Will The Liberal Party Ever Fix Its Gender Problem?

Female Liberal MPs keep quitting, while almost half of Labor's MPs are women. And there's a reason why...

Ann Sudmalis Liberal Party Quotas

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Last night, Liberal MP Ann Sudmalis dropped a bombshell: she would quit parliament at the next election, and she was leaving because of the bullying and backstabbing that had hampered her time in office.

Given that we’ve lost a PM in recent weeks, it might not seem like Sudmalis’ resignation is too big a deal. But as a Fairfax analysis today points out, a lot of female Liberals sit in marginal seats. If we went to an election today, the worst case scenario for the Liberal Party would leave them with just five women in the 151-strong House of Representatives — the lowest levels of female representation since the early 1990s.

Coupled with the recent departure of foreign minister Julie Bishop (although she hasn’t yet decided whether she’s leaving politics entirely at the next election), and the fact that Labor’s federal female representation sits smugly at 48 per cent, the Liberal Party will face some uncomfortable questions over the next few weeks.

First and foremost: will the party ever fix its gender problem?

Why Did Ann Sudmalis Quit?

According to her Monday night speech, Sudmalis is quitting politics due to a concerted program of bullying and backstabbing lead by key male figures within the Liberal Party.

Sudmalis named names. Chiefly, the NSW state MP Gareth Ward:

“This is not the first time that Gareth has flexed his vengeance on strong Liberal women. He doesn’t just get even, he annihilates anyone who opposes him,” Sudmalis said.

She accused Ward of branch-stacking and lying about her to others — and then she expanded that message to include her own colleagues.

“I would ask here that those who feel inspired to be spiteful, angry, insulting and gutless because they’re using their keyboards — have a think before pressing the send button,” she said. “I have decided enough is enough. Who is this about? Certainly not the people who elected me. It was about ego-driven ambition, bullying and betrayal and my local position is completely untenable.”

Ward denied criticisms of his conduct, saying that he had supported Sudmalis in previous federal elections.

“I can absolutely, categorically rule that out,” he told ABC Radio. “And anyone who believes that is true should say so publicly.”

“I think sometimes people confuse not getting their way as being bullied,” he added.

Because Sudmalis said her claims in the House of Representatives, she is protected by parliamentary privilege, which means that Ward would not be able to sue her for any defamatory comments.

Sudmalis also made it clear that she wasn’t quitting because of the recent leadership challenge, calling PM Scott Morrison a “man of integrity”.

The Q-Word

Sudmalis’ claims of bullying are the cherry on top of a big bullying sundae the government is trying to stomach.

In the week of the leadership spill, then-foreign minister Julie Bishop — who had been the country’s highest-ranking female politician — resigned from the frontbench after receiving only 11 votes in the ballot for the top job.

Earlier in September, Liberal senator Lucy Gichuhi threatened to use her parliamentary privilege to name those who had bullied and intimidated her during the spill. She later backed down from that threat after meeting with PM Morrison.

And last week, Liberal MP Julia Banks hit out at “appalling” behaviour in federal parliament, saying that bullying, intimidation and harassment were common. She, like Sudmalis, announced that she would be quitting at the next election for that reason.

But Banks went one step further.

“[Women] represent half the population and so should a modern Liberal party,” she said last Wednesday night in a House of Representatives speech. “Quotas are not demeaning to women and nor will women be regarded as the ‘quota girl'”.

Banks endorsed a quota system for preselected women in the Liberal party.

“There are equal numbers meritorious Liberal women out there in the real world as there are men,” continued Banks. “It’s really simple. If you only have a man running and you can’t find a woman: find one.”

Liberal MP Craig Laundy, who was a frontbencher under the Turnbull government, backed Banks up and said that quotas were needed to fix his party’s gender problem.

Morrison has accepted that something needs to be done to fix the bullying, but he’s stopped short of supporting quotas.

He attempted to instate a female candidate for the upcoming by-election in Wentworth, Turnbull’s old seat but failed.

Today, Morrison announced that the Liberal party would set up a new confidential process to deal with bullying claims.

“I have today, through the federal director, requested the federal executive of the Liberal party to consider how they will take steps to ensure there is a rigorous and confidential process to deal with concerns and complaints from party members, including Members of Parliament,” he said in a statement.

Some female politicians within the Liberal party have pushed back against the idea of gender quotas.

Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells said today that she wouldn’t want to be in parliament knowing “I’m only there to make up the numbers”. She also talked down claims of bullying, telling her colleagues they should “get out of the kitchen” if they can’t handle it.

Labor has gender targets: they aim to have 50 per cent of their federal politicians be female (currently, 48 per cent are female) and have had targets for female representation gradually increase since 1994.

Australia is ranked 50th in the world for women in parliament, behind New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Our ranking has slipped in recent years.