Women in politics: one step forward, one step back

News this week that NSW Labor will try to implement affirmative action programs through changed rules to boost the number of women in key roles is at once exhilarating and depressing.

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Exhilarating because it reveals that NSW Labor recognises it has a problem (one which exists in nearly every other party of every hue, in any state or territory). Depressing because of the way this program of reform has come about.

Former head of the NSW Bar Association Jane Needham and her colleague Renée Bianchi were engaged to report on the status of women inside the NSW division of the Labor Party. It was nota forward-looking moment tofacilitate some changes.It was a rescue mission.

Needham, who has been a barrister for more than 25 years, was brought in to write her report at precisely the same time as the Jamie Clements scandal unfolded. Clements, NSW Labor general secretary, was accused of sexual harassing staffer Stefanie Jones, who took out an apprehended violence order against him. He finally resigned from his position last week.

Clements’s grasping behaviour was in unfortunate contrast to former federal Liberal minister Jamie Briggs, who at least resigned quickly, trying to ensure his reputation was not unutterably damaged. Of course Briggs was told what to do by the Prime Minister, also in sad contrast to Bill Shorten’s tardiness. Both instances awful. Neither are rare.

Needham’s report found the culture in NSW Labor was appalling. The rules themselves were not too bad but the atmosphere and the process in which these rules are played out worked against women.

The report says: “It was a significant theme…that the rules were not so much the problem with achieving gender equality, but with the culture of the party.”

“We do not wish to identify particular grievances, but issues identified in the party include:- (a) women being given less prestigious roles than men (particularly in volunteer capacities); (b) sexualised environments being accepted (sex stories, use of crude descriptions for women, reference to women’s presumed sexual history); and (c) denigration of women on the basis of marital status or for having children.”

So, women were mocked for having for children and for not having children; about their sex lives and sexuality; about their looks. The report also found that the Clements style of behaviour was not unusual nor were stories of men speaking at work with language they might use at a buck’s night.

The NSW Labor Party is full of young women now. The acting replacement for Clements, Kaila Murnain, is just 29. Campaign organiser Rose Jackson is just 31.That’s what happens when you have a culture so hideous that older women decide to leave. Change will need to be made, beginning with Needham’s No. 1 recommendation, that the role of NSW general secretary no longer combine the powers of both a CEO and a chair. Not only will the state electorate councils and federal electorate councils be forced to meet a quota, but the consensus among the many people interviewed was that affirmative action should also apply to unions when they interact with the Labor Party, particularly delegations to its annual conference.

Stefanie Jones will never return to the Labor Party. She’s studying for a new career. Jones had to choose between running away or running at the problem.And even if she will always be considered “that girl” by the party, she acted as a catalyst for an organisation that needed a dramatic change.