Local Leaders | Labor Lines: Merit and quotas are not mutually exclusive

Anna Ritson

Anna Ritson

There has been a fair bit of discussion on the issue of quotas for women in the parliament, particularly in the Liberal party.

I’m proud to say that my party has been on the front foot on this issue for decades.

We started with a 30 percent target for women in parliament in 1994, rising to a target in place of 50 percent today.

At a local level, branches across NSW are set a target of 50 percent women in branch executive positions. Your local Yass Valley branch has three women on its executive (our two vice-presidents and our treasurer), representing 75 percent.

This is important, as reaching a target of 50 percent women in parliament is only possible if women are able to see a path to parliament via their local branches and electorate councils.

Labor actively encourages women to walk this path and with the election of Ged Kearney earlier this year, 48 percent of ALP members in the lower house are women.

Setting quotas is a contentious issue and raises that great red herring issue of merit, an issue I find often leads to infuriating and insulting discourse. I consistently find myself asking: why is it that the merit of men doesn’t ever seem to be questioned?

There aren’t enough words in this little article for me to get into how the traditional, patriarchal structures disempower women from participation in politics, nor how societal ideals of what the role of a women is within the broader society further ingrain and discourage participation by us in the political world. Suffice to say, men’s participation in politics is rarely questioned on the grounds of merit. We broadly assume that men in the parliament are ‘meant’ to be there. 

This is not as assumption we make of women. Women are constantly questioned on the basis of merit.

So here’s the thing to keep in mind when arguments about merit are put forward in relation to quotas. A quota does NOT mean that women are there to make up the numbers and are only there because of their gender.

It’s about a woman being able to see herself participating, being able to visualise a path to the parliament and feeling like the norm, not the exception. This is the thing that attracts good women to a party, feeling supported and included. Quotas encourage inclusivity.

When we question the merit of women, it devalues us all and further discourages smart, fierce, caring and community-minded women from getting involved in politics at a time when we need them the most.