Sharman Stone: The Liberal MP who's backing a quota for women

Sharman Stone's willingness to speak out about the Liberal Party's poor record in promoting women shows she can speak ...

Sharman Stone's willingness to speak out about the Liberal Party's poor record in promoting women shows she can speak truth to power. Photo: Andrew Meares

Sharman Stone is seeking women of merit – women who've succeeded in private enterprise, corporations or not-for-profits.

That's because Stone has her eye on the future of her beloved Liberal Party – and she fears that the men in her party are more concerned with keeping their own jobs than in looking forward.

Stone, the member for Murray and an outspoken critic of the way the Liberal Party treats women, thinks she has at least a couple more terms of parliament in here but she is certainly scouting for talent for the years ahead.

Labor MP Terri Butler interjects during Question Time on Tuesday.

Labor MP Terri Butler interjects during Question Time on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"It's not revolutionary – if we want to be in touch, to be revelant, we need women as well as men."

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But the response from promising women – both young and middle-aged – has not been good.

"They tell me, 'you have to be joking'," says Stone. "They observe the potential they have to go on to do great things in the roles they already have, the opportunities to succeed, to make change; and they see the public face of parliament.

"They look at that and they think, 'I can do better for my country in the role that I have'," she says.

She's not kidding. If the option is sitting in a room mudslinging and time-wasting or contributing productively elsewhere, who would choose parliament?

"Women are mostly likely to enter politics to make a difference. If they have  been making a difference in their corporation, private enterprise or not-for-profit, why would they give it up to go into a  flawed institution?"

Good question. Stone says women have better ways to spend their time – and they try to spend that time as productively as possible. There is, she thinks, little profit in spending long hours in an institution which isn't meeting that productivity. Often, parliamentarians will be still at work at 9.30 pm. And for what? asks Stone.

Reasonable hours were certainly a focus at a gender pay gap forum in Sydney on Tuesday, where the CEO of Mirvac Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz, a WGEA pay equity ambassador , said she made a point of leaving on time to be a good example to her employees.

We should be focussing on outputs, not how much time we are spending at our desks, she said. And that's the CEO for goodness sake!

As Stone points out, even getting to the point of working ridiculous hours in parliament is not an option because of the very first hurdle - Liberal preselection. The party has rules which ensure that  preselection panels are gender equal – but that doesn't apply to the composition of the shortlisted candidates.  And without targets or quotas, it certainly doesn't apply to those who succeed in getting preselected. The numbers of Liberal women are declining.

"Future preselections should require equal numbers of men and women in the preselection contest. It doesn't mean that women would win the contest but it is a sign up in neon lights that the rules have changed."

Stone thinks only one tool will work – structured affirmative action. She says it has worked in other countries and then discarded when no longer needed – but she also says that she has had very little luck in persuading her Liberal colleagues, male or female.

"Power is a zero sum game. If I am talking about having more women in the senate, that means some men must go down if you can't expand the pie.

"If women are to be advanced some men will lose their position."

And that's why she has trouble convincing the blokes, she thinks.

Which brings us to the response by Christopher Pyne to Stone's criticisms. He said on Tuesday he didn't like quotas and that any preselection must be "merit based" although he conceded that the Liberal Party should "be encouraging rather than discouraging" and should seek out women who might be interested in political careers rather than leaving to a "market based system".

Here's valuable advice the Liberal Party can have for free from one of the most senior corporate women in Australia.

President of Chief Executive Women Diane Smith-Gander (and rumoured new chair of Tourism Australia) doesn't usually consult to political parties on how to achieve gender equity. 

But in the wake of Liberal backbencher Sharman Stone's impassioned attack on the behaviour of her parliamentary colleagues and her call for quotas, I asked Smith-Gander to offer three quick tips to the Liberal Party to improve the number of women in the parliamentary partner.

1. Benchmark against competitors.

2. Fix structural obstacles such as childcare.

3. Check your organisation's definition of merit.

Even the first suggestion will terrify them.

"Benchmark yourself – what is happening in the other parties that is making a difference."

Of course, that's easy. The figures are all in the parliamentary library. Women make up 21.8 per cent of all the Liberal Party members of parliament; just 15 per cent of National Party MPs. And the ALP is now at 45 per cent and pushing onwards  to 50 per cent by 2020.

And what could the Liberal Party learn from that benchmarking? That, in the case of the ALP, quotas work. Now, Smith-Gander is not a fan of quotas though (and nor are most Liberals).

"I think quotas are an intervention of last resort," she says. More suited to the ethos of the Liberal Party then, would be Smith-Gander's suggestion of "targets with teeth".

"If there are no teeth to the target, it will not work . . . there need to be consequences if they don't work."

Number two? Smith-Gander says that parliamentarians don't have the usual gender pay gap but there are other structural problems, such as childcare, which make it possible for working families to allow equal participation. We agree that there could also be a scan of the kinds of positions which women hold as parliamentarians, which might lead to a gender pay gap of another kind, for example, fewer women holding the more highly paid jobs as ministers.

And the one which might really cause some soul-searching?

Smith-Gander asks: "Is here a definition of merit that is being seen through a gendered lens?

"I would just be asking the question 'what is the definition of merit?' which brings men into the inner circle and not women. Can we understand that more clearly?"

If the Liberal Party wants more advice from the corporate sector, it could also look to the revolution at the ANZ, where ANZ Chief Executive Officer Mike Smith said: "Promoting diversity and gender equality is a priority in our business. This includes pay equality and an equal representation of women in leadership roles."

The ANZ today announced extended paid parental leave and top-up superannuation for female employees. And banks are already pretty good at this stuff.

It's just possible that Liberal women will now stand with Stone on this – Kelly O'Dwyer and Sophia Mirabella backed increased representation  of women in the Liberal Party at a forum in Melbourne late last year  – and O'Dwyer did it again on Tuesday night on Lateline. Now Teresa Gambaro, who on Tuesday night won preselection for the seat of Brisbane, has called for a 30 per cent target, according to a news report on Wednesday morning.

As Tanja Kovac, the national coconvenor of Emily's List said earlier this month: "Once we get to 50 per cent, the pressure will really be on Coalition women."

And it's not just the pressure. For the party of businesss, it's scarier than that. It's a benchmark.

 

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