Tanya Plibersek: Women are half the population - they must be half of our Parliament.

Women are half the population, and they should make up half of our Parliament too.

These days, this is a relatively uncontroversial principle – except when we talk about how to make it happen.

As soon as we move from the general (that women are as capable as men) to the specific (how do we make sure more women enter our parliaments), some people seem to become uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because, like the recent treatment of Adam Goodes, it forces us to face an unpleasant truth about our society.  

In 2015, women still aren’t equal in Australia.

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“It forces us to face an unpleasant truth about our society.” (Image via Getty.)

A few weeks ago at our National Conference, Labor committed to making sure that within the decade, 50% of our parliamentarians will be women.  I’m proud of that.  It’s not just aspirational: it’s backed up with strong rules and mechanisms which will make sure it happens.

Predictably, this sparked a broader debate about whether we need targets to increase the representation of women in our Parliament.

Well, let’s have a look at the current state of play.

Almost half of Labor’s federal parliamentarians are women.  For the Liberals – with no targets – it’s just one in five.

In the face of those statistics, senior Liberals, including Christopher Pyne, have called on their party to do more to get women into politics.  They look, perplexed, across the parliamentary chamber at all the Labor women, and wonder just how we’ve done it.

Well, it’s no mystery, no special secret.  It didn’t happen by accident.  It happened because of targets.


In 1994, Labor adopted a rule that said that at least 35% of our parliamentarians should be women.  We lifted that later to 40%.  And what happened?  With targets, the number of Labor women parliamentarians increased from 18.4% in 1994, to 43.1% in 2015.  Over the same period, but without targets, the number of Liberal women parliamentarians went from 14.3% to just 22.6%.  

Image via Getty.
“Well, it’s no mystery, no special secret. It didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of targets.” (Image via Getty.)

Encouragingly, Labor Cabinets in Queensland and Victoria now have equal representation of women and men.  Of the eleven women who’ve headed a government in Australia, ten are Labor.  On the other hand, the latest figures on the representation of Liberal women in the Senate show things are actually going backwards!

I support targets because they work.

That’s why some Liberals parliamentarians, especially women, are coming around to the idea.  And they should be applauded for doing so. 

However, many Liberals remain stridently opposed to targets.

If the Abbott Government thinks it’s important to have a Cabinet membership that balances the numbers of Liberals and Nationals, numbers from various states, numbers of moderates and conservatives, why shouldn’t it seek to balance the number of women and men too?

The Abbott Government argues that achieving cultural change is the way to go.  But cultural change is exactly what targets achieve.

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Tanya Plibersek with Labor Leader, Bill Shorten. (Image via Getty.)

The real power of targets is not so much the rule itself, but the way it focuses minds and changes the culture of an organisation.  For Labor, what it’s done is remind us, that at every level – from recruiting new members, to selecting candidates, to forming Cabinets, we need to consider making sure that we have more women in our parliaments.  And it’s worked.

The other line that opponents of targets like to run is that the people should be chosen based on merit.  With so many talented Liberal women in the outer ministry and on the backbench, the suggestion there are only two women in the Abbott Cabinet because the men have more merit, is just laughable.

It wasn’t a lack of merit that for so many years kept women from being able to vote, from being parliamentarians, or Prime Minister – and it isn’t lack of merit now, either.

Stereotypes, gendered expectations, the tendency of people in powerful positions to mentor and promote people who remind them of a younger version of themselves: all create a series of barriers women have to overcome.  It’s like running a race when all the women are in the hundred meters hurdles but the men are running the hundred meters dash – to the same finish line and only one set of medals.  Targets knock down some of those hurdles.  They make the race fairer, and they make sure that it really is the best man or woman who wins the responsibility of representing an electorate, sitting in Cabinet – or even living in The Lodge.

Do you agree that targets are a good way to get increase the number of women in Australian Parliament?

For more like this, try these:

Annabel Crabb on why we desperately need more women in politics.

Women in Aussie politics: “It’s a tough slog”.

When is a lie not a lie in politics?

Some inspirational career quotes from successful women: