The culture of the Liberal party doesn’t reward women with loud voices and sharp elbows. Women of childbearing age still get asked at preselections how they will manage to have children and align that responsibility with their professional lives.
The party likes to maintain the pretence that it is a flourishing meritocracy, open to allcomers, rather than acknowledge its lived reality, which is a riven organisation, beset by feuding factions and self-styled power brokers and enforcers.
The mythology of the meritocracy could be funny, a droll in-joke, given this is actually a political movement of clubbish blokey cliques roiling and self-perpetuating at taxpayer expense – except that mythology has been used to subdue and silence women in the Liberal party for as long as I’ve occupied my ringside seat.
Invoking the holy grail of merit is pernicious in this sense: it discourages Liberal women from acting collectively to advance their own interests. It says to women: form an orderly line, wait to be be overlooked and don’t complain afterwards, because no one likes a bitter woman. Such a buzzkill, those sour birds.
A procession of whip-smart women have been lulled by this bollocks – some prioritising the loyal articulation of foundational philosophy over the inevitable disappointments of their lived experience; some unwilling to utter inconvenient truths. Don’t say you are a feminist, even if you are. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t challenge the machine, even as it rolls right over the top of you. Thank the machine for its graciousness in stopping by, because that’s only polite.
But if 2018 is anything, it’s a year when many women have decided they’ve had enough. Some of that revolutionary spirit has blown into Canberra.
The madness of the recent leadership civil war has spurred some Liberal women into testing their voices. Pent-up frustration about being talked over and stood over by a prowling pack of perpetual adolescents high on hot-house intrigues is beginning to find some furtive public expression.
Julie Bishop, disdained during the three-way leadership tussle by the same colleagues who had prevailed upon her to campaign and fundraise for them over many years in all corners of the country because her popularity eclipsed their own, declined to ride off into the sunset like a good, polite, grateful girl.
Liberated from the imperative of being the designated handmaiden to cycles of unhinging, no longer required to stand with the rictus grin behind a succession of blokes permitted to lead for as long as they could outrun their internal enemies, Bishop is now breaking the fourth wall.
“I have seen and witnessed and experienced some appalling behaviour in parliament, the kind of behaviour that 20 years ago, when I was the managing partner of a law firm with 200 employees, I would never have accepted,” the deputy to Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull said this week.
“Yet in parliament it’s the norm.”
Julia Banks, who left a successful business career to win the Victorian seat of Chisholm in the election the Liberals almost lost, isn’t digging in – she’s riding off into the sunset, but she isn’t preserving anyone’s dignity by pretending she wants to spend more time with her family. She says she’s leaving politics because staying in a toxic culture is unbearable.
The Western Australia Liberal Linda Reynolds called out the “madness” of backroom behaviour as the leadership insanity was still unfolding. The South Australian Liberal Lucy Gichuhi, says she’ll name names when parliament resumes.
Sussan Ley told me this week she wasn’t bullied during the dumpster fire of the last parliamentary fortnight, but she accepts that others were; and disputed claims notwithstanding, she thinks enough’s enough. Women in the Liberal party have to step up, and the time to step up is now.
“I think the time is right for another look at quotas, and this is not about saying the word quota and then running a mile,” Ley says. “I think the time has come to do this well, and do it properly”.
She says the Liberal and National parties already have unofficial quotas to balance out representation. The ministry is divided up to ensure there is sufficient representation from across the states and territories, and between the Liberal and National parties, “so why can’t we find a way of doing this with gender”.
Ley says the case for action is simple: women’s representation in the Liberal party is going backwards. It’s now worse than it was in the mid-1990s, and there is no strategy to combat the trend, apart from pretending it isn’t happening.
She says the party is fortunate now to have a minister for women in Kelly O’Dwyer who is prepared to take up the cause of championing women’s advancement in proactive ways, rather than just provide lip service. Ley says women have got to champion change internally in a collegiate way, and “it’s got to be inclusive of the men”, otherwise it will be just spinning wheels without forward movement.
Former party leader John Hewson is prepared to back Ley’s calls to examine quotas. “At this stage, everything else they’ve tried hasn’t worked,” he says. “You have got to change the system and create the opportunities for more women to stand.”
Hewson says while any quota system would need to safeguard merit, it is ludicrous for opponents of quotas to argue the status quo is merit-based. “Most of the men who get into parliament these days haven’t ever run anything.”
This is all encouraging stuff. But what’s required now to turn good intentions into progress is more than lip service by well meaning people, or short sharp outbreaks of pique that scratch and itch and generate a headline but don’t create much traction.
If the fed-up women of the Liberal party, and the men enlightened enough to support them, want to change the culture, both the ways in which crises are managed internally, and whether the party evolves beyond its default stone-age tendencies regarding women’s representation, they are going to have to display the guts and tenacity to get it done.
Scott Morrison has opened his new prime ministership by talking about stability and healing. This of course suits his current imperative, which is to paper over the madness that exploded inside his own show and is still reverberating as parliament is set to resume.
Stability and healing are pleasant, soothing concepts. Certainly more pleasant than plots and arm-twisting and front stabbing and back stabbing and policy being conjured up on the back of a beer coaster as the jackals circled yet another incumbent prime minister in yet another manifestation of the low-stakes game that is Australian politics.
But better than stability and healing is truth.
What’s required is truth telling, out loud, with people listening, and with remedial action following. The government needs to acknowledge the underlying drivers of its own recurrent internal madness to have any hope of combatting it, and it needs to acknowledge what the Liberal party culture actually is, rather than what the official talking points profess it to be.