One of Michaelia Cash’s final acts as the outgoing minister for women was to announce the latest data on gender balance on government boards.
On Wednesday morning, mere hours before Malcolm Turnbull’s new ministry was sworn in, she trumpeted the news that almost 43 per cent of government board positions were now held by women.
“The report highlights just how seriously the government takes its commitment to gender balance and promoting women into leadership,” Cash said, with not a skerrick of irony to be seen.
Maybe irony was too distracted by other government news this week.
While there were about 18 promotions involved in Turnbull’s ministerial reshuffle, only four involved women. And in terms of new female faces within the ministry, there were only two. One of these was Bridget McKenzie, who got an automatic cabinet gig as the new Nationals deputy leader. And given the recent loss of former Nationals deputy, Fiona Nash, the number of women in cabinet stays static at five.
The lack of wins for women – who for years under the Coalition have been held at bay by the argument they need to get to the top on “merit” – was underscored by some very heady promotions for the boys.
The two that stand out are John McVeigh and David Littleproud: two Queenslanders (one from the Liberal side of the LNP, the other from the Nationals), who leapt from the backbench straight into cabinet. Not only are the two men first-termers in federal politics, but they have also kept decidedly low profiles since coming to Canberra. It’s not a joke that many press gallery journalists had to Google these guys when their names were read out by the Prime Minister on Tuesday afternoon.
To be fair, McVeigh will already be familiar to Queenslanders, as he had a brief stint in state politics, including as Campbell Newman’s agriculture minister. Littleproud (an agribusiness expert), was previously best known as one of the four MPs who voted “no” on same-sex marriage. People also had to remind themselves about Damian Drum, another first-term National, who made the junior ministry as Assistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister.
These hasty elevations are terrifying not just because of the double standard they perpetuate (women have to wait and wait, while men are automatically deemed competent), but because of what it means for the highest decision-making body of government.
You may think that being a minister is easy: something that any two-bit megalomaniac can manage, as long as they can string a sentence together and carry a folder. It’s more complex than that. And there are good reasons why people tend to spend some time on the backbench before heading to the front.
For starters, you need to learn how to be a parliamentarian and local member: how legislation and the chamber work; what committees do; how the party room functions; how to handle the deluge of electorate requests and questions that come in. And in the meantime, maybe get your melon on TV and get used to having a public profile.
Then you need to learn how the rest of government functions: the cabinet and budget processes; how the political side interacts with the public service; how to take responsibility for policies, starting with a small chunk of them; and how to handle a hostile opposition and hostile journalists.
So it’s fairly terrifying to think Turnbull has just put three people into cabinet with no previous federal frontbench experience (though at least McKenzie has been in Parliament for a couple of terms).
For example, in Littleproud’s case, he’ll jump from having a personal staff of about five to having an office of about 20 and a department of more than 5000 people working for him. He’ll have to answer questions in question time, take agriculture and water resources through the budget process (that has already begun without him), and generally be across all the details and decisions in a huge area of policy.
Of course, the reasons for these whopping promotions have precious little to do with merit and everything to do with Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce’s logic about what’s best for them and their parties. But they make a mockery of the heartfelt explanations from Coalition figures about why progress is so glacial on gender balance.
It also shows how “merit” may be a great concept in theory, but a highly subjective one in practice (one person’s “merit” is another person’s “ridiculous”). And that it can so easily be ignored anyway for more immediate political reasons.
It’s worth noting that the “women on government boards” success that Cash celebrated did not happen by accident. In 2010, Labor introduced a target of at least 40 per cent women on government boards. In 2016, the Coalition upped this to 50 per cent.
While the conservative side of politics is traditionally opposed (allergically so) to the idea of targets and quotas, the Liberal Party has set a goal of 50 per cent female representation in Parliament by 2025. Given the week’s decisions by the party’s leadership, this not only seems unrealistic, but laughable.