Women, quotas and the Liberals

By Terri Butler MP

24 March 2021

The previous speaker, a good friend of mine, mentioned in his contribution that it was World Poetry Day at the weekend, so I thought I might open by citing a few lines from a very famous poem that I suspect has been brought to the minds of many women across Australia over the past few weeks, and that's Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market. It's a very long poem. I'm not going to read the entire poem, but it's a poem that has themes about women and about the importance of sisterhood between women. 

It ends:

For there is no friend like a sister

In calm or stormy weather;

To cheer one on the tedious way,

To fetch one if one goes astray,

To lift one if one totters down,

To strengthen whilst one stands.

It's very true in this place that the spirit of sisterhood and sorority among some of the women MPs has been particularly important in the past few weeks. It's been a salutary reminder of the importance of having women in politics. The other thing that's become very clear in the past few weeks, and particularly in very recent days, are the dangers in talking about representation, in talking about women's participation in politics, of seeking to derive an 'is' from an 'ought'. What do I mean by that? Well, there's been some debate about the importance of the Liberal Party and the National Party increasing female representation. Some people say: 'You shouldn't have quotas. The best person for the job should be selected.' I say 'derive an "is" from an "ought"' because, of course, the best person for the job should be selected, but the question is: is that what's happening in the Liberal and the National parties right now? Is the best person for the job being selected? I think most people would agree that, if the best person for the job were selected, you'd already be at 50 per cent female representation. You can't seriously argue that the men that are in the Liberal Party room and the National Party room right now are of such intense merit that they completely outstrip and outweigh the women that might have been in their place. There are some structural impediments to women being selected, and, if there were already great processes that made sure the best person for the job was pre-selected, you'd already be at 50 per cent women.

This isn't something that just gets fixed by accident. It's not something that you just cross your fingers and hope will be improved. It's something that you have to deliberately change. You have to do that through making conscious, deliberate decisions about your rules, your structure and your culture. I'm not lecturing you because I think the Labor Party has throughout its history been pure; I'm saying this because I've been a member of the Labor Party for most of the time that we have been changing our rules, our culture and our structures. We didn't get to the point that we're at now, where around 50 per cent of our caucus is women and 50 per cent of our shadow cabinet are women, because we hoped for the best and thought that if we kept doing what we were doing things would just change by themselves. It didn't just happen. It happened because women insisted and it happened because men agreed. It happened through argument, debate and decades of constant lobbying and advocacy. That's how we got here. So I say to the women in the Liberal and National parties, to those women who are worried about being accused of being quota fillers or being told that they're only there because there's a quota and not because they've got merit, to think about this: all of those women who have got such merit and who aren't there—why aren't they there? Do we really think it's because they are not as meritorious as the men who are there, or is it possible, just possible, that there needs to be some structural change to allow them, to allow that merit, to shine through and to be recognised and accepted?

It wasn't easy in Labor either. There are the arguments being proposed by some in the Liberal Party now: we couldn't do that because then people would use the quota-filler line—you're there just to fill a spot would be said—against the women that we do have in the parliament and we don't want that to happen. Certainly those same arguments were made on occasion in the 1990s in the Labor Party as well. But what really brought people around was the demonstration effect. It was seeing that it really did make a difference. Do you know what happened when the rules changed? We didn't need to use them, because suddenly all the excuses—'Women don't really want to run,' 'Women aren't really interested,' 'We can't find good women who are willing to run'—fell away. When there were rules requirements that would have given female candidates a structural advantage—although they were really just levelling the playing field in actual terms—suddenly all of these women were able to be found!

An opposition member: Who knew?

Ms BUTLER: Who knew that there were all these women who were willing to run for parliament? For many, many years, in my own state of Queensland, we had some rules but they weren't used. They were not called on to be used. What happened was people said; 'Do you know what we've got to do? We're going to tap on the shoulder of that incredible woman and ask her to run.' That is why we've had some really fantastic women from Queensland in Labor—and I'd particularly like to pay tribute to my female colleagues from Queensland, past and present, in the federal caucus—but also, of course, our wonderful state MPs and ministers and premiers. We've had them because we took a deliberate step. It took a long time. It was hard fought. Compromises had to be made. Changes had to be made. It wasn't ideal. It wasn't always pretty. But we got there because we fought for it. We saw the demonstration effect. There's more to do. Of course, there's more to do. But we got moving on it and we changed it.

This is not a criticism of the idea that you want to have a good contest in your preselections or that you want to find who will do well in the parliament through putting them to the test of local preselections, of the consideration of their skills, their experience and their qualities. It's just about saying: 'Hang on a minute. If we're not already at 50 per cent women, why? Why aren't we there? Is it really because they don't want to run or because they don't have the same merit as the blokes? Is that really what it is, or is there something else there?' I didn't have the benefit of the affirmative action rules for the Labor Party for my preselection. They didn't apply at the time because it was a casual vacancy. I came in in a by-election. But the decades of cultural change meant that I didn't face the same structural impediments to preselection that I would have had I been standing during the early nineties instead of the early-2010s. So I just wanted to make that point and to say to people in the Liberal Party: there's nothing to be afraid of.

I know that there are some in your own party who will adopt the position that somehow affirmative action rules might lead to a lower quality of representation. In fact, I was reminded on the way here of a quote from Senator Eric Abetz from 2018—and let me give you the exact quote, Deputy Speaker, because I'd hate to mislead the parliament—in which he said: 'Look at the Labor Party side of the parliament and you can see what quotas do, and it ain't a good look.' That's what he said in September 2018. I tell you what: if you stack our women, right now, up against Senator Eric Abetz, I'll tell you who 'ain't a good look', Deputy Speaker, and it's not the women of the Labor Party caucus. This sort of attitude contributes to the structural impediments; it doesn't help them. Of course, Senator Eric Abetz has also been engaged in some other controversies today which we don't need to go into right now.

So let me say to the women of the Liberal Party: 'There is no friend like a sister,' to quote Christina Rossetti. And let me say to the men of the Liberal Party: now is the time to share your power, address your structural impediments and work together, because we need more women in politics. We need a critical mass of women in politics. We need that, to have a culture that is not just welcoming for more women in politics and future women in politics but to set the tone in our national parliament about the sort of country that we are and the sort of country that we aspire to be. That's a country in which it is safe to be a woman, in which it is safe to be a woman in the workplace, in which it is safe to be a woman participating in the public square, in which it is safe to be a woman in a male dominated industry and in which it is safe to be a woman in a private home—in the confines of the home. We need a country that is safe and in which people can have full participation in all areas of society.

To quote another little bit of poetry, let me say this. I'm from the labour movement. I've always been a unionist; I've always been someone in the labour movement. And there's a really classic piece of poetry which became a song in the labour movement, which is 'Bread and Roses', and it is women unionists saying, 'Give us bread, but give us roses.' They're saying: 'We want to have a good quality of life and a good stable income, but we also want to have beauty and art'—that's the significance of the line—and what that is about is the ability to participate in all areas of life, not just to subsist. Subsistence of course is fundamental—you want to have that—but on top of that you want to have a good quality of life, and, to get to that point where women have bread and women have roses, we have to have full participation in all levels of Australian life. That's what we need to get to.

This isn't a personal criticism of any man in the Liberal Party—I mean, it was one of Senator Abetz, I admit, but not of any other man in the Liberal Party or the National Party. These issues are structural, and structural changes are needed, and, when you get structural changes, you will also have cultural changes. But a good start is preselecting more women and electing more women. And having women in politics matters.

I also wanted to mention a few other things in contributing to this debate. First let me say this. My community is deeply anxious about what's going to happen at the end of this month when JobKeeper is cut—when the Prime Minister and the Treasurer cut JobKeeper. We're talking about thousands of working people in my electorate and so many businesses who've been reliant on JobKeeper to stay afloat. We had to drag the government to a wage subsidy during COVID. They said it was a dangerous idea—and then they adopted it. We were happy when they adopted our proposal that there be a wage subsidy. But now we're in a situation where we're heading towards the cliff and people are going to fall off it, and they are gravely concerned about what the impact on jobs is going to be once JobKeeper comes to an end. There are plenty of people in my electorate who've been crying out about it.

I've been particularly receiving a lot of incoming correspondence from travel agents. Of course, the tourism sector was hit so hard—it was absolutely trammelled—by COVID. The tourism sector has been really struggling in my state of Queensland, in my home town of Cairns and, of course, throughout Queensland, including in my electorate, which is in the south-east corner. Travel agents who have been calling us are at the end of their tether because they're so concerned that the government is not giving them certainty about their future. They didn't get the benefit of the aviation package. They don't know what's going to happen to them in the future. The government needs to support these workers and it needs to support all workers who are terrified about what's going to happen once we get to the JobKeeper cliff.

I want to mention the unemployment payment, which is now called JobSeeker. The government needs to recognise that people are crying out for support. We must address poverty in this country. At a time when there is a lot of uncertainty about the future of the labour market, of course we need to address the situation we find ourselves in, which is that so many people rely on JobSeeker, and the arrangements for JobSeeker aren't working to ensure those people have the best chance of a future secure, decent and well-paid job.

Finally I want to mention traffic congestion. It's a very prosaic issue, but, honestly, the quality of life for my constituents is directly affected by how much traffic congestion we have, because the more time you spend on the road, the less time you spend with your kids, or your elderly parents or on leisure activities. This has a direct impact on quality of life. I have called on the government before to address the traffic snarl that is the Cavendish Road level crossing at Coorparoo in my electorate of Griffith. In a previous budget, the government committed $87 million to the level crossing in the neighbouring electorate of Bonner, but they've not committed a cent to this level crossing. I really do encourage the government to take action on traffic congestion. There has been a lot of complaint across a long time about the fact that a lot of Liberal Party initiatives in government tend to go to Liberal-held or Liberal-targeted electorates. It's not good enough. People on the south side of Brisbane deserve support and they deserve a real commitment from this government when it comes to busting traffic congestion. It will assist people to the east of my electorate as well. The government need to have a good, serious, hard look at this. (Time expired)