Why do some highly experienced and qualified women in the Coalition feel they don’t merit more powerful roles in Federal Government?

Since Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced his 19-person Cabinet last week, these women have been defending a line-up that only includes one woman: Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop. Bishop agrees with their stance, saying she has been appointed on merit and other women will be considered in due course. However, the parliamentary CVs of the other women tell a different story.

It’s difficult to understand why the Member for Farrar Sussan Ley has played down concern about missing out on a Cabinet appointment when you consider her experience and qualifications. She has been in parliament for 12 years and is in the outer ministry as Assistant Minister for Education.

In Opposition, she was Shadow Minister for Housing; Shadow Minister for the Status of Women; Shadow Minister for Justice and Customs; Shadow Assistant Treasurer; Shadow Minister for Employment Participation; and Shadow Minister for Childcare and Early Childhood. In the Howard Government, she was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Family and Community Services (Children and Youth Affairs), and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. She also has an economics degree, a masters degree in taxation, and a masters degree in accounting.

Apparently she is less qualified for a Cabinet role than Senator Mathias Cormann, for example. Cormann has only been in parliament for six years, yet he has been appointed as Minister for Finance and elevated into Cabinet.His parliamentary experience is less extensive than Ley’s. In Opposition, he was Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Health Administration; Shadow Minister for Employment Participation, Apprenticeships and Training; Shadow Assistant Treasurer; and Shadow Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation. He also has a law degree.

It’s also interesting to note that Ley appears to be more qualified than Sophie Mirabella – who was in line for a Cabinet spot until she lost the seat of Indi. Mirabella had been in parliament since 2001 and had been the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Local Government; Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare, Women and Youth; Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare, Status of Women and Youth; Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research; and Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry and Science.

Despite Ley’s obvious and impressive credentials, she told ABC’s Late Line on Friday that she was honoured to be in her current position and agreed with merit-based selection. However, during the Late Line interview, she kept side-stepping  a question about why she isn’t in Cabinet. She ultimately said that she wanted to see more women in Parliament generally. “I’m not focused on the frontbenches…I think as women we need to perhaps do more to encourage women to put their hands up for pre-selection,” she said.

Earlier in the interview, she referred to comments made by Brendan Nelson when he was the Leader of the Opposition: “you can serve the people from wherever you sit”. Ley added: “You can make a powerful contribution from the backbench, perhaps as the chair of a committee, perhaps as somebody who exercises a certain point of view very strenuously. So I think this argument has got way out of hand and I think that we are entitled as parties to pick the team that best serves the nation in the capacity that our leader makes that judgment at the time,” she said

This all sounds good in theory. But it’s hard to listen to such a highly qualified and experienced woman defend the indefensible. Unfortunately, Bishop has been no help to her or other female colleagues. She told ABC Radio last week that she didn’t see a glass ceiling and she believed in merit based selection.

It’s hard to stomach that both these women are telling us that currently Bishop is the only women who merits a seat at the most powerful political table in Australia.

But then again ‘merit’ can be unconsciously or consciously used by women and men to prevent other women from climbing the political or business ladder. Merit “is a view that is so internalised in so many people that you actually have women using it to defend the discrimination that prevents them and their sisters from being included and from being treated equally”, says Anne Summers in The Misogyny Factor.

Outgoing Senator Sue Boyce, who has been one of the few Coalition women to publicly criticise the lack of women in Cabinet, has denounced merit as a smokescreen. “If I hear the phrase ‘woman of merit’ one more time, I’ll, I’ll…do something drastic. When was the phrase ‘men of merit’ last used? Is every male MP a ‘man of merit’?,” she said on ABC News 24. “Let’s stop this nonsense about waiting for ‘women of merit’ to spontaneously arise within the Coalition parties to join the Cabinet. Women of merit’ is a term used by ultra-conservatives who want to maintain the status quo – it’s a smokescreen for sexism.”

Here are some other women in the Coalition who appear to have been side-lined by merit:

Senator Marise Payne – she has been in federal parliament for 16 years and is in the outer ministry as Minister for Human Services. A look through her parliamentary CV indicates that she would be a worthy Cabinet candidate.In Opposition, she was Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs; Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance; Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Indigenous Affairs; Shadow Minister for COAG and Modernising the Federation; Shadow Minister for Indigenous Development and Employment; and Shadow Minister for Housing. She also has a law degree.

Teresa Gambaro, who was on the shadow front bench, has been left out of the ministry altogether. Gambaro has been in federal parliament for 14 years. She lost her seat in 2007 but regained it in 2010. In opposition, she was Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for International Development; Assistance and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Citizenship and Settlement. During the Howard years, she was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence; Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs; Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship; and Assistant Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. She also has a business degree.

Sharman Stone is another highly experienced politician, who has been in parliament for 17 years, but has also been left empty handed. In opposition, she was Shadow Minister for the Environment, Heritage, the Arts and Indigenous Affairs; Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship; Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Childcare; and Shadow Minister for the Status of Women. However, she hasn’t held a portfolio since 2010. In the Howard Government, she was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Environment and Heritage; Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration; and Minister for Workforce Participation. She also has a doctorate, masters degree, graduate diploma in education and an arts degree.

The highly experienced Bronwyn Bishop has also been overlooked. Abbott may have put her forward as Speaker, but the Speaker doesn’t have the law making power of a Cabinet Minister. However, since Bishop missed out on a Cabinet role, she has been emphatically defending Abbott’s ministerial appointments and spruiking the merits of merit selection.

So, in addition to Cormann, who are some of the other men that have entered Cabinet ahead of the women?

Scott Morrison has only been in parliament for six years, but has had a meteoric rise through the ranks. He has been appointed Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and elevated to Cabinet. In Opposition, he was Shadow Minister for Housing and Development; Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship; and Shadow Minister for Productivity and Population. He also has a science degree. There’s no doubt that immigration is a difficult portfolio to manage – in Opposition and Government – but the same can also be said about other briefs. Child care, human services and other portfolios that are held by some of his female colleagues, who missed out on Cabinet spots, are just as vital to national policy as turning around boats and implementing harsh refugee policies – or maybe that’s what it takes to be in Cabinet?

Greg hunt is another man who is no more experienced than some of the women who have missed out on Cabinet roles. He has been an MP for 12 years and is now the Minister for the Environment and in Cabinet. In Opposition, he was Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Urban Water; Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Water; and Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage. In the Howard Government, he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage; and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. He is also has a law degree.

It has been widely reported, that as well as Boyce, former Coalition Senator Judith Troeth has been critical of the lack of women in Abbott’s Cabinet and outer ministry. Among both their concerns is the lack of women appointed to the parliamentary secretary ranks. Only one of the 12 positions has been filled by a woman. And the woman who filled the position is on the way down the ranks rather than on the way up. This doesn’t bode well for the future of women rising up through the Coalition’s ranks.

Boyce and Troeth are also worried about the lack of women being pre-selected to run for parliament, which is necessary to bolster the numbers of candidates for jobs in the outer ministry and Cabinet. Troeth is in favour of quotas to remedy this problem.

Unfortunately, the situation in the Coalition is also happening elsewhere. Men only make up 50 per cent of population, yet they hold most of the high-powered and influential jobs in the country: 95 per cent of the Cabinet positions, over 70 per cent of the seats in parliament and over 90 per cent of the executive roles in ASX 500 companies. It’s ludicrous to think that this situation is okay and all these men have won their jobs based on so-called merit. We need to stop giving men preferential treatment and halt a system that says if you are ‘one of the boys’ you can expect to land between 70 and 95 per cent of the top jobs. Imagine the outcry if we had a system in place that said 70 to 95 per cent of the top jobs must go to women. It’s hard enough to implement a system that delivers a 50/50 gender split without being howled down by critics who say it’s unfair because it’s not based on merit – go figure.

For change to happen, men in the Coalition and other walks of life must relinquish their unequal hold on power. Yes fellas, it’s time to stop feeling relaxed and comfortable. But it’s not going to be easy. “I think men have an innate fear of capable women at that level, not telling them what to do or certainly putting their views forward and perhaps some of those views being adopted as government policy,” said Troeth on ABC  News 24. Well – it’s time for men and women to face their fears and to start promoting many women – not a few.

What do you think about merit-based selection?

This story was updated on 8 December 2013.

 

2 thoughts on “Missed opportunity

  1. Great post Helen.

    One of the most thoughtful and thorough deconstructions I’ve read of the bull***t excuses being made for the farce that is ‘selection on merit’.

    If the MSM gave us journalism of this quality we might still be buying them.

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