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The Greens Stand Firm On Women's Rights

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Lee Rhiannon 6 Jun 2013

This piece first appeared in New Matilda.

Feminist principles have always shaped Greens policy and procedures. That's reflected in the participation of women in the party, writes Greens spokesperson for women Lee Rhiannon.

Thanks to Emily Wilding Davison, who died 100 years ago on 8 June, I can vote, run for elections and debate the merits of promoting women in party preselections. Davison was a formidable campaigner for women’s right to vote. She was goaled nine times, force fed on dozens of hunger strikes, and literally died for the cause when she took the “Votes for Women” demand to Epson Derby and stepped in front of the King’s horse.

I am inspired by Emily Davison. It is not just women politicians like myself who have so many reasons to thank those like Emily who drove the first and second waves of feminism. Society moves closer to justice and fairness when the barriers to women participating in public life fall away.

Overall, more women candidates are contesting each election. In 1983 it was 19 per cent and in the 2007 election it was 37 per cent, with the growth over the years being fairly steady. According to a parliamentary library study, the Greens reached a record high for women candidates for any party in 2010, with women comprising 71.4 per cent — more than two-thirds — of the total number of Greens candidates.

In this era of party politics there can be an unfortunate overlay of oneupmanship that distorts the achievements that Emily Davison set in train all those years ago.

Tanja Kovac, National Co-Convenor of Labor’s EMILY’s List, distorts the reality of women’s representation in elected political positions in Australia in her article on the preselection battle for the federal seat of Batman.

The Australian Greens use a combination of rules and culture change to help promote women in Greens preselection ballots.

The results are seen in the numbers of women Greens MPs in state and federal parliaments. There are 13 state and federal women Greens MPs in Australia compared to 16 male MPs. This is about 44 per cent for Greens women out of all our Greens MPs.  These figures include Greens MPs elected to either house of parliament.

Obviously there are different ways statistics can be presented. Kovac puts the number of Greens MPs at a paltry 12.5 per cent well below that of the Coalition and Labor. She achieved this statistic by not including figures for upper house MPs. In the Senate and upper houses around the country the Greens have 12 women and nine male MPs, or 57 per cent women.

Discussion around seeing more women MPs should not just be about numbers. We also need to give consideration to how our parties operate and the very nature of the political process. It is not structural factors alone that limit the number of women entering our parliaments. Many women, like some men, are turned off by the nastiness and superficiality that too often dominates the political debate.

The Greens were formed in the 1980s, growing out of the great social movements of that period. Feminism was woven into the fabric of the party from its founding days. The high level of women local councillors, MPs and candidates can be linked with the party’s open and grassroots decision making and the Green’s core principle of equity and social justice.

It is not correct as Kovac states that Labor’s Affirmative Action rule is “the only one of its kind within any Australian political party”.

The NSW Greens affirmative action policy required that on upper house election tickets there must be at least 50 per cent women. This is achieved by a constitutional requirement that at least every second place on the ticket must be filled by a woman.

A great deficiency of the Australian electoral system that impacts on the number of women MPs is that lower houses, apart from Tasmania, do not have a proportional representation system. The number of women MPs increases in countries with a fairer electoral system. Germany and New Zealand that use the mixed-member form of proportional representation show that on the proportional representation list significantly higher numbers of women are elected compared with single-member electorates.

While Labor’s form of affirmative action is delivering results and making a difference to the makeup of the nation’s parliaments, the fact that ALP head office can "helicopter in" Labor candidates, stripping local members of their ability to choose their own candidates, does damage the internal democracy of that party.

We want more women MPs in parliament, but that should not be at the cost of the right of local members to vote in preselection ballots.

In the debate about boosting the number of women MPs in parliament we also need to keep the focus on the causes and campaigns these MPs will promote when they move into public office. What will they stand for?

Will they be there for their sisters working as cleaners, women raising their children on their own, and those who are unable to access an abortion because they live in regional Australia? Or will they be seduced by the neoliberal policies that have captured Labor as well as the Coalition and back laws that facilitate greater casualisation of the workforce, limit unions’ right to organise and strip money from public services?

It has been disappointing that in the final days of the current federal parliament the Gillard Government has not been willing to cooperate with the Greens and independents to achieve significant reforms for women’s rights.

With the spectre of an Abbott government looming the Government should have by now have resurrected a courageous and energetic Office for the Status of Women within the Prime Minister’s department, had in place a clear plan to finally lock in equal pay, and already increased the Newstart Allowance by at least $50.

These are all measures that would make a meaningful difference to women’s lives, and honour the great legacy of Emily Davidson.

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