Women, parliament and the media

16 May 2007

The number of women parliamentarians in Australia is gradually increasing; almost onethird of all parliamentarians in Australia are women. Whilst there is still a need for improvement before the numbers balance, it is clear that women politicians have become a regular feature of the political scene. This paper is concerned with the subject of women parliamentarians – those women who seek to engage in the political process by working within its primary institution. Some women do this by becoming members of political parties, and are represented in parties occupying various positions on the political spectrum. Other women choose to not become involved in political parties but nonetheless seek to participate in parliament as Independent members.

A timeline of the major developments and milestones in the participation of women in the NSW and Federal parliaments is included in section two (pp 3-6). Section three (pp 7-13) of this paper provides a current statistical overview of women in parliaments in NSW, Australia and globally. The results of the recent NSW State Election are incorporated into this analysis.

The way women parliamentarians are portrayed by the media is discussed in section four (pp 14-21). It notes that whilst women parliamentarians are less of a novelty than in the past, there are still many who argue that the sort of coverage women receive differs to men. Section four discusses some of the reasons for this, with examples drawn from recent coverage of Julia Gillard, Pru Goward, Maxine McKew and Carmel Tebbutt. It is not suggested that all sections of the media treat women politicians differently, nor is it argued that reports of male politicians never consider their appearance or personal life. However, this section considers some of the factors that provoke interest in some women parliamentarians. It also highlights the multi-faceted nature of many women’s identities.

Section five (pp 22-34) outlines the various strategies employed by the major political parties in Australia to increase the number of women in parliament. This section particularly focuses on the different attitudes to the use of quotas and the controversy surrounding their use. The 2007 NSW State Election is analysed in terms of the number of women preselected as candidates, the relative safety of seats they were preselected for, and the extent to which women candidates were successful. The different approaches of the political parties are subsequently highlighted.

Finally, section six (pp 35-40) discusses whether women parliamentarians actually make a difference to the conduct of parliament. It draws attention to the arguments of some commentators that ‘critical acts’ by women parliamentarians are of much greater consequence than a ‘critical mass’ of women, in other words, there is a difference between substantive representation as opposed to merely descriptive representation. The passage of the Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial responsibility for approval of RU486) Bill 2006 (‘the RU 486 Bill) through the Federal Parliament in February 2006 was notable as four women senators from different parties drove the process. The RU486 Bill is discussed as an example of what may be achieved when women from various parties choose to work together, and circumstances permit such action to be taken.

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