If the Liberal Party wants to keep pretending we have “merit” selection for candidates and “merit” promotion for MPs then a very new and very elastic definition of that word is required.
Interestingly, the m-word is only ever used when we are explaining why there is only one woman qualified and capable of serving in the 19 member Abbott cabinet. Or why we have never had a female Leader in the House of Representatives or Senate. Although a third of NSW Legislative Council is female, we have had just three women ministers and no female leaders in 190 years. It’s hard to condemn public companies for a paltry 13% female Board appointments when we haven’t had one since 2005. Meanwhile the NSW public sector has regressed to 1988 with just two female departmental chief executives. And apparently it’s because of merit.
There are several flaws in this argument.
First, it’s factually incorrect. It denies the existence of hundreds of qualified, experienced women whose careers have been thwarted for reasons other than merit. It’s not just us – hundreds of good men have also been thwarted by lesser candidates for reasons other than merit. It’s not merit, it’s politics.
If occasionally playing the ‘gender card’ offends some men, continuously playing the opaque ‘merit card’ is grossly offensive to women.
To repeatedly dismiss the aspirations of Liberal women on the grounds of ‘merit’ drives responsibility back on the victims, and shuts down calls for closer investigation. For years the Liberal Party has told its own women we are “not good enough”. But guys, it’s 2014 and some of us are wondering if it’s really us who are the problem? Could it be the Liberal Party is the one that’s “not good enough” at attracting, retaining and promoting great Australian women?
In Liberal philosophy merit is supposed to be a good thing. But my Party only seems to use that word to explain female failure. It’s rare to hear it in other contexts like electing party leaders. In those brutal contests the choice of ‘best person to lead the party’ is a not a complex merit selection – it’s a simple test as to who’s got the numbers. Why pretend the situation for women is any different to this?
The biggest irony is the claim that Liberals only promote on merit because the use of quotas is complete anathema and an insult to women. In fact the opposite is true. No matter how much our Leaders want to promote on merit, they can’t because our system is hopelessly riddled with quotas.
Before Tony Abbott could appoint anyone to his 19 member cabinet, he has to appoint the party leaders from two houses; a quota is given to Coalition partners, noting we are now in partnership with three other parties – the Nationals, the Qld Liberal Nationals; and NT Country Liberals. The Senate needs its fair share as does each of the states and let’s not forget the factions. As for women? “Oh, Lordy no! Our party doesn’t support quotas!”
So what dark secret lies beyond the Liberals’ merit brick wall? An internal party culture that has been engulfed by factionalism and all the ugly behaviours that are an anathema to quality women. Where having the numbers is everything; and merit is something to be feared rather than embraced.
This is not simply a Liberal problem. All parties including Labor are afflicted, as our membership numbers declined and it became easier for powerbrokers (overwhelmingly male) to manipulate the process. It’s a boys’ game, and it’s reversed the promising start we made in the 1980s and 1990s when larger numbers of women started marching into politics.
Unfortunately the decline of women in the Liberal Party has been a decade in the making, and even if we had the will, the loss of female experience is so profound it could take another decade to fix the problem.
In 2013 the merit excuse is so tired and useless; it’s a withered fig leaf no longer capable of concealing the truth. Let’s have that overdue conversation about reforming our culture and closing the great gaping gulf that lies between what we say about merit and what we actually do.
Catherine Cusack is a Liberal member of the NSW Upper House. This article was first published on news.com.au