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The loss of Julie Bishop is more than optics

  • 27 August 2018


Following events in Canberra last week, Julie Bishop has announced she is quitting the front bench, and is expected to retire from politics at the next election. A frontrunner in the polls as preferred Liberal leader, Bishop nonetheless attracted no votes from her West Australian colleagues in the leadership ballot. She was knocked out in the first round of voting.

As many have pointed out, the optics are not good. Malcolm Turnbull's cabinet had few women and of those, Bishop was considered a standout performer. Scott Morrison's new cabinet sports five women, less than 20 per cent of cabinet ministers. Yet diversity is about far more substantive matters than optics.

While diversity encompasses a wide range of experience and attributes, I am interested here in gender diversity in government. Given that diversity among decision-makers leads to better decision-making and better governance, the question might be asked as to why Bishop is now sitting on the back bench. This begs the question also of why there are so few women in the ministry — or in Parliament, for that matter. The answer is power, and the structures that uphold it.

We take for granted that women now have the legal right to political participation. Since Indigenous Australian women achieved the right to vote in 1962, all Australian women have been enfranchised and entitled to stand for parliament. Yet women's right to stand does not translate into female MPs or cabinet ministers. Despite comprising just over 50 per cent of the population, as at 2017 women represent only 28.7 per cent of elected representatives in the federal parliament. The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks Australia 50th in the world in terms of women's representation, and notes a global stagnation in women's representation since 2015.

Historically, men — older, white, able-bodied, heterosexual men, to be precise — have held political power. Men are therefore intrinsically associated with power. To this extent, it is not the office of MP or minister that has traditionally generated authority, but the fact that the person holding that office is a man. The office simply embodies the power that resides 'naturally' in men.

We are even acculturated to the voice of authority as a man's voice. Media images are dominated by the faces of mature-looking men, and we hear their lower-register voices tell us important things. Men in authority fill our media, predominating in politics, in sport, as journalists, and as performers. These roles are