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National Affairs

The forty-third parliament: how’s it hanging?

29 September 2010

The House of Representatives has its first Indigenous member and its first Muslim member. But female representation is stuck at around 25 per cent, writes Tony Smith


Above: MPs leave the House of Representatives chamber for the official opening of parliament in the Senate yesterday.
AAP Image/ Alan Porritt

Above: MPs leave the House of Representatives chamber for the official opening of parliament in the Senate yesterday.
AAP Image/ Alan Porritt

THE 2010 federal election was the first in which a major Australian party was led by a woman, yet gender policy issues barely featured in the campaign. Perhaps this simply reflects the overall campaign, in which few significant policy differences emerged between Labor and the Coalition. In time, no doubt, analysts will explain the behaviour of male and female voters and examine the campaigning styles of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. What is immediately apparent, though, is that the fortunes of male and female party candidates fitted into a well-established pattern.

First, the overall figures. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, 849 candidates contested 150 House of Representatives seats and 349 candidates contested forty Senate seats. The following tables show the success rates for men and women in each chamber.

Table 1. House of Representatives candidate success rates

Number Successful % successful
Male candidates 619 113 18.3
Female 230 37 16.1
Total 849 150 17.7

Table 2. Senate candidate success rates

Number Successful % successful
Male candidates 226 23 10.2
Female 123 17 13.8
Total 349 40 11.5

At first sight, these figures appear to reinforce the commonly held perception that, compared with their male counterparts, female candidates fare better in chambers elected under proportional representation systems – like the one used to elect the Senate – than in chambers with single-member electorates, as for the House of Representatives. The seventeen female senators represent a gain of three (to thirty women among seventy-six senators) for the incoming Senate. But it's probably also the case that these rates of success among male and female candidates are determined strongly by the fact that ambitious males will tend to gravitate to the lower house, where the government is formed.

When we focus on candidates nominated by one of the major parties a different picture emerges. The table below shows the breakdown of male and female candidates standing for the Coalition (which includes Liberals, Nationals, the Liberal National Party in Queensland and the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory) and Labor in the House elections. Some 48 per cent of Labor candidates and 46.5 per cent of Coalition candidates were returned. Although the Coalition secured one seat more than Labor, it ran in a number of three-cornered contests (Labor–Liberal–National) and so had more candidates overall. Interestingly, female candidates were slightly more successful than men on both sides of politics.

Table 3. House of Representatives candidate success rates by gender and party

Party Candidates Elected
Female candidates Elected (%) Male candidates Elected
Labor 150 72 (48.0) 47 23 (48.9) 103 49 (47.6)
Coalition 157 73 (46.5) 30 14 (46.7) 127 59 (46.5)
Other 542 5   (0.9) 153 - 389 5   (1.3)
Total 849 150 (17.7) 230 37 (16.1) 619 113 (18.3)

Table 4 shows the effect of the election on gender representation. With the number of male MPs rising from 109 to 113, the new parliament (75.3 per cent male) is clearly more male-dominated than the old (72.7 per cent). This pattern correlates closely with party preselections: almost half of the male candidates defending Labor-held seats were in safe seats but only a third of women defending Labor seats were in safe seats. At the more dangerous end, about one-third of the male Labor defenders were defending marginals, while almost half the women were.

Interestingly, the overall success rate of Labor’s female candidates (twenty-three of forty-seven, or 48.9 per cent) was slightly higher than the rate among Labor’s male candidates. The number of Coalition women remained constant while the Coalition men gained nine seats, increasing male dominance on that side of the House from 78.1 per cent to 80.8 per cent. Like their Labor counterparts, Coalition women secured a slightly better return than their male colleagues.

Table 4. Change in gender representation following the 2010 House of Representatives election

Before election After election
Female Male Total Men as % of total Female Male Total Men as % of total
Labor 27 56 83 67.5 23 49 72 68.1
Coalition 14 50 64 78.1 14 59 73 80.8
Independent - 3 3 100.0 - 4 4 100.0
Green - - - - - 1 1 100.0
Total 41 109 150 72.7 37 113 150 75.3

At the 2007 election, Labor’s female candidates had a success rate of 60 per cent, almost 5 per cent better than male colleagues. In 2010, Labor’s female candidates were the biggest losers, slipping to a success rate of under 50 per cent. Two extra female Labor candidates stood in 2010, but the national swing made this a bad time to seek election. Coalition women, on the other hand, performed relatively poorly in 2007, with thirty-seven candidates securing thirteen seats ( a success rate of 35.1 per cent). This makes the 46.7 per cent success rate shown in Table 3 seem remarkable, and emphasises that party preselection remains the crucial factor in parliament’s gender balance – or imbalance.

WE STILL HOLD a general belief that parliament should reflect society as much as possible. As MPs returned to Canberra for the opening of parliament, their numbers included the first Muslim member of the House, the first Indigenous member of the House and the youngest member ever elected. It was of at least symbolic significance that a Coalition MP interviewed on ABC television mentioned the excitement over the Indigenous MP and the young MP, but ignored the Muslim MP, who happened to be a Labor member. Having a diverse and broadly representative parliament is all right as long as it is consistent with party objectives.

It’s understandable that attention has focused on the hung parliament and the crucial roles of the crossbenchers. Optimistic discussion of “new paradigms” has at least thrown into sharp relief some of the old cynicisms that have arisen as the opposition seeks to maximise its advantage and minimise unnecessary cooperation with a minority Labor government. Eventually, though, serious questions must be asked about the resurgence in male dominance of the lower house. This final table shows the proportions of seats held by men after every election since 1996, the first election at which the proportion fell below 90 per cent.

Table 5. Proportions of House of Representatives seats held by men, 1996 to 2010

Year Males as a % of all MHRs
1996 84.5
1998 77.7
2001 74.7
2004 75.3
2007 73.3
2010 75.3

Labor adopted quotas and preselection weightings to increase the number of women in parliament. The Coalition parties have preferred to emphasise other forms of affirmative action such as assertiveness training for female candidates. All have assumed that once women’s numbers reached a critical mass then growth would be self-generating. But, as Table 5 shows, female representation is stuck at around 25 per cent. Advocates of a better gender balance in parliament have used arguments about equality of opportunity, the importance of having a parliament that reflects society and so makes all Australians feel represented and the likelihood that female skills would enhance decision-making. Some people might think that women have had their chance and that there is little point in continual discussion of gender. Unfortunately, while women are barely present in boardrooms and the shocking rate of violence against women continues, questions must be asked about the effects of having a parliament that resists becoming a more representative assembly. •

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Above: Kevin Rudd (left) and Malcolm Turnbull.
Photo: Alan Porritt/ AAP Image

Above: Kevin Rudd (left) and Malcolm Turnbull.
Photo: Alan Porritt/ AAP Image