The challenge of convincing mediocre white men they actually lack merit


Alex McKinnon

Malcolm Turnbull with his cabinet ministers have a meritorious chuckle as Christopher Pyne warns Peter Dutton about the ...

Malcolm Turnbull with his cabinet ministers have a meritorious chuckle as Christopher Pyne warns Peter Dutton about the presence of a boom mic after the swearing-in ceremony. Photo: Andrew Meares

The makeup of Australia's new federal Parliament has finally come together, and with it comes some joyous news: a whopping 73 of our 226 parliamentarians are now women, or 32.3 per cent. That puts us in the illustrious company of countries like Laos, Guyana and Nepal, and even sees us inch ahead of Afghanistan, that renowned stronghold of women's rights.

Getting more women into parliament has always been tricky, since preselection for a major party in Australia is often decided less on your qualifications, experience and potential contribution to society, and more on "merit" (i.e. How well your mates at Party HQ remember the great times you all had in your elite private school's rugby team).

Both major parties recognise the problem, but progress has been a long time coming. The Labor Party is aiming for a 50-50 gender split of its MPs by 2025, while the Liberals' strategy to increase the number of women in its parliamentary ranks consists of occasionally muttering something about "equality of opportunity" and ordering another Pimms at the Tattersalls Club.

Kevin Rudd was sure his UN Secretary-General job was in the bag.

Kevin Rudd was sure his UN Secretary-General job was in the bag. Photo: Andrew Harrer

Of course, we're not alone in this quandary. Over in the US, the problem is even worse. A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center found white, college-educated men are vastly more likely to run for office than anyone else – so much so that while they only make up half the population, 75 per cent of political candidates in the US are male.


Interestingly, it's a problem that crosses ideological lines. One of the most obnoxious political trends to emerge from the Democratic primaries was that of the 'brogressives' – left-leaning, earnest, politically active men who ostensibly embrace progressive politics, but who drop the ball when it comes to actually using their privilege to the benefit of those without it.

The phenomenon was best encapsulated recently by the rise of the Bernie Bro – male supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders whose criticisms of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton frequently strayed into aggressive, misogynistic, borderline conspiracy-theory territory. When Clinton clinched the nomination in July, Sanders delegates threatened to derail the Democratic National Convention with constant booing, accusations of vote-rigging, and heckling female speakers like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

What possessed Bachelor Ben to run for office?

What possessed Bachelor Ben to run for office?

The perception among many men that women like Clinton and Warren are somehow less qualified for office due to their gender has deeper roots than this election cycle, though. More broadly, men simply assume they're more suited than anyone else to have a tilt at politics – far more so than women who are just as qualified (if not more so) than many men who do decide to run. If the two Presidential candidates don't illustrate that dynamic well enough already, a new study from Stanford University Ph. D. candidate Molly M King finds that men are far more likely to be their own favourite experts on a given topic, with male academics citing their own work at a much higher rate than their female counterparts.

But an outfit in the US is pushing back against that dynamic. Most American political action committees (or PACs for short) are little more than fundraising avenues for Presidential and Congressional candidates, but the delightfully named Can You Not PAC has a different goal: to discourage straight white guys from running for office and throw their support behind women, people of colour and LGBTQ people instead.

Started in 2014 by co-founders Jack Teter and Kyle Huelsman – two college-educated white guys themselves – the PAC's target audience isn't the under-represented groups it's trying to empower. Rather, Can You Not direct their message at "egregiously overconfident white men" who are so convinced of their own unique ability to solve all the world's problems, they run for office despite being manifestly unqualified.

(Confession time: at Year Nine school camp where you had to write down what you wanted to be when you grew up, I wrote 'Prime Minister'. As I sit here, writing this article on the couch in a pair of track pants older than several members of my family, the reality of how unsuited I am to be Prime Minister of anything is truly sinking in.)

Their most recent opponent in that regard was Ben Higgins, a would-be Colorado Congressman whose most impressive accomplishment to date was being a contestant on The Bachelor.

In a petition asking Higgins to withdraw, Can You Not cited the "epidemic of overly confident, under qualified white dudes crowding out America's elections" as evidence that Higgins should rethink his new career path. It worked, too: after weeks of speculation, Higgins eventually did announce he was running for office, only to abruptly withdraw his candidacy the next day.

The PAC aims to dissuade brogressives from their well-meaning but misguided "ambitions of running for office in progressive urban districts" that would be better represented by someone who reflects their community's makeup. To that end, Can You Not doesn't just campaign against people like Ben Higgins – they also endorse candidates who more accurately reflect the communities they come from and hope to lead.

"We challenge brogressives and others to reject any notion that they are uniquely qualified or positioned to seek political office in districts that don't need them," Can You Not's website explains. "As well-represented white dudes, we feel it is our obligation to know when to shut up and Not."

Besides the obvious point that the world doesn't need any more starry-eyed white boys living out their West Wing fantasies on the taxpayer dime, one of the main reasons Can You Not asks left-leaning white men in particular to step aside is that progressive policies are more likely to become reality in legislatures with significant female, non-white and queer presences.

A long-running study by former American Political Science Association president Arend Lijphart found that American lawmaking bodies with more female, non-white and LGBTI members are more likely to produce "progressive policy on issues like the environment, macroeconomic management, comprehensive support for families and individuals, violence prevention, and incarceration."

The policy platform adopted by the Democratic Party at their recent National Convention in Philadelphia, widely regarded as the most progressive in the party's history, was shaped by the most diverse and gender-balanced delegation the Democrats have ever seen.

Of the DNC's 4,766 delegates, half were people of colour, more than 60 per cent were women and 13 per cent identified as LGBTI. To top it off, there's evidence (at least in the US) that female representatives simply work harder and get more results than their male counterparts.

It almost makes you wish we had some clownishly incompetent, intellectually concave glorified private schoolboys in high office to test with something like this in Australia. Fortunately for us, all we have is a selection of brilliant, dignified statesmen who got their jobs purely on merit.

Like the Attorney-General responsible for bringing in a national data retention scheme who couldn't explain what metadata was. Or the Immigration Minister who makes racist jokes about drowning Pacific Island communities under a live boom microphone. Or the former junior Minister who sexually harassed a female colleague in a bar. Or the recently elected Senator who's convinced climate change is a worldwide conspiracy cooked up by the United Nations and the Rothschilds.

Oh well. Never mind.


Alex McKinnon is a Walkley-nominated writer and journalist, and a former editor of Junkee and the Star Observer.