian MPs – about 23 per cent – are women, compared with 48 per cent in state Labor. Labor introduced a quota system in the mid-1990s to ensure women would be preselected for 35 per cent of winnable seats at all parliamentary elections, since increased to 50 per cent for all party positions.

Incumbent Robert Clark was re-relected as Liberal Party state president in a bitter blow to the group aligned with federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

It is more difficult for the Liberals to establish gender quotas than the Labor Party, given the way local preselections operate in the two major parties.

The ALP often picks its candidates in deals between factional operatives, meaning those officials can work to ensure enough women are picked for winnable seats. Liberal candidates are chosen in local preselections, where a field of candidates is voted on by branch members – a grassroots democratic system fiercely guarded by the Liberal Party.

“The Liberal Party is in the business of winning elections,” one Liberal member who opposes gender quotas said. “When we think of winning elections, it shouldn’t involve taking cues from activist journalists who have aneurysms at the mere mention of the word diversity, but instead harbour the greatest political monocultures in the nation.

“In 1994, the ALP introduced a mandatory 35 per cent preselection quota for women in winnable seats … since this monumental occasion, they have held government for eight of 28 years.”

He said the Liberal Party did not have a problem with women, and that it was “the media that have a problem with the Liberal Party”

Another member said a push for quotas “reflects Marxism”. He said while he wanted to see more women in the Liberal Party, mandating it through gender targets was antithesis to Liberal values of individualism.

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said the Women2Win was a program he had started in 2015 to diversity the Liberals’ ranks. In one of his first interviews after being re-elected as leader earlier this year, he said he was open to quotas if he would tell the Liberal Party it needed to introduce quotas if it failed to get more women preselected for next November’s election.

“I totally accept [diversification is] overdue for the Victorian division,” Mr Guy said yesterday. “I’m not sure we’re at the stage of needing quotas because we’re now seeing, particularly federal and state preselections opening up, of very, very strong female candidates, and candidate from diverse backgrounds. That is positive, you’ve got to look like the state you want to represent.”

Mr Clark was re-elected party president, defeating Dinesh Gourisetty. After former premier Jeff Kennett publicly flirted with running for the presidency, then decided not to run, Mr Clark’s re-election was all but sealed.

Mr Clark’s group won a clean sweep of internal party positions, including vice-president and treasurer, and is likely to maintain its majority on the party’s powerful administrative committee, in a blow to the conservative faction aligned with senior federal MPs, including Mr Frydenberg and Mr Sukkar.

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