Moving backwards? Women in Australian parliaments

7 May 2012

HOW important is it to keep counting the number of women in public office and trying to increase their numbers? Recent controversy suggests that some people think the time for monitoring gender gaps is over. Profound irritation has been expressed that issues about gender inequality continue to be raised by ‘ageing feminists’ – or indeed by anyone.

One reason for thinking that counting is no longer relevant is the recent accession of women to positions as head of government. There have been significant gains by women at the top: Anna Bligh became Premier of Queensland in 2007, Kristina Keneally became Premier of NSW in 2009, Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010, Lara Giddings became Premier of Tasmania and Katie Gallagher became Chief Minister of the ACT, both in 2011.

Quentin Bryce, who as Governor of Queensland swore in Bligh as State Premier, went on to become Australia’s first woman Governor-General and to swear in Gillard as Australia’s first woman Prime Minister. For this occasion Bryce wore a purple corsage as a token of sisterhood. It was owned by her grandmother and is now in the Museum of Australian Democracy. The new women heads of government also represented a range of life choices, for example Gillard and Giddings are both unmarried and without children. There has been some sexist commentary on this. Gillard’s choice to be ‘deliberately barren’ supposedly left her out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Australians while The Australian ran a front-page story about Tasmania’s first woman premier: ‘Leftist Lara Giddings still looking for Mr Right’ (25 January 2011).

Recent Labor election losses have reduced the number of women heads of government  –Keneally lost the NSW election in 2011 and Bligh the Queensland election in 2012. Both these defeats also led to the fall in the number of women in Australian parliaments, most dramatically in Queensland where women had been 36 per cent of the parliament and are now 20 per cent. However when Dr Carole Ford wrote an article for the Courier-Mail, drawing attention to the halving of the number of women on the government benches in the new parliament, she received a vitriolic email response from a senior advisor to a Queensland Liberal National Party Senator. She was told to ‘Get a life’, that ‘Blokes dominate most areas of human endeavour because Nature equipped them with something called testosterone’, that women ‘who can’t cut it’ cover their inadequacies by complaining of bias, and that ‘fewer and fewer people are listening’ (, 18 April 2012).

Former federal Labor MP Barry Cohen was similarly outraged by a column in the Sydney Morning Herald by Professor Michelle Ryan, which drew attention to the fact that women made up less than a quarter of members of the House of Representatives in Australia. Cohen responded that ‘those who peddle this line don’t know what they are talking about. I was in parliament for more than 20 years and not once did I hear anyone suggest stopping women’s entry to parliament’. He then drew a long bow between electoral quotas for women and anti-Semitism.

The senior adviser so affronted by reference to the absence of women from parliament resigned from his position after his email was made public, Mr Cohen was already retired. But other developments suggested that perhaps Australia’s international commitments to reducing the gender gap were not being taken very seriously. When Prime Minister Julia Gillard was sworn in after the 2010 election she initially forgot to assign a status of women portfolio. In Queensland there was also no allocation of portfolio responsibility, although ‘women’s policy’ appeared in a long list of the responsibilities of the Minister for Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services along with items such as incorporation of associations and co-operatives.

In general the conservative victories in recent State elections in Western Australia, NSW and Queensland have resulted in a decline in the number of women in parliament (see Figures 1 and 2). Women candidates have not generally proved ‘contagious’ in Australia unlike in Europe, where the introduction of quotas by small Left parties led to other parties following suit. Ironically the decline in women in parliament in Australia has come at the same time as some long overdue developments such as the opening of a childcare centre in the federal parliament in 2009 (21 years after the new building was opened) and some changes in standing orders to accommodate parliamentarians breastfeeding their infants.


The proportion of women among Labor parliamentarians has risen markedly since the adoption of quotas for party preselection. Currently the party has a 40:40:20 rule, under which preselections must achieve an outcome whereby not less than 40 per cent of seats held by Labor will be held by women and not less than 40 per cent by men. The threat of preselections being nullified if the quota is not met (and perhaps going to a different faction) has ensured compliance. Minor parties such as the Greens that have been formed since the arrival of the second-wave of the women’s movement have an even higher proportion of women among their parliamentarians (currently 53 per cent), but they are mainly represented in those houses of parliament elected by proportional representation,

The picture is very different among the conservative parties. They believe that electoral quotas ‘patronise’ women, and there is now a large gender gap between the parliamentary parties. For example, in April 2012 women formed 38 per cent of Labor parliamentarians around Australia but only 20 per cent of parliamentarians representing the Liberal and National parties and their variants. Because they have fewer women in their parliamentary parties the conservative parties have also fewer to appoint to Cabinet. For example, there are no women in senior positions in the new Queensland Cabinet and only three women altogether in a Cabinet of 19 members.

To some extent the conservative parties have tried to make up for their very male-dominated Cabinets by appointing women as presiding officers – in 2011 the incoming conservative government in NSW appointed the first woman Speaker in that State and the incoming conservative government in Queensland has likewise appointed the first woman Speaker there (a strong anti-abortionist also controversial for her views on homosexuality).

The presence of women in Australian parliaments plateaued in 2005, and is now in decline. But relative to what has been happening in other national parliaments the decline is even more dramatic (see Figure 3). In 1999 Australia ranked 15th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s league table for representation of women in the lower house of its national parliament. By the end of 2011 it had slipped to 41st place. Other countries have been taking more resolute steps to increase the role of women in public decision-making, through the introduction of special measures such as legislated electoral quotas that apply to all parties. In the absence of a ‘contagion’ effect, the existence of party quotas are insufficient to prevent a decline in the parliamentary presence of women when there are victories by other parties that eschew their use. It is no time to stop counting – without monitoring, gender gaps are likely to widen even more.

Marian Sawer is Emeritus Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, Australian National University.


Publication Details
Published year only: 
Subject Areas
Geographic Coverage