Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Anna Burke didn’t hold back in critiquing how the Australian Labor Party (ALP) elected its shadow ministry this week.

Her comments about the process and lack of women elected from the right faction sparked a number of responses.

Earlier this week, Burke wrote in The Guardian and told LateLine that the ALP caucus had voted along sub factional lines for the shadow ministry, and she objected to the right faction electing only three women to its front bench team.

The right had been allocated 16 spots in the shadow ministry, while the left had been allocated 14. Although only three women were elected to the right, eight women were elected to the left.

Burke, a member of the right, was furious about the gender gap and missing out on a front bench role. She criticised the election process, pointing to a blokey culture.

The newly elected deputy leader of the ALP Tanya Plibersek told ABC radio on Tuesday that she understood Burke’s disappointment but rejected her criticism “about blokes looking after themselves”.

Plibersek said: “I don’t think [this] is borne out, in the fact that we have 11 women on our front bench”.

She compared the ALP’s front bench to the Coalition’s Cabinet, which only has one woman in it. “I think the last time we had one woman in the Cabinet was in 1976,” she said.

“It’s a bit glass half-full, glass half-empty; I think Anna’s very focused on the half empty.”

But Burke said in The Guardian, “it is wonderful to see both Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong being awarded such elevated positions within the party, but our process remains one where the most senior women in the Labor party were accorded no positions going forward, and no ability to actually argue their case and demonstrate why they would make the best candidate based on immediate past performance.”

With the election of just three women from the right, only 18 per cent of the right’s front bench team are women.

Leaving the factions aside, it should also be noted that overall only 37 per cent of the shadow ministry are women.

Not a good look when women make up 50 per cent of the population – and have done so for over a century.

Publicly, Burke has received lukewarm support from her Western Australia colleague Senator-elect Louise Pratt, who told Fairfax Media yesterday that Burke had failed to get the numbers, which must have been frustrating for her.

However, at Monday’s shadow ministerial ballot, the ALP had agreed to look at the rules around such elections – so things may change in the future, Pratt said.

Overall, the ALP’s response to Burke has been a bit like the Coalition’s defence of the few women in its ministry: most members publicly following the party line.

Burke came in for much harsher criticism from ABC reporter Stephen Long.

Last night on The Drum, Long  described Burke as spitting the dummy, saying she should be pleased that 11 women are on the 30-person ALP front bench.

Also on The Drum, former New South Wales Labor Minister Verity Firth said although there was some truth to what Burke had said, the ALP couldn’t win a trick: they demonstrate democracy by electing the new leader and then there is outrage about having no democracy.

Moreover, Firth believed the ALP’s front bench elections were no different to other processes where a number of people compete for limited roles. A level of frustration would always be present and she didn’t view the end result as a blight on the ALP.

Unfortunately, Long and Firth’s criticisms strayed from arguments about the number of women on the right and factional processes.

Long also took issue with Burke’s clothing, saying she should have taken some of her own advice and not worn what he described as a T-shirt for her Lateline interview.

However, in the past, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been interviewed in T-shirts, bike pants, wetsuits and so on.

Long also commented on Bourke’s demeanour, describing her as looking “pretty emotional”.

Why is a woman who raises her voice and disagrees with the status quo classified as having psychological problems?

Firth didn’t help the situation, saying when she was a politician she couldn’t go out in “tracky dacks” and “thongs” to get the paper – she had to wear lipstick and a dress.

So, for women to be taken seriously they have to ditch the T-shirt and slacks, and don a dress and make up. Do they also have to wear matching handbag and shoes?

Or is the mixing and matching left to Abbott and his bike riding gear?

The readers’ responses to Burke’s Guardian article included favourable and unfavourable reviews.

But it was disturbing to read the requests/demands for Burke to shut up and not voice her opinion.

On another news website, one comment described Burke as looking like a “mad woman (literally)” in her LateLine interview. “It’s that type of behaviour that precludes women from the top spots. What a sore loser!” it added.

Why does Burke have to shut up, be polite, be dainty and adhere to another person’s arbitrary dress code to make others feel comfortable and win votes?

In voicing her concerns, Burke was doing the same as other women and men who speak out about inequality in other contexts – such as the lack of women on corporate boards, which is currently 16.4 per cent in ASX 200 companies.

Calling out and shining a light on problems is supposed to be the way we rid our society of abuses such as direct and indirect discrimination, sexism etc.

Burke summed up her ‘problem’ in the last couple lines of her Guardian opinion piece:

“I don’t like accepting what is given to me as a fait accompli….if someone in the tent does not test the boundaries, who will?”

This story was updated on 15 May 2014.

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