Are quotas the key to boosting the number of women in federal parliament? Or do they undermine the important principle of merit? These questions will be the focus of discussion at a CIS panel event next week on the topic of women in politics.
But while gender quotas are touted as an obvious solution, they are not a magic bullet solution to improve the quality of parliament.
This is because the lack of women is symptomatic of a greater problem: the lack of meritocracy in selecting political candidates.
Many candidates — across all political parties — are not selected on clear merit. They are often the products of factions, powerful unions, or selected as a “reward” for years of loyal service to their party; not because of their professional credentials or commitment to public service.
And this relates to another problem: the rise of the “career politician” in Australia: a phenomenon criticised by both John Howard and Bob Hawke.
Selecting candidates based on their political experience blurs the line between meritocracy and party cronyism — while making it more difficult for women with no political experience to be taken seriously.
The downsides of political life already discourage many women from seeking elected office: long working hours, absence from family, media scrutiny and nasty public attacks.
Indeed, the sheer unpleasantness of political life is likely to substantially reduce the pool of talented women willing to put their hand up for elected office.
Nevertheless, it is likely we would see more women choosing to enter parliament, if the principle of merit was applied more evenly and transparently.
Capable women – from lawyers to factory workers, teachers to bureaucrats – are perfectly well-qualified to run for public office. But quotas will do little to help them, if pre-selection is still biased in favour of political insiders.
To promote true merit, we need a change in political party culture, so capable people have a fair opportunity to win pre-selection based on their experience, talents and values alone. Indeed, it should be the norm for parties to head-hunt talented candidates who have no prior political connections.
Quotas sound like a nice, simple solution, but they will not guarantee a fair go for talented people in seeking pre-selection, and that is the real problem.
This is an edited extract of an op-ed published in The Guardian.
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