It has been suggested that an Abbott-led government would lead Australia back into the 1950s on issues of gender. A look at Coalition governments nationwide shows this would make Abbott unfortunately unexceptional.
Former PM Julia Gillard asked us to imagine “a man in a blue tie – who goes on holidays to be replaced by a man in a blue tie, who delivers a budget wearing a blue tie, to be supported by a Finance Minister who wears a blue tie.” When that vision became a reality last week, the response of most conservatives around the nation to the under-representation of women on the front bench was the oft-repeated cry: ‘Meritocracy says: “No.”’
Yet a system that guarantees the Deputy Prime Ministership to the Nationals and attempts to balance cabinet positions across the states and territories is not, even on its face, merit-based.
Even Abbott’s selections between middle-aged men put the meritocratic claim to bed. In promoting someone to “cut the waste” in Finance, Abbott overlooked experienced former Howard advisor Arthur Sinodinos to install Mathias Corman, who had being both a West Australian and in the Upper House in his favour. You would be hard pressed to find a member of the Liberal Party or Treasury who actually thinks Hockey is more qualified than Turnbull to run the economy. Indeed, Abbott’s decision to favour seniority and stability over talent is the exact practice Liberals might decry in a teachers’ union or on the wharves.
On the question of female representation, though, it is more problematic if conservatives believe selections are meritocratic. There are now six Coalition governments across Australia and women make up slightly less than one in six positions on the front bench. NSW leads the way with just over a quarter, while the NT, QLD, and WA are doing twice as well as their federal counterparts with two female ministers apiece.
Digging deeper still we find the women who made it to the front bench were not trusted with senior portfolios. Across the six governments there are no female leaders, treasurers or finance ministers, Attorneys-General, or Planning Ministers. To the extent women are in senior Cabinet they are likely to be in charge of portfolios that provide caring services, like health or education.
That is equally true of the minor portfolios where women are in charge of early childhood issues, the foster care system, mental health and, oddly, tourism. Tracy Davis, the most senior woman in the Queensland Government acts as the Minister for Communities, Children Safety, and Disability Services, while Helen Morton in WA is in charge of, mental health, disability services, and children. The exceptions, like NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, are few and far between.
The ALP fares somewhat better. In their dwindling governments around the nation, women make up a third of all Cabinet positions. Women in both the ACT and Tasmania lead the party, as they have done in NSW, Queensland and, of course, federally.
Coalition governments have swept back to power across much of the country since 2007 promising to ‘get the house back in order’. These houses, it would seem, have charged men with the finances and women, at most, with portfolios of care. It is an outcome that is deeply anti-meritocratic, profoundly sexist, or both.