26 September 2023

One picture, one thousand words: Diversity in the Liberal Party.

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Patricia Karvelas* says women are again raising the alarm over the Liberal Party’s lack of diversity, and the Coalition can’t ignore them.

There’s something about seeing — being in the room, bearing witness — that tells a story in a way that statistics, reports and endless debates can never do.

Watching the lower house parliamentary floor during question time in the first week of the new parliament, I was stunned by the sea of men and the lack of cultural diversity on the benches of the Coalition, now in opposition.

It was glaring; a section of the parliament that looked nothing like Australia as we live and know it.

I knew the numbers, but only when I looked down from the press gallery did the story unfold so starkly.

On the other side, the government benches better reflected gender parity and cultural diversity.

While still not representative of modern Australia, it was inching closer to the nation we have become.

Pictures send a powerful message — and the Coalition will be in terminal decline if it fails to read the national mood on diversity.

Women inside the Liberal party started raising alarm bells on gender after Malcolm Turnbull was deposed as leader.

But the success of Scott Morrison at the so-called “unwinnable” miracle election of 2019 silenced the dissent.

Those who raised the issues were mocked, ridiculed — privately and even publicly in some instances — for elevating gender and arguing that it would have electoral consequences.

The election victory was seen as vindication that no one really cared about gender — it was the economy, stupid.

Get back in your boxes, ladies.

Now the reality is starting to sink in and Liberal women are again, privately and some publicly, raising alarm bells.

This time, though, the bells won’t stop ringing because to ignore them would spell demographic and therefore existential death.

The world has changed and unless the institution catches up it will be extinguished.

It’s about much more than the election

The Liberal Party has recorded its lowest female representation in parliament since 1993.

This week shadow finance minister Jane Hume argued that losing good women in parliament was a “by-product of losing elections”.

But this is a convenient line that fails to get to the heart of the issue: the election loss alone cannot be blamed for the massive disconnect that is seeing the ballooning of the number of male members in comparison to women.

It has to be about the preselection of women — and where that preselection is happening.

While the notion of “safe” seats is fast eroding, some seats are arguably safer than others and a deeper analysis of where and how to boost female representation has to be part of the way forward.

The Liberal Party in 2016 commissioned a report that discussed increasing the representation of women in parliament to 50 per cent by 2025.

But after the results of the last election, it’s clear that achieving this will be nothing more than a fantasy unless radical and dramatic action is taken.

This makes the systemic issues confronting the Coalition a reality — not an academic exercise for political journalists to pontificate about.

Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds this week told Sky News the party has had a “women’s problem” for a “very long time”.

“People don’t realise or remember that for our first 50 years of our party’s history we were the party that the majority, over 50 per cent, of Australian women voted for,” Senator Reynolds said.

That has been changing since 2001, she added, and they have been progressively losing the women’s vote to the point that it’s now under 30 per cent.

If the Liberals fail to tackle the issue and listen to women about why they’ve been abandoning the party, Reynolds said, it will be statistically impossible to win majority government again.

She has put on the table a “temporary” quota for women, arguing it should be adopted by the Liberal Party.

The “grim” 2016 report found the lack of female candidates had a direct correlation with a declining female vote, Senator Reynolds said.

The teal Independents were the electorate’s response to a party that was warned — over and over — and just wouldn’t listen.

Fixing it means facing harsh truths

Catching up on this will require a deeper reckoning than simply getting more women preselected.

One female MP who asked not to be named told me the party was in deep denial about the extent of the problem and the disconnect that had developed with female voters.

She said the party had developed a hyper-masculine style that was turning off women in droves.

A record number of women have been elected to the House of Representatives for the 47th parliament.

But in the Liberal Party, women hold just nine of its 42 seats — an imbalance that can’t be fixed unless it faces some harsh truths.

This isn’t just a “woke” side issue; it is fundamental to who Australia is as a country and the representation mainstream political parties deliver.

While the federal parliament was last year confronted with the ugly reality of sexual assault and harassment, on Friday the findings of an investigation into the NSW parliament’s culture were released — a reminder of how rife these issues are across the country.

The review, conducted by former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, found a third of respondents had experienced sexual harassment or bullying in NSW parliament house in the past five years and, disturbingly, several people alleged they had experienced attempted or actual sexual assault.

Half the bullying incidents — 52 per cent — were allegedly perpetrated by members of parliament.

And almost half of female MPs (46 per cent) and nearly a third of male MPs (31 per cent) said they had experienced sexual harassment in the past five years.

Until we take these issues seriously and make our parliaments safe workplaces where women and people from a diversity of backgrounds are not only represented — but elevated — we will continue to be stuck in an endless cycle of the same debates.

*Patricia Karvelas is the presenter of RN Breakfast and co-host of the Party Room podcast.

This article first appeared at abc.net.au.

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