JAM: Women in cabinet return to 1975 levels.

Tony Abbott announces his new Cabinet in Canberra.






This is not a post about misogyny. This is not a post about feminism. This is not a post about sexism.

This is a post about merit.

A few hours ago, Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott announced his new ministry; an expansive executive of 42 members and senators, including a cabinet of 19.

And of those 19? The incoming Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will be the only woman.

To put that in a bit of context: Labor went to the last election with a cabinet that included six women.  Journalist Julia Baird points out that there are more old boys from the exclusive Sydney private school Riverview in Tony Abbott’s cabinet than there are women. Afghanistan currently has more women serving in its cabinet than we do in Australia

It seems that Julia Gillard was right when she forewarned of seemingly endless white male faces in blue ties sitting on the Government benches. That’s exactly what has happened.

Comedian and Mamamia contributor Nath Valvo suggests the new cabinet looks something like this…

In today’s press conference announcing the members of his new ministry, Tony Abbott said he was ‘obviously disappointed’ that so few women will serve in the senior ranks of his Government.

Clearly, it’s that special brand of disappointment reserved only for circumstances that are entirely of your own making.

So what does that mean?

The cabinet (where there is only 1 woman) is one of the most powerful decision making bodies in the country.

These are the 19 ministers who are responsible for the big decisions about what happens to the country. After the Prime Minister, the members of the cabinet are the most powerful and influential politicians in Australia.


Beyond the cabinet (on the other side of the door) Abbott has named four women in his outer Ministry (which is kind of like being a Minister but with training wheels) and one woman serving as a parliamentary secretary (which is a step down again…think Ministers on tricycles).

But don’t you worry your pretty little heads too much about it girls, cos’ the Prime Minister-elect is confident that we’ll see more women in power in the future! After all, ‘there are some good and talented women knocking on the door’ Abbott promises. He repeated this phrase several times.

Now, I’m going to put the painfully perfect analogy of Abbott locking women outside the doors of power to one side for a moment and talk strategy.

Abbott is selling his new cabinet to the public as one that rewards experience and stability. This is smart politics to be sure. The Prime Minister-elect’s message is one of contrast. His will be a government that is smooth and steady and free of the disunity and perceived uncertainty of government under Rudd and Gillard.

But the problem with valuing experience over and above ability is this: it’s almost always at the expense of diversity.

And in politics, the same people are overwhelmingly, men.

Labor had the same problem when they were seeking to increase the number of women serving on government boards. Keen for fresh faces, new ideas and a different approach, they set out to boost the number of women.

But nothing was happening. Until they removed the overriding obstacle that appeared in all the selection criteria: previous board experience.


As soon as that pesky little requirement was gone, things finally changed and women’s representation on government boards began to climb.

The Coalition will argue publicly that unlike Labor, they aren’t interested in quotas; they appointed all 19 cabinet ministers based on merit and merit alone. But if we set aside this single requirement of ‘experience’, then all of a sudden we see a whole bunch of Coalition women who do have merit. And to suggest otherwise, is plain insulting.

Now, being a life-long Labor supporter, I promise you it’s difficult for me to dole out this kind of praise. But while I don’t agree with their politics or their policies, the following women (who have been left on the other side of Tony Abbott’s locked door) are all intelligent, capable and independently minded.

Faces you won’t see around the cabinet table (but probably should) include:

Fiona Nash.

1. Fiona Nash is a National Party Senator and an outstanding parliamentary performer. She doesn’t fit the standard political-attack dog model but for that very reason, she has the capacity to be twice as effective. Nash has a warmth and a tenderness to her approach; something that is rare in the cut and thrust of political debate.

She brings a kind of practical empathy to her work and is an effective negotiator. This constructive, outcomes focused approach may not be the stuff of a brilliant opposition member but it is certainly a hallmark of what makes a good cabinet minister.

Marise Payne.

2. Marise Payne, also a NSW Senator but this time from the Liberal Party is another woman who has been overlooked. Payne, who was elected in 1997, has been a standout in Senate Estimates; known for her detailed and thorough questioning of Government members, particularly around issues of entitlements.


With 10 years on the NSW Liberal Party Executive and a former presidency of the party’s youth wing under her belt, you’d think Payne’s loyalty credentials would be strong. But she’s a moderate, tending towards the centre of the political spectrum and so less appealing as a prospect for the staunchly conservative Prime Minister-elect.

Kelly O’Dwyer.

3. Kelly O’Dwyer is a relative newcomer to the parliament, entering the House of Representatives in 2009 to replace former Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello in the Victorian seat of Higgins. Formerly a solicitor and adviser to Peter Costello, O’Dwyer is has strong policy credentials and is touted as someone destined for big things.

O’Dwyer’s has done the hard yards pushing the Opposition’s message on television and radio talk shows for the past year. She doesn’t shy from a difficult or heated political debate and was widely expected to be delivered a parliamentary secretary position at the very least.

And it’s not just those on the left of politics who are concerned.

Outgoing Liberal Senator Susan Boyce reacted strongly to the prospect of so few women in the cabinet earlier today. She said she was “shocked and embarrassed by the Liberal Party – and it’s had so damn long to fix the problem… How embarrassing to be a government with only one woman at a senior level”

‘Embarrassing’ seems to me, to be just about the perfect word.

Here’s some of the reaction on Twitter to Tony Abbott’s announcement:

Editorial note: Jamila Rizvi previously worked as an adviser in the Rudd and Gillard governments. 

Are you bothered by the lack of women in the Abbott Cabinet?