Liberal Party’s ‘women problem’ could be sleeper election issue

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Women Kelly O'Dwyer
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Women Kelly O'Dwyer

The Liberal Party has a women problem.

But you probably knew that already.

Preselection battles have ructured the LNP in the past week, with several female MPs staring down the grim prospect of losing their seats to inter-party challengers.

Internecine squabbling doesn’t just occur within the Coalition’s ranks, of course.

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This, however, goes beyond mere internal jockeying.

Last Saturday, it was revealed that Assistant Minister for Social Services and Disability Services Jane Prentice had lost her Queensland seat of Ryan to a male candidate in a preselection challenge.

And that was just the beginning.

As the week drew on, more and more reports emerged of female Liberal MPs potentially facing preselection challenges of their own.

Victorian Senator Jane Hume, South Australian Senator Lucy Gichuhi and Gilmore MHR Ann Sudmalis all have a fight on their hands.

Senator Gichuhi was initially an independent senator, joining the Liberals in February this year, meaning her stint with the party could be cut short before she’s even warmed her seat.

Senator Gichuhi and her fellow embattled colleagues are, by all accounts, competent and hard-working.

This new offensive aimed at dethroning Liberal women goes to the heart of an enduring crisis in the country’s foremost conservative party.

That is, how do you appeal to women in the electorate without proper gender parity within your own ranks?

More importantly, how can you adequately represent Australian women and give voice to the issues that matter to them when you only have a paltry amount of women sitting on your side of the house?

As at February 2018, only 13 women sat on the government benches, making up just 17 per cent of LNP members in the House of Representatives.

Women represent 44 per cent of Labor parliamentarians whereas they represent just 20 per cent of the Coalition’s.

Labor’s strength in this area arises from its gender representation quota, with a target of achieving a 50-50 split between male and female parliamentarians.

There does seem to be an awareness in the Liberal Party that they have a women problem but it hasn’t translated to any meaningful change.

After the 2016 federal election – at which the Tasmanian Liberals fielded an all-male Senate ticket – the Liberals announced their target to achieve 50 per cent female representation in their federal cohort by 2025.

Two years later, things seem to be going backwards.

While the Coalition is banking on the citizenship fiasco bringing Labor down in the eyes of the electorate as the next federal election looms, it may want to consider just how harmful its women problem could be in terms of its re-election chances.

In an impressive display of leadership, Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer this week pledged $50,000 out of her own pocket to a fund which seeks to improve female representation in the Liberal Party.

Other senior figures in the Coalition would be wise to take note of Ms O’Dwyer’s efforts.

Because without leadership on this, it could shape up as a sleeper issue in the lead-up to the election and potentially deprive conservative women of a voice in the halls of power.