IN NOVEMBER ONE of the rising stars of Australia’s governing coalition, Julia Banks, shocked her colleagues by quitting the Liberal party to become an independent. She was sick, she said, of her party’s “cultural and gender bias, bullying and intimidation”. The announcement was a practical blow, further reducing the ranks of a government that was already a minority. But mainly it was an embarrassment, adding credence to the increasingly common complaint that the party is a slough of sexism. In January a second prominent Liberal, Kelly O’Dwyer, announced plans to resign. Last year she had complained that voters see her colleagues as “homophobic, anti-women climate-change deniers”.
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Less than a fifth of Liberal members of the lower house are women—a smaller proportion than 20 years ago. Conditions for the few who remain are rotten. Allegations of harassment have abounded since a moderate prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was overthrown in a right-wing coup in August. His redoubtable deputy, Julie Bishop, lost the leadership contest that followed, and several women complained of strong-arming by the putschists. Ms Bishop quit as foreign minister and returned to the backbenches, calling their behaviour “appalling”. There is speculation that she too may resign before the general election due in May.
The Liberals have an inglorious record on these issues. During their most recent stint in opposition, several in their ranks subjected Australia’s first and only female prime minister, Julia Gillard, to a torrent of abuse with sexist undertones. Ms Gillard, who is not married but lives with her partner, should “make an honest woman of herself”, railed Tony Abbott, the Liberal leader at the time. He later gave a speech in front of posters that labelled Ms Gillard a “witch” and a Green senator’s “bitch”.
No party is spotless, however. Sarah Hanson-Young, another Green senator, is suing an independent opponent who directed her to “stop shagging men” during a recent debate on women’s safety. Complaints of toxic masculinity hang over state and local government, too. Labor’s leader in New South Wales resigned last year over allegations that he sexually harassed a journalist at a Christmas party. The mayor of Melbourne was toppled when two colleagues accused him of groping. (Both men deny the claims.)
Some politicians believe sexism can be curbed through a new code of parliamentary conduct. A better solution might be to draw more women into politics to start with. In the 1990s the Labor party introduced quotas guaranteeing that women would be selected as candidates in a steadily rising share of left-leaning seats. Almost half its MPs are now female, a nearly fivefold increase since this system was adopted. Labor’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, says this has altered attitudes in her party: “When you have a critical mass, it’s a better workplace for every woman.”
The Liberals have been slow to acknowledge their shortcomings. Some argue that verbal attacks are part of politics and female lawmakers should toughen up. Women in the party say their complaints are met with eye-rolling or accusations of “hysteria”. The leadership rejects quotas on the basis that politicians should be chosen on merit. That is subjective, however, especially for new candidates. Women complain that good female ones are often rejected. “Look at some of the men who have been pre-selected,” scoffs one conservative. “Don’t tell me it’s about merit.”
The Liberals have adopted a target to have equal numbers of male and female MPs by 2025. But unlike Labor’s quotas, this goal is not binding. Few observers think it will be reached. Many of the Liberals’ incumbent women hold marginal seats, which will be lost if the party is trounced in the impending election. So far, the Liberals have selected only six female candidates to contest safe conservative seats, by the count of William Bowe, a political analyst. At that rate, the party may emerge from the election even more male-dominated than it was to start with.