News and op-eds

Affirmative action the smartest move ALP ever made

March 25, 2021

One of the most perceptive Labor people I have come across in my time as a Labor Party member is an old lefty called Lindesay Jones. Sadly, Lindesay passed away in 2017 but I used to enjoy our regular lunch catch-ups when I was state party secretary in Queensland.

Over his long history of involvement in Labor politics he said the most significant change the Labor Party made was bringing in affirmative action. Lindesay said not only did it change the culture of the party for the better, but it also enabled so many more talented people to become elected Labor representatives. Lindesay could see the advantage this had given Labor because he had seen what Labor was like before this change was brought in.

I have heard many lectures from those opposite me in the Senate about the inadequacy of quotas and how merit should be the only criteria political parties consider for elected representatives. They show a complete lack of understanding of how affirmative action works or a deliberate ignorance of how it practically applies. There is not one Queensland state or federal Labor MP who was endorsed because of a quota. What having quotas for female representation does for a political organisation is it means the power structures in place are forced to give more opportunities to women at all levels of the party. For the Labor Party this has led to gradual change over the past 25 years to get us to the position we are currently in.

For Labor, this means factions have had to ensure they are doing their part to encourage more women to get involved, ensuring they have experiences and opportunities and enabling them to be in a position to run for preselection when an opportunity arises. Over time this has fundamentally changed the nature of the party for the better. Fewer smoke-filled rooms and Chinese restaurants being the centre of power for decision-making has led to a more professional and inclusive party culture emerging.

The key to this change over time has been affirmative action applying to all positions within the party: conferences, administrative committees, party office positions and candidates for public office. You wouldn’t achieve more women in public office without giving women more opportunity, experience and exposure at those other positions within the party.

I am not aware of one Labor man who has lost his seat in parliament to a woman, but I know plenty of men who have been replaced by women when they call time on their careers. This has enabled Labor to get to the position where we are, broadly, at 50/50 elected representatives in parliaments across the country. I am not saying Labor is perfect, but affirmative ­action rule changes over the years have made a lasting difference.

The other significant benefit these changes have delivered to the Labor Party is immense political talent and leadership during the past 20 years. For the past 14 years, the parliamentary leader of the Labor Party in Queensland has been a woman. Anna Bligh and her successor, Annastacia Palaszczuk, have made an extraordinary contribution to Queensland over this period. Federally, we see the contribution that Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek have made to national politics, and the shadow cabinet has equal numbers of men and women.

I have no doubt that the Prime Minister would be better responding to these challenges if there were stronger female representation inside the Coalition, both inside the caucus and within their staffing and organisational wing. The Prime Minister has failed to grasp both the challenge that his government is facing and the ­opportunity for reform that so many people across the country are looking for.

The changes that Labor have made over time to ensure more equal representation of women in parliament have led to a better culture in the party, more talented people being elected, and ultimately better and more representative Labor governments as a result.

Anthony Chisholm has been a senator for Queensland since 2016.