Former Liberal senator Judith Troeth says that there were more women representing the Liberal Party in parliament when John Howard was elected in 1996. (AAP: Andrew Taylore)
The Liberal Party has again come under fire for the low number of women in its federal parliamentary team after Jane Prentice, the Assistant Minister for Disability Services, lost preselection for her safe Brisbane seat.
Among those critical of the outcome was former Liberal senator Judith Troeth, who represented Victoria between 1993 and 2011.
Ms Troeth told ABC News Breakfast that the party’s female representation was “disgracefully lagging” and, in fact, had regressed over the past two decades.
“The level of women in Federal Parliament for the Liberal party is totally unacceptable. There were more women there 22 years ago, when John Howard won in 1996, and it’s dropped to a low level, and as far as I can see no efforts are being made to improve it.”
Were Liberal women better represented in parliament in 1996? RMIT ABC Fact Check crunches the numbers.
Ms Troeth’s claim is in the ballpark.
There were, indeed, three more Liberal women in parliament during 1996 compared to May 2018. But the party also held an extra 22 seats.
That’s why, in determining whether “the level of women” has declined, it is more meaningful to consider the numbers as a proportion of seats held.
Viewed this way, female representation in the Liberal Party has actually increased over the 22 years — from 21 per cent of Liberal parliamentarians to 24 per cent.
But it still remains below the level for women in Parliament overall, and roughly half that of Labor party members.
So while the “level of [Liberal] women” is indeed low, it has not “dropped to a low level” since 1996.
Ms Troeth specifically identified 1996 in her claim. However, female representation during John Howard’s prime ministership peaked not in his first term but in his second (1998-2001), when it reached 25 per cent.
Across Mr Howard’s four terms, female representation averaged 23 per cent of Liberal seats held, which is just below the party’s current level.
Sourcing the figures
Fact Check has relied on information from the Parliamentary Library and the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to compare the two periods contrasted by Ms Troeth.
The Parliamentary Library produces statistics on the gender composition of the Commonwealth Parliament, with their most up-to-date figures published on May 18, 2018.
Importantly, the latest report — like Ms Troeth’s claim — comes at a time when the composition of the Parliament is in flux following the resignation of several parliamentarians amid the ongoing citizenship crisis.
Five vacancies remain in the House of Representatives and will be filled in by-elections on July 28, 2018.
Though one Senate vacancy was filled on May 23 (six days after Ms Troeth made her claim on May 17) it did not affect the Liberal Party’s numbers.
The number of women in Parliament
In simple terms, there are fewer Liberal women in Parliament today than when John Howard first won the prime ministership.
There are 20 in the current Parliament, compared to 23 in 1996.
But these figures in themselves do not say whether the Liberal party was doing a better job of female representation back in 1996.
That’s because there are significantly fewer Liberals, of any sex, in Parliament now than there were two decades ago.
In 1996, the Liberal Party won 107 seats across both houses. In 2018, however, they hold just 85 seats.
So, while the number of Liberal women dropped by 13 per cent over the past 22 years, the number of Liberals overall dropped by just over 20 per cent.
Fact Check has not included the Northern Territory’s Country Liberal Party in these figures.
The “level” of women
To account for the party’s changing electoral fortunes, a more meaningful way for comparing years is to look at the number of the party’s female MPs as a proportion of its total number of MPs.
These totals, along with the individual names of parliamentarians, are available in the parliamentary handbook published after each term of government.
Ms Troeth suggested that “the level of women” in Parliament had decreased, but when the statistics are viewed proportionally, they tell the opposite story.
In 1996, women accounted for 21 per cent of Liberal parliamentarians. By May 2018, this number had risen to 24 per cent.
And while Ms Troeth specifically highlights the period “22 years ago, when John Howard won in 1996”, the figures show that female representation actually peaked during Mr Howard’s second term, when it reached 25 per cent.
Ms Troeth would be correct in saying Liberal women were better represented in the Parliament under Mr Howard, just not in 1996.
Across his four terms, the level of female representation averaged 23 per cent — slightly lower than the current level.
The number of Liberal women in Parliament is lower now than in 1996, but the proportion is not
How they compare
The figures also show that the Liberal party is lagging when it comes to the representation of women in Parliament.
At the time of writing, 31.8 per cent of parliamentarians were women.
Labor leads the major parties with 46.2 per cent female representation in Parliament.
Trailing the major parties are the Nationals, with just 9.1 per cent female representation.
These figures take into account the recent election of David Smith to fill the Senate seat vacated by Labor’s Katy Gallagher, but exclude the five vacant Lower House seats that are subject to by-elections in July.
They also take into account independent senator Steve Martin’s decision to join the National Party.
The Labor party has the highest proportion of women in its ranks in the Federal Parliament
Principal researcher: David Campbell
- Judith Troeth, Interview with ABC News Breakfast, May 17, 2018
- Parliamentary Library, Composition of Australian parliaments by party and gender, May 18, 2018
- AEC, Members of the 38th Parliament (1996), January 27, 2011
- AEC, Senators of the 38th Parliament, January 27, 2011
- APH, 39th Parliamentary Handbook, 1999
- APH, 40th Parliamentary Handbook, 2002
- APH, 41st Parliamentary Handbook, 2005
- APH, Women in the 40th parliament, May 2018
- APH, Women in the 41st Parliament, May 2018