Earlier this semester, my Constitutional Law lecturer broke down the Australian Parliament according to identity, and in doing so, reiterated a well-known fact: Parliament is dominated by Anglo-Saxon white males.
Yet, when he tried to divide seats according to Australia’s societal breakdown of gender, culture, religion, sexual orientation and disability, it proved impossible. This is probably unsurprising given the diversity of Australians. To have a true cross-section across 226 seats is unfeasible — so we got to thinking about which societal groups could be easily represented. The answer? Women. While focusing on the representation of different cultures and religions is a difficult undertaking, women form a large proportion of the population, and often have identities that intersect with various other alignments and orientations.
So why aren’t there more women in Parliament?
Traditionally democratic political systems have run on the fundamental principle that anyone can have their say by competing for office or by electing an official to represent their views in national decision-making. However, this framework fails to acknowledgment the institutional barriers that prevent people from marginalised groups gaining access to opportunities that shape the legal discourse of a nation.
Parity is a concept that institutes gender equality in legislative and decision-making parliamentary roles. The French ‘Parité’ or Parity Movement was born in the 1990s, as a response to proposed legislation to limit access to contraceptive and abortion resources. The out-of-touch nature of this proposed legislation shone a spotlight on the lack of women in decision-making positions, sparking legislative provisions that resulted in legally enforced gender parity in France.
Australia does not have parity laws, although some political parties (such as the Australian Labor Party) have self-imposed quotas. While quotas do assist in increasing the representation of women, when only select political parties are subject to quotas, the resulting representation of women across Parliament will still be inadequate. Parity laws must also be distinguished from most quotas, because although quotas are effective in including more women in political parties and institutions, they do so by keeping them in the minority, as evidenced by Labor’s 40 per cent quota.
Yet it remains to be seen whether parity laws are actually distinctly better than party quotas. When looking at the representation of women in parliaments worldwide, France is ranked 16th while Australia clings onto 50th, just above South Sudan. At face value, this seems to indicate that parity legislation is far more successful in increasing the representation of women.
However, if we look more closely we see a different narrative. French women make up 39 per cent of the lower house and 29.3 per cent of the upper house; comparatively, in Australia women make up 28.7 per cent of the lower house and 40.8 per cent of the upper house.
Although France statistically has more women in parliament, Australia has a greater number of woman in the Senate. So while quotas can be problematic if they are tokenistic and women are put onto tickets just to check administrative boxes, they can also be beneficial. In both cases, parity laws and quotas create opportunities for women to run for office, yet parity laws are distinct in that they ensure women have seats at the table regardless of their political alignments.
Despite the clear benefits to parity laws and quotas in increasing representation, it can be argued that they impinge on democratic processes by depriving others from running for women-reserved positions. However, if we consider the history of the Australian Parliament, with women achieving the right to vote and stand for Parliament in 1902, we will see that they did not enter Federal Parliament until four decades later. So while there may be a legal framework in place enfranchising women, in reality, the persistence of hegemonic structures limits how marginalised and minority groups are able to engage with and enter decision-making roles.
While there will inevitably be some who see parity laws as providing roles to those who may not have meritoriously earned them, these arguments fail to acknowledge the initial positions of disadvantage faced by certain social groups, and the institutional barriers which prevent upward political mobility. As men traditionally had the sole right to vote and shape political discourse, they remain in the majority of political decision-making positions. In a way, the constitutional rights created by men alone have created cultural norms that make them dominant in political discourse today. Though the election process is democratic, the resources and support women have is nowhere near equal. These norms of political dominance pervade Parliament and the leadership of numerous political parties, making it difficult for women to break into these traditionally male spaces.
Legal frameworks are not only a guide for how to act within a given society, but also a reflection of established norms and conventions within that society. The overrepresentation of men in decision-making roles has led to the creation of laws and policies that often don’t account for the lived experience of the various social groups in a society. As seen with the contraception legislation that sparked Parity in France, when men dictate the law it can miss the mark on issues that don’t affect them. Hence why we still have the tampon tax in Australia. When there is a lack of women represented and present in legislative drafting, laws that impinge on the rights and freedoms of women come into being. One need only look at the complex and inaccessible abortion services in Australia, differing from state-to-state, to see that an evident lack of women’s input in the laws that seek to govern the lives of and apply to women*.
There is a clear need for gender parity laws to be introduced in Australia. Although it will never be possible to have a parliamentary body that is truly representative of Australia’s diversity, where a widespread marginalised group can be further included and properly represented, all means should be taken to do ensure this occurs. While gender parity laws may be viewed as tokenistic, the need for marginalised groups to be able to apply their unique lived experience to decision-making roles is incredibly important, especially for members of the public who identify with those experiences.
If parity laws are introduced, they may foster cultural change to the point that they become pointless in the future. Their introduction could break down institutional barriers that prevent members of marginalised groups from interacting with the political system. And right now, their application would enfranchise a large proportion of the Australian population who were unable to enter a traditionally male-dominated space for 40 years, despite having the right to do so.
*I would like to acknowledge that it is not just women-identifying people who are affected first-hand by complex and inaccessible abortion services.