Opinion: Elections are about power - it's no accident there's so many women

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash
Sunday 8 May 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

When Labor's Peter Malinauskas swept to power in South Australia eight weeks ago, his victory was built substantially on women. Female candidates and female voters.

Needing four new seats to win, Labor but took seven and almost snagged an eighth, that of the outgoing Premier, Steven Marshall.

The landslide was widely attributed to the charisma of the young Malinauskas.

But out in the suburbs, it relied heavily on a coterie of high-quality female candidates.

Indeed, every seat gained installed a woman and another nearly unseated Marshall. It was a pre-selection triumph by Labor, even if it did reinforce a tendency of the major parties to run women in the least winnable seats.

And even if it still leaves women short of 50 per cent representation in the new government's caucus.

But with top-shelf women running in key Liberal strongholds around the country, the emergence of female electoral power has the Coalition so petrified it has become hysterical. Its staggering lack of self-awareness is an affront to its own erstwhile supporters.

Observers in SA report the successful female candidates didn't just propose change but actually personified a cleavage from the usual alpha-male chest-beating.

This is the future.

Like it or not, the feminisation of Australian politics is afoot as a new generation of women step up, and voters born from 1980 onwards, like Malinauskas himself, begin to dominate elections.

For older feminists, the equality push seems frustratingly glacial, but viewed with hindsight, it will be seen as revolutionary.

To younger voters however, the idea that women are somehow less suited to politics, is an absurdity.

Also ridiculous is that Australia has had just one female prime minister (JE Gillard, 2010-13).

Less than a decade ago, Gillard's treatment was the stuff of national shame, and international embarrassment.

Equally astounding is that in 2022, Australia has never had a female treasurer.

Liberal deputy leader in 2008, Julie Bishop exercised her prerogative to choose the shadow treasury but lasted just five months. She was white-anted after struggling to name the RBA official cash rate on her very first day in the post. That was all it took. A woman's temerity in taking a role owned by men, needed no more than this single meaningless hesitation.

As exceptions to power, women have always been asked to prove themselves both more thoroughly and more often than the "natural" owners of these posts.

In the US, Hillary Rodham Clinton was twice passed over for US president in favour of vastly less- experienced men - in the latter case, by a manifestly unfit multiple bankrupt who had never held elected office of any kind.

Yet just a few years on, the effects of reaching critical mass may finally be working simply perforce of names like Environment Minister Sussan Ley, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, and Labor shadows Tanya Plibersek (education and women), Penny Wong (foreign affairs and senate leader) Katy Gallagher (finance), Clare O'Neil (aged care) and Kristina Keneally (home affairs) and the Greens' Sarah Hanson-Young.

These frontbenchers stand above most of their male contemporaries and often enjoy higher approval ratings on metrics like trustworthiness, competence, and likeability.

The feminist call to elevate women so they can be role models for those coming up is captured in the axiom 'you cannot be what you cannot see'.

It seeks to address the self-perpetuating reality that younger women have often not aspired to "male" occupations because they simply could not imagine themselves doing them.

We know this is true because the obverse is plainly evident - men are born believing. Both sides could see that power wore a suit, carried a brief case.

The unquestioning promotion of average men to the summits of politics, economics, defence, science, and commerce, was so uniform as to feel unremarkable, as if it were the natural way.

But the dysfunctional politics born of this male-phenotype is increasingly out of step with the society it purports to reflect. And lead.

Look at where it has got us. As governments compete to bid down taxes, gut the public service, and defund fund vital services, major party votes dwindle and public confidence in the broader system strains under the weight of corruption, corporate influence, and policy myopia.

Governments toss off lies like confetti while making half-million dollar compensation payouts to keep male ministers in their jobs. Add to this eye-watering overpayments by governments to past donors for land purchases, forged documents, politically doctored community grant schemes, and huge contracts awarded without tender. And underneath all this, the refusal to create an anti-corruption watchdog.

This is not Duterte's Philippines, (which by the way, is about to surrender once more to the rule of the kleptocratic Marcos family) this is contemporary Australia.

While snake-oil populists circle the carcass offering infantile solutions to complex problems, liberal democracy stands at a crossroads. The choice is to succumb to a worsening legitimation crisis through business-as-usual, or to pursue what our institutional architecture has actually never genuinely grasped - that the full expression of democracy comes not merely from giving everyone the vote, but from giving everyone equal access to power and participation.

It is no accident that the raft of "teal" candidates challenging Liberals in their own heartland are women.

Indeed, it is crucial. Not only are these candidates of an observably higher standard than average, but they are running against a party that refuses to see there is even a problem.

Elections are about power. Voters' power, as Malcolm Turnbull noted on Friday.

The green shoots of renewal in our political culture evident in SA and in the "teal" seats, has taken decades of toil and sacrifice by feminists to get traction.

It turns out, fairness for women is the last best hope for democracy itself. It cannot come fast enough.

Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast. 

Updated:  9 May 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager