Political scientist Marian Sawer reflects on the influence of gender amongst voters and candidates at the 2022 Australian federal election.
Gender was the back story of the 2022 election and played a crucial role in loosening the grip of the two-party system. Many women believed ‘their’ issues were being ignored or dismissed by the Morrison Government.
Women’s concerns over climate change, integrity issues and women’s safety became pivotal issues in seats such as Goldstein, Kooyong, North Sydney and Wentworth where women voters outnumbered men on a ratio of about 53–47. There was a disconnect between women’s discontent and the predominant image of the Prime Minister during the campaign, wearing a high-vis jacket and hard hat to relay a message about his target voters.
The back story began in March 2021 when former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins made her explosive allegations about rape in parliament house and the way it had been hushed up two years before. The lack of empathy in the Prime Minister’s response further inflamed the issue.
Women took their anger to the streets, with some 10,000 demonstrating outside Parliament House in Canberra and some 100,000 around Australia. The Prime Minister’s statement that this was a triumph of democracy because ‘not far from here such marches, even now, are being met with bullets’ went viral.
Revelations continued relentlessly. For example, only a week after the March4Justice, government staffers were found to be sharing a video of a male staffer masturbating on a female MP’s desk. Polls conducted at the time showed a steep increase in women’s disaffection with the Morrison Government and this ‘modern’ gender gap (with women to the left of men) continued up to the election.
Just before the federal election in May 2022, the ANU Poll revealed that while the majority of Australians thought that equality for women had not gone far enough, two thirds of Australians had little confidence in the Liberal Party with regards to the issue. In contrast, half had confidence in Labor on issues of gender equality, although this was still not overwhelming. In general, women had less confidence than men in parties’ commitment to gender equality, with confidence in The Greens being an exception.
Grace Tame, 2021 Australian of the Year, and Brittany Higgins played a major role in personalising the issue of sexual misconduct and ensuring it became a highly salient electoral issue for the first time. Their powerful joint address to the National Press Club in February 2022 was an important strategic move in keeping it on the political agenda. The mobilisation in the street they had inspired was reinforced by the work of senior women political journalists, including Laura Tingle in her role as President of the National Press Club.
Despite continuing revelations about women’s mistreatment in politics, there was a significant increase in the number of women standing for federal parliament in 2022, most notably in the number of women standing as Independent candidates – rising to 43 per cent of Independent candidates compared with 23 per cent in 2019.
Women became closely identified with the rejection of politics as usual that characterised the 2022 election. The successes of Voices for Indi in 2012 and the work of Cathy McGowan inspired the emergence of over 40 ‘Voices Of’ movements around Australia. These community-based organisations sought to present a democratic alternative to major-party politics, arguing that the major parties had failed to address the issues of most concern to communities.
Women dominated the ‘Teal wave’ of Independent candidates that emerged from this kitchen-table organising, 23 of which were assisted by fundraising body Climate 200. Professional women stood as Independents in previously safe conservative seats on platforms prioritising climate change, a federal integrity commission and women’s safety or gender justice. Reaction against major party politics was also evident in the victory of Independent Dai Le in the previously safe Labor seat of Fowler.
While many women were rejecting traditional party politics as centred on the pursuit of partisan or factional advantage, when it came to the major parties, Labor was clearly more aligned with women’s policy priorities. The Coalition ran on issues such as economic management prioritised by male voters while Labor emphasised the care economy, and issues prioritised by women such as spending on aged care. Labor Leader Anthony Albanese was careful to be photographed with care workers while on the campaign trail and did not have as many hard hat and high vis photo ops as Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Exit polls found that two thirds of voters thought that the state of aged care and the treatment of women in politics were weaknesses for the Coalition.
The gendered pattern of candidate selection by the major parties remained consistent with previous elections, with the Coalition trailing and women forming only 29 per cent of its candidates for the House of Representatives. While the Coalition has traditionally objected to quotas on the basis that they override the merit principle, voters had become increasingly in favour. With its quotas, Labor not only had more successful women candidates as shown in Figure 1 but also greater diversity.
Labor has been much more likely than the Liberal Party/Country Liberal Party to preselect Indigenous candidates for winnable seats and much more likely to preselect Indigenous women. However, from 2022 the Liberal/Country Liberal Party also has two Aboriginal women Senators and 9 of the 11 members of the Federal Parliament identifying as Aboriginal are women. At 4.8 per cent, Indigenous parliamentary representation now slightly exceeds the percentage of the Australian population identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in 2021 (3.2 per cent).
Labor’s election win also brought a significant increase in women from non-European backgrounds, including Western Australian Senator Fatima Payman, the first hijab-wearing Muslim in the Australian Parliament. In contrast, the incoming Independents were notably non-diverse, with the exception of Dai Le in Fowler.
The increased presence of women in the Australian Parliament makes it all the more important that they have equal opportunity to perform their roles as democratic representatives, free from sexual harassment and bullying. The implementation of the Jenkins Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces is a first step in this direction. Being able to progress the aspiration for a different style of politics is perhaps more difficult. The Westminster tradition of majoritarianism and adversarialism is deeply entrenched as are the assumptions about the normal way of doing politics.
If the 47th Parliament were to see not only the greater presence of women but a truer reflection of the policy preferences of women in the community this would indeed be a significant step forward in Australian democracy.
Marian Sawer is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Politics and International relations at The Australian National University. She is co-editor with Anika Gauja and Jill Sheppard of Watershed: The 2022 Australian Federal Election. She is also lead editor of the Edward Elgar Handbook of Feminist Governance (forthcoming 2023).
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