Clones? Who needs them in our Parliament
17 June 2013
Male politicians wearing blue ties. Small-breasted, large-thighed, deep-fried quail. Who would have thought our political debate would be thus preoccupied?
Yes, it was Prime Minister Julia Gillard who restarted the so-called gender wars with a fiery speech last week directed at Tony Abbott and his stance on abortion. But it was the obscene dinner menu, linked to former Howard government minister Mal Brough's fund-raiser in Brisbane that ensured it would be more than just a skirmish.
The army's latest sex scandal will only ensure that gender will not quietly go away as an issue.
We have been reminded, though, of the breathtaking sexist hostility that exists towards Gillard. It is hard to conceive of a male PM ever being subjected to something like it. Can you imagine demeaning menus featuring frankfurters or chorizos named after them? Or radio hosts questioning them about their spouse's sexuality?
On all this, only a certain set would deny there has been a troubling ugliness. But whether it was good politics for the Prime Minister to raise gender in such a political way in the first place is more debatable. We don't often see our politicians resort so explicitly to identity politics in such fashion.
Still, the gender debate is to be welcomed at one level. It has, at the very least, reminded us that women remain under-represented in our parliaments and at our highest levels of government. Of the present 226 federal parliamentarians, only 65 are women - less than 30 percent. As Anne Summers highlighted last week, women make up 33 percent of the Gillard government's frontbench, and only 19 percent of the Coalition's.
When it comes to our public institutions, diversity counts. This isn't to say that our parliaments and our cabinets must mirror our society - or that we must reserve places in them for certain groups. When it comes to first principles, careers in public life should be open to all talents; positions should be decided on the basis of merit.
This principle isn't always applied in practice, however. And when it concerns our public life, the social composition of those in office matters, if only partly. This is because our democracy ultimately rests on trust. Public institutions only function when they enjoy the confidence of citizens. This concerns not only whether institutions serve us well, but whether they are representative of us, too.
Recent surveys, such as one published by the University of Melbourne's Centre for Advancing Journalism last month, appear to suggest lower-than-expected levels of trust in government. Could one reason be that we increasingly don't see our governments as representative?
If there is to be a genuine debate about representation, it must go beyond gender. Having women in Parliament isn't the only measure of diversity.
It doesn't attract as much comment, but Australia fares poorly when it comes to the representation of citizens of non-Anglo backgrounds. Of our federal parliamentarians, only 12 percent were born overseas, with barely 4 percent born in a non-English-speaking country. To give some perspective of how this compares with our society at large, 26 percent of Australians were born overseas (with 18 percent born in countries other than the United Kingdom and New Zealand).
There are very few federal politicians with a non-European background. Right now, a mere 2 percent would fit that description. The Malaysian-born Labor senator Penny Wong is the only one born in an Asian country. The Liberal member for Hasluck, Ken Wyatt, is the only one who is an indigenous Australian.
And it doesn't stop at cultural diversity.
Parliament also falls short when it comes to the mix of social backgrounds. Too many are former political advisers, union officials, lobbyists and lawyers.
Modern politics is out of touch with social realities, and it has something to do with its professionalisation. Politics is becoming more and more just a job for those who enter it. Its ranks are, in this sense, growing ever more homogeneous.
Is there a way out of this? How are we to get more fresh blood? It may disappoint some when I say that I don't think introducing quotas for minorities (women or otherwise) is the answer. But some serious attitudinal and structural changes within our political elite are needed. Namely, those who run our major parties should be thinking more seriously about ensuring their parliamentary candidates aren't clones from head office but men and women who reflect contemporary Australia. If such candidates don't emerge through existing processes, party officials should consider adopting primary preselections - such as those that exist in the United States.
Optimists may say that more authentic diversity will come soon enough as a result of generational change. Journalist and author George Megalogenis, for instance, has argued that ''Generation W'' - the women and ''wogs'' of Generations X and Y - will imminently take its place as the leaders of Australian public life.
Maybe Megalogenis is right. The point, though, isn't about women or ethnic minorities as such. Rather, it's about what the future ''middle Australia'' will look like.
Politics has a habit of lagging behind social change. But the recent explosion of identity politics is forcing it to catch up a bit faster.
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