Unchained from any ministerial responsibilities, former federal deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop recently declared it “not acceptable” that just 25 per cent of the party’s federal MPs are women.
It was far from a call for gender quotas, but it was a clear acknowledgment of a problem that an increasing number in party ranks desperately believe needs to be addressed.
Ms Bishop would be acutely aware that in her home state of WA, the situation is even more dire.
After the WA Liberals’ wipe-out at last year’s state election, their number of female MPs could be counted on one hand, with a few fingers to spare.
A snap by-election this year delivered the Liberals one more female MP, and women now make up four of the 23 members the party has in both houses of State Parliament — just over 17 per cent.
It’s a problem WA Liberal Leader Mike Nahan and Deputy Liza Harvey acknowledge is not a good look and unlikely to help them woo the 50 per cent of voters who are women.
Liza Harvey and Mike Nahan both think the Liberal Party needs more women. (ABC News: Eliza Laschon)
Federal Labor has long had quotas in place and nearly half of all the party’s MPs are women.
But both Dr Nahan and Ms Harvey this week again ruled out the adoption of quotas to help get more women into the WA Parliament.
Women snubbed in blue-ribbon seats
Dr Nahan argued having quotas would be difficult because of the Liberals’ “grassroots” preselection system, which allows individual branches to select candidates.
Instead of adopting a systemic intervention, he has chosen a more coercive approach to fix the problem.
Dr Nahan said he, Ms Harvey and other party heavyweights continued to talk to every WA branch and division and “urged them, encouraged them and lobbied them to give a weight to gender balance in the selection of candidates” as they head towards to the next state poll in 2021.
“As a leader I’m putting immense weight and effort into getting greater gender balance — it’s a necessity, not an option,” Dr Nahan said.
“When we move towards the next term I will be doing my best to ensure we have a greater range of women as our candidates, and including in winnable seats.”
But most Liberals who want to address the problem agree this is not going to happen if women are only selected to contest marginal seats.
Corporate lawyer Emma Roberts was beaten for the nomination for Cottesloe by David Honey. (Supplied)
Earlier this year, the WA Liberals had the opportunity to preselect a woman for former premier Colin Barnett’s blue-ribbon seat of Cottesloe.
Ahead of the preselection, Dr Nahan had publicly declared he wanted selectors to consider “youth, gender, diversity and ability” when picking the Cottesloe candidate.
Ms Harvey went further and personally endorsed 40-year-old BHP senior lawyer Emma Roberts, who was an early frontrunner for the seat.
But party members thumbed their noses at both leaders’ wishes by endorsing 59-year-old David Honey, a senior Alcoa executive.
Liberal preselectors opt for men
A similar scenario played out this week in the federal arena, during the hotly contested preselection battle for former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s leafy blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth.
Former Australian ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma emerged victorious, despite the fact Prime Minister Scott Morrison had publicly lobbied for a female candidate, and deputy mayor of Woollahra Katherine O’Regan was widely considered the frontrunner.
Scott Morrison lobbied for a female candidate, but after the result said former ambassador Dave Sharma was the best candidate. (AAP: Lucas Coch / ABC News: Nick Sas)
The result also came after former acting Liberal Party director Andrew Bragg — who had been considered a frontrunner to win Liberal preselection for the seat — had bowed out of the race, declaring the party needed to pick a woman.
Both the Cottesloe and Wentworth scenarios appear to show Liberal preselectors don’t take kindly to being urged by their party leaders to consider women, and won’t shy away from publicly slapping them down if they attempt to do so.
In the fallout from both Cottesloe and Wentworth, both Dr Nahan and Mr Morrison backed the final decisions of preselectors and talked up the quality of the triumphant male candidates.
An impassioned quota call ignored
For the Liberals, the timing of the Wentworth preselection could not have been worse.
The party is already fracturing on a number of fronts, including over claims from within about its poor treatment of women and concerns about gender imbalance.
Just hours before the selection of Mr Sharma, outgoing Liberal MP and former corporate lawyer Julia Banks had used a late-night speech in Federal Parliament to call for quotas, saying they were the only way to ensure equal representation in the party.
She said quotas would be a “reset mechanism” that “would create a level playing field.”
“It seems that quotas are only resisted when they are related to gender,” Ms Banks said.
“Quotas are not demeaning to women and nor will women be regarded as the ‘quota girl’.”
A ‘flawed’ meritocracy
Those in the Liberal Party who continue to oppose quotas — and they are the majority — argue candidates should be preselected on merit rather than gender.
The party has a target of reaching 50 per cent elected female MPs by 2025, but even federal president Nick Greiner has conceded that is unlikely to be reached.
Ms Banks argued targets did not work in politics, and the meritocracy argument was “completely and utterly flawed.”
“There are an equal number of meritorious women out there in the real world as there are men, but they won’t come if the barriers to entry and mountains to climb are too high,” she said.
Recent experience shows that the coercion and lobbying of Liberal preselectors by the party’s leaders is failing to get more women preselected into winnable seats.
The male and female Liberals calling for gender quotas are acutely aware that, until a more interventionist approach is taken, the party will remain out of step with community expectations about gender balance, and as such will struggle to increase its female vote.