The decrease of women in Australian politics

TRADITIONALLY, politics has always been a man’s world.

Council elections held across NSW in early September show this is predominantly still the case, particularly in the state’s southern region.

The male-dominated world of Local Government elections became particularly evident with the appointment of nine men to Wingecarribee Shire Council, the first all-male cohort in 33 years.

Though 17 women contested the election in the Southern Highlands, from a total 56 candidates, none led tickets of their own.

Of eight groups that ran for council, not one was headed by a woman; three had women listed as the second candidate. Two women ran below the line, albeit unsuccessfully.

In the Upper Lachlan Shire two women contested the election. Only one was successful, and will be the only woman among nine councillors during the next four-year term.

In comparison, a third of elected councillors to Goulburn Mulwaree and Yass Valley councils were women.

Both councils had three female representatives elected out of a total of nine councillor roles.

Goulburn MP Pru Goward said women needed to be in it, to win it.

“We need to ensure women are in winnable positions so our council can reflect our community,” she said.

One success for women in the 2016 election was the significant public support of Yass Valley candidate Rowena Abbey.

More than 25 per cent of all formal votes cast were to Ms Abbey’s group, which saw her assured a spot on council from the very first vote count.

While an improvement on the non-existent female representation of Wingecarribee Shire Council, these figures are a far cry from the gender parity encouraged in governing bodies by the United Nations.

But the under-representation of women in politics is not just a regional issue: nationally, the number of women in parliament has steadily decreased over the past decade.

University of Tasmania Associate Professor of Public and Environmental Policy Kate Crowley said it was time to look at the institutional and structural reasons for the decrease of female involvement in Australian government.

“Women will participate in political structures that are welcoming to them – and it’s fairly easy to organise them so that they don’t want to be involved,” she said.

Women won the right to vote and be elected nationally in 1902. However, in the intervening 114 years, Australia is yet to reach an equal gender representation in the field of politics.

In fact, as a national trend, the imbalance in representation between men and women is actually increasing.

According to a 2014 Australian Government Parliamentary Library research report on the representation of women in national parliaments, Australia dropped from an international ranking of 20th in 2001 to 48th in 2014.

Despite being granted the right to be elected in 1902, it wasn’t until 1921 that a woman was actually elected to an Australian Parliament – Edith Cowan to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly. It was 1943 before a woman partook in the Commonwealth Parliament.

The United Nations states men and women should participate equally in parliamentary decision-making processes. In spite of this, Australian women represented only 29 per cent of parliamentarians in the country in 2014.

Associate Professor Crowley said hard policy changes including revised legislation and the introduction of gender quotas in politics would help to ensure a fairer representation of women in Australian politics.

“Additionally, to ensure change at a cultural and educational level, we need to talk about these issues – the first thing would be to talk to women, to ask: what are the barriers?”

Eight Southern Highlands women have helped to start this conversation – see their comments in the gallery above – and shared their insights as to why women are under-represented in local government.

There is much to say on an issue so complex. What do you think the key issues are? Add to the conversation and share your thoughts in the comments below.

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