Monday, April 9, 2012

A post in three parts II: Women in politics

Part 2: Women in politics

Is politics a mug’s game? Is it a men’s game? If women ruled the world would the world be a better place? While it is not a given that a female political scientist would automatically study women in politics, it is an area of political analysis that draws me in.

I happened to be living in Tokyo when the so-called ‘Madonna whirlwind’ caught the political imagination in the 1989 Upper House elections. In the previous year, the government had determined it would introduce a ‘consumption tax’, something we here in Australia would know later as a GST. Women in particular were angry about the impact the new tax would have on their household budgets and so began an engagement in politics that has interested me ever since.

I shall leave a more detailed discussion on Japanese politics for another post, or perhaps *that* book. Suffice to say, the Madonna they were talking about was not the American pop princess but allusions to the Madonna and Child…and the idea that women must be pure in politics. Japanese women were granted the right to vote as a part of the post-WW2 reforms and, as it happens, this Tuesday is the 66th anniversary of the first election in which women could vote, 10 April 1946. After an initial flush of successful candidates, the next few decades witnessed a low, single digit proportion of female members of parliament vis-à-vis their male counterparts. Superficial accounts of women in politics in Japan attributed this low figure to stereotypical views of the demure Japanese woman, always three steps behind her husband…

*Turning point*…there’s always one. Not satisfied with this sort of explanation, I thought about the experience of women in politics in Australia. The best book at the time examining the Australian experience was A Woman’s Place: women and politics in Australia (Marian Sawyer and Marian Simms, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993, 2nd ed.). Having read it from cover to cover, it occurred to me that women aspiring to political careers have many more hurdles in common, than the differences that commentators tend to emphasise. I began to look at a more comparative study of how and why women aspire to political office in a largely patriarchal institution.

I shall post at length about the vicissitudes of Japanese political women at another time, suffice to say that the ‘Madonna’ is this case was DOI Takako, leader of the main opposition party at the time (Japan Socialist Party, or Shakaito 日本社会党), a former professor of constitutional law who inspired many of the angry anti-tax women to stand for parliament. Women succeeded in relatively good numbers, and that has continued to grow from strength-to-strength, more or less, relatively speaking...

Which brings me back to Queensland…the funny thing acknowledged about politics in Australia is that when the ‘boys’ get in trouble, they’ll call in the women to fix the place or hold the fort until the tempest subsides. Carmen Lawrence (WA) and Joan Kirner (Vic) were brought in as leaders of failing Labor governments as was Kristina Kenneally more recently in NSW; and, perhaps to some extent, Anna Bligh in Queensland had to wear the opprobrium of an electorate that was annoyed with the travails of the Labor Party more generally than Ms Bligh personally.

Anna Bligh, unlike the women in other states though, had successfully won an election in her own right in 2009, the first female premier to do so. Perhaps, then, there was an element of the electorate passing judgement on her as well. Ms Bligh’s finest public moment shall probably remain her galvanising speech to the people when the floods of summer 2010-11 finally overwhelmed a state that had been desiccated under drought several years prior. It was in that speech that many suggest the strengths of women in a crisis shone through. It contrasts strongly with the poor campaigning strategy which saw the Labor Party go on a personal, and unedifying attack on LNP contender Campbell Newman. Something about being wary about casting stones unto others or some such…Women can and should conduct politics in a better frame (---opportunity lost---).

In conceding defeat over the weekend, Di Farmer the former member for Bulimba (a Brisbane metropolitan seat) rounded out a fairly dramatic swingeing of women in the Queensland parliament. With the by-election still to be held in Ms Bligh’s seat of South Brisbane and the final numbers therefore not quite settled, it is likely that there will be just over 70 men and fewer than 19 women in the new Queensland Parliament. Granted, Annastacia Palaszczuk has taken on the role of leader of the Labor Party and Fiona Simpson of the LNP will take up the Speaker’s role (first woman in Queensland to do so; and perhaps for the first time, the federal and State Speakers hail from the same region, the Sunshine Coast). The parliament hardly reflects that fact that of 2,746,844 voters on the electoral roll, more than half or 1,427,640 were women. The 19-member cabinet of the new government includes just three women (Tracy Davis, Ros Bates and Jann Stuckey) and no designated Minister for Women.

Women, by virtue of their gender, do not automatically make the world a better place. But our parliamentary institutions are lesser places for their smaller numbers. The winds of change exhaled a little too strongly here in Queensland this March…let’s hope it is not too long before a little more balance is restored.

To be continued…because we must remain ever-vigilant…  mq(O.|.0)pm