Gender quotas bake in cookie-cutter MPs

Written by:
9 April 2021
Gender quotas bake in cookie-cutter MPs - Featured image

One of the problems when you start replacing merit as the criterion for appointment to a position or role, or to become a Liberal Party MP, with some other basis for selection is it’s difficult to know where to stop.

The debate about gender quotas for Liberal MPs (a debate that seems to be more vigorously engaged in by sections of the media than by party members themselves) is not uninteresting – even if the Liberals ultimately come to the conclusion, as they should, that gender quotas are fundamentally illiberal and a manifestation of the worst form of identity politics.

Certainly the Liberal Party could and should have more female MPs. But there’s the possibility that quotas for women will merely produce more of the same kind of cookie-cutter MPs. Instead of the corporate lawyers, management consultants, lobbyists and political advisers entering Parliament being male, they’ll be female.

If for some reason the Liberals attempt to do what they seem to be doing so much of lately, which is to shift to the left in an attempt to appease their critics, and they accept the principle of quotas in an effort to have Liberal MPs better reflect the make-up of the community, there’s no reason why they should have quotas only for gender.

If the Liberals were genuinely committed to reflecting the diversity of the electorate and to broadening the range of people who represent the party in Parliament, they would introduce quotas for class background and educational attainment.

It’s an idea that’s not new.

Following Labor’s loss at the 2019 federal election, one of the more thoughtful observers of Australian politics, Nick Dyrenfurth suggested the following:

“The last thing Labor needs is more inner-city, middle-class professionals dominating its membership and becoming the next generation of members of Parliament. Labor must take steps to reduce over-represented types in Parliament …

What tertiary-educated politicians often forget is that they are making laws for everyone, not just themselves.

“If the ALP can enshrine an affirmative action quota based upon gender, then it should cap the number of staff, union officials and apparatchiks winning preselections. As a corollary, the ALP should formally establish a new working-class quota system – a modest beginning might aim for 20 per cent of winnable seats. The aim should be to elect MPs without post-high school or tertiary qualifications, or qualifications not acquired – before age 25.”

There are currently 14 female Liberal and LNP MPs in the House of Representatives out of a total of 66 MPs. Half of the population is female, but only 21 per cent of federal Liberal and LNP MPs are.

While women are under-represented among Liberal and LNP MPs, white-collar professionals are over-represented: 35 per cent of Australians aged between 20 and 64 have a university bachelor’s degree or above, compared with 74 per cent of federal Liberal and LNP MPs who have such a qualification. (If the Queensland LNP MPs are taken out of the equation, the figure rises to 84 per cent.)

The world view of white-collar professionals on everything from working at home during the COVID-19 lockdown to the job losses caused by shutting coal mines is different from that of someone who left school at 16 and who doesn’t have the luxury of “transitioning” to the new economy. 

What tertiary-educated politicians often forget is that they are making laws for everyone, not just themselves.

No guide to success

As popular as it is to deride the number of political “apparatchiks” and “staffers” becoming parliamentarians, a person’s prior employment doesn’t necessarily tell you too much about their success or otherwise as a politician or policymaker.

Before they entered Parliament, both Paul Keating and John Howard, if not quite junior “hacks”, were very involved in the politics of their respective parties. Keating was president of NSW Young Labor and Howard was president of the NSW Young Liberals.

Their contribution to Australia could be compared with that of Kevin Rudd or Malcolm Turnbull – both of whom, at least on paper, should have been so much more successful than they proved to be.

As attractive as Liberal Party quotas for those such as labourers, manufacturing workers, small-business owners and the self-employed might be, slicing and dicing categories of people to fit into predetermined political agendas is not fair to individuals, and ultimately not good for society.

A person’s gender, race, or class tells you nothing about their character.

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