Tonight I want to talk about how we can make our great Party, even greater. And that is, by addressing the gender imbalance that exists in our Party and to increase the participation of women in our organisation and in our parliament.
For to do so, would mean that we better reflect the community we seek to represent, and to be a modern Liberal Party.
From the outset, I want to make a few things crystal clear. Firstly, I have to acknowledge the fact that I am not a woman.
And I recognise the fact that some women may not appreciate men talking about women’s issues. But that’s not what this is about; this is an issue for our whole Party. And as the Party’s leader, I firmly believe we are obligated to address it.
We must address the obvious question; if we are to be a Party to truly represent the majority of Australians, how can we do that with so few women in Parliament? How can we be a Party that best reflects female perspectives, priorities and aspirations without having greater female participation in our Party? And bluntly, how can we expect to achieve our objective as a political party unless we do so? A team with a gender imbalance will inevitably struggle to gain a broader appeal.
The second important point I want to make is that we, as Liberals, are well placed to deal with this issue. Equality of opportunity is a cornerstone of Liberal philosophy. It is central to what we believe in.
Our Party’s founder, Sir Robert Menzies said back in the 1940's that the "women of Australia have established an unanswerable claim to economic, legal, industrial and political equality”. And he said that he looked forward to a day "when we can say truthfully that there is no sex discrimination in public or private office, in political or industrial opportunity.” Well, we are still some way away from achieving our founder’s vision.
In 2015, the think-tank named in his honour, the Menzies Research Centre, released a discussion paper which made the point that “The Liberal case for gender balance in politics, or indeed any other walk of life, has a stronger foundation. It is built on the principles of individual choice, opportunity, and the recognition of merit and democratic representation.”
But that same report also concluded “Yet the consistent and entrenched pattern of gender imbalance at every level of the Liberal Party, every state and territory and within every parliament strongly suggests that, by choice or design, women in general are not taking up the opportunity to be part of the Liberal party.
That is the issue we have to confront, and it is an important one.
Currently, and importantly, while all our female representatives are selected on merit, we have far too few women in leadership roles in our Party, in our Parliament, and in all levels of our Party.
I have previously shared a stage at a national policy forum on this issue with Liberal Senator, Linda Reynolds, who was also a former Federal Deputy Director of our Party. Linda is a proud Liberal woman and strong campaigner on this issue.
As to why our performance doesn’t match our aims, Senator Reynolds has said that “typically this dissonance is dismissed with the justification that the party is a meritocracy so just give it time, it will happen. Well it has been 70 years of sitting back and waiting for things to change. How much longer do we give it?”
It hasn’t changed. In fact at a national level things have gone backwards. So let’s do something about it. And it’s important that we do.
It’s true to the foundations of our great Party; it’s what we believe.
It is well established that corporate governance and performance is improved by more balanced gender representation in leadership roles. It leads to more informed decision-making and greater productivity. Gender equality in decision making contributes to improved trust and confidence in public institutions, and it incorporates more inclusive and more balanced perspectives into decision making.
Gender in politics, and more women in leadership positions, also provides strong and positive role models for younger women. It may well be that Dame Elizabeth Couchman, one of the founders of the Liberal Party, was right when she said: “what women think today in politics, men will think of tomorrow?”
But importantly, it will mean that our Party better reflects our community.
We do have to address the obvious question; if we are to be a Party to truly represent the majority of Australians, how can we do that with so few women in Parliament? How can we be a Party that best reflects female perspectives, priorities and aspirations without having greater female participation in our Party?
It’s important to remember that not only does our Party have a strong philosophical foundation to support greater opportunity, and equality of opportunity, but we also have a record of some success. The Liberal Party in Tasmania already has a proud record of political 'firsts' for women.
Dame Enid Lyons was the first woman to sit in the Federal Parliament in 1943, and the first woman to become a Federal Cabinet Minister. Sue Napier was the first woman to be appointed as a Tasmanian Cabinet Minister in 1995, and the first female Deputy Premier in 1996, and the first woman to lead a major political party in Tasmania in 1999. Elise Archer is Tasmania’s first female Speaker of the House of Assembly - achievements all based on merit.
We have increased the number of women in our PLP, all exceptional contributors to our Party and our State Government. I have appointed a designated Minister for Women in my Cabinet, the first in a Tasmanian Government since 2006. We have published the state’s first Women and Girls in Tasmania Report to address gender-based inequalities at all levels in our community.
And we have introduced a new strategy to increase the number of women in leadership positions in government, which for the first time commits the government to achieve equal representation of women on all government boards and commitments. A first for a Tasmanian Government, and it’s working.
Our Government’s Women on Boards Strategy – announced in July 2015 – commits us to a target of 50 per cent representation of women across government boards and committees by 2020.
The Strategy, which contains actions for increasing women’s participation on government boards and committees, has resulted in an increase in the percentage of positions held by women from 33.8 per cent to 39.6 per cent in a year. When looking only at women board members, this actually represents an increase of around 17 per cent.
So targets do work, and a target is consistent with the principles of merit and equality of opportunity. I believe that the Liberal Party also needs one. The Liberal Party needs to adopt the same strategy, and immediately start implementing practical, positive measures to achieve this target.
We should also set a target of fifty per cent representation by 2022, in two elections time. This is a practical and achievable goal. It is important to set a target to aim at, to measure progress against, and to keep us accountable for achieving.
The Menzies paper has pointed out that in the corporate sector “…the consensus is that measurable, achievable targets, backed by accountability are firmly implanted in mainstream operations. In the course of researching this report we struggled to find a single voice in business prepared to outline an effective strategy that did not include targets.”
We are the Party that understands business; we must run our own like it.
To develop the strategy, I propose that a roundtable be convened in the coming weeks to determine what we must do to better engage with women and increase their participation in all levels of the Liberal Party, and how we remove the barriers that deter them from doing so.
We already have important structures in place – particularly the Women’s council and Women’s Groups – and they must be central to the strategy.
We can look at what has been done in other places, for example, the Victorian Liberal Party conducted its own review in 2012 and produced a report containing 14 recommendations on how to improve the Party’s engagement with women, to help attract, promote and empower women to become active within the Party and present themselves for leadership positions and at pre-selection.
We might, for example, establish a new networking group to complement the work of the Women’s Council and to give Liberal-minded women a first port of call to become actively involved in our Party. We should look at ways for our Party to become more family friendly – to make it easier for women to engage with our Party.
Or perhaps a recruitment drive aimed specifically at women. We should create internships for women to gain experience working in political offices; do more to identify, mentor, and sponsor candidates; practically encourage and assist women to be involved in community organisations, boards, or in local government.
These are just some ideas for us to consider, and I have already received a lot of positive feedback and input from members of the Party, both men and women; from parliamentarians; and importantly also, from those who aspire to be members about the issues they confront in realising that opportunity.
It is an important issue for our Party to confront, but I firmly believe, for the reasons I’ve outlined already, that we must.
To address the current gender imbalance in our Party; to increase participation of women in our Party organisation, and in our Parliament; to deliver the vision of our founder, Sir Robert Menzies; and to be an even greater, modern Liberal Party.