By Wesa Chau. Fellow, Pathways for Politics Women Program; Co-founder of Poliversity; 2013 ALP Candidate for Higgins.
The 2016 federal election is seen by many as an election where the highest number of women candidates stood for the two major parties: 59 for the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and 44 for the Coalition.
While this is excellent progress, we need to ask ourselves how many women are elected in safe seats.
A safe, or fairly safe seat, is defined by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) as where the winning candidate has received more than 56 percent of the vote.
It’s important to have women standing in safe seats for a number of reasons:
- They are more likely to get elected
- They are less likely to lose their seats at subsequent elections
- They are more likely to hold senior roles in a future government or opposition
Women currently in safe seats
In the Australian Labor Party (ALP), 16 women out of 46 candidates were elected to safe seats in the 2016 federal election, so the proportion of women in safe seats is 35 per cent.
In the Liberal Party, only seven women out of a total of 39 candidates were elected to safe seats, so the proportion of women in safe seats is only 18 per cent.
The National Party is the worst performing party in this context, with seven safe seats – none of which are held by women.
Clearly, we still have a long way to go until women MPs hold seats that will allow them to rise to cabinet positions.
The only way to make this happen is for parties to find pathways for women to be preselected into these seats.
The ALP has put in place affirmative action policies in the party rules which aim to ensure that 50 per cent of elected representatives are female. When the ALP wins government, the number of women in parliament also increases because the party tends to preselect more women.
The Coalition have yet to come up with a formal plan to achieve gender equality representation. The sad reality is that unless political parties take active roles in putting women in the next rounds of vacated safe seats, this cycle will take another 10 to 20 years. This will mean another generation of inequality in parliamentary representation.
This year’s election resulted in many surprises, including Rebekha Sharkie from the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) winning the lower house seat of Mayo in a once safe Liberal seat.
Another result of note is that Australia has its first federal Indigenous female MP in the ALP’s Linda Burney. Burney is an experienced parliamentary representative, having previously served as deputy leader of the NSW Labor Party. Burney used her victory speech to acknowledge and recognise the many diverse groups that make up her electorate.
Representative candidates matter
In the past (especially in safe seats) often it hasn’t mattered much who the candidate is, because most voters have voted for a party rather than an individual.
However, it appears that the impact of individual candidates are becoming increasingly important in the context of social media and a 24 hour news cycle. More information about individual candidates can easily be shared on social media, and mainstream media outlets are constantly looking for material to fill their broadcasts and websites.
In the Victorian seat of McEwen (a swinging seat), the actions of the Liberal candidate Chris Jermyn and the subsequent media coverage resulted in McEwen becoming a notional safe seat for the ALP.
Strong candidates who run disciplined campaigns are vital, even in safe seats, for both parties. What this means is that candidates must be ready as public figures before they run as a candidate, or they risk damaging their chances of election, or re-election.
In such an environment, it is much harder for political parties to maintain seats if the candidates they preselect do not reflect the community they seek to represent, and much harder for career politicians to be successful in such volatile environments.
The challenge in front of all political parties is not just providing equal opportunities for women to stand as candidates, it is in pre-selecting more women to stand in safe seats.
That’s the challenge I present to all of our political parties.
Image credit: Pixabay