Fran O'Sullivan: It's time for more women at the heart of democracy

We're told gender is a thing of the past - but anyone who reads the pay equity reports knows that is a false reality. Photo / NZ Herald
We're told gender is a thing of the past - but anyone who reads the pay equity reports knows that is a false reality. Photo / NZ Herald

Congratulations to Party Central for putting gender equality ahead of diversity when it comes to the ranking criteria for selecting the next crop of Labour MPs.

Quaintly, the notion that a 21st century political party might opt to use its selection process to try to make sure that as many women as men represent us in Parliament has been met with howls of derision and barely disguised outrage.

That's just on the Labour side of politics. Let's point out here that the most vocal MP opponents (Yes, I am talking about you, Shane Jones and you, Clayton Cosgrove) are only there themselves by virtue of their list rankings.

You see, not enough of those blue-collar men which these obviously middle-class male MPs now put on pedestals and consider Labour's voting base, voted for this pair in 2011 so they could win electorate seats. Maybe a spirited woman could have done the trick?

There is also a too-obvious presumption that the women who might come into Parliament after a bit of list manoeuvring will be unqualified for the role. Frankly, that is absurd. There is no reason why Labour (or any other political party - like National if it ever gets with the programme) should not seek out well-qualified female candidates and (hopefully) from a broader pool than the unionist/teacher/public servant range which has enabled Labour to become stereotyped in recent years.

Surely, such candidates can stay focused on the major issues facing New Zealand. This is hardly a zero sum game.

After years of "rainbow politics", with the strong PR emphasis on electing the first transsexual MP to Parliament and ensuring more gay MPs in the caucus, it is a relief that Labour is getting back to dealing to unfinished business - ensuring that women as a whole get a fair deal in politics.

It is de rigueur right now for groups like Global Women (disclosure here: I am a member) and business lobbies to campaign for greater diversity in the workplace.

That is a worthy cause in our multi-cultural society as our working lives - and their management and employment structures - do need to reflect our societal makeup.

But the fact is it is also much more palatable for the male elite which basically still runs New Zealand to move over a bit to make way for other players if they come in under a diversity umbrella rather than pure gender.

Anyone who spends time in the corporate world (as I do) is well aware that while advances are being made via the 25 Per Cent Group and other enlightened private and public sector leaders to ensure more qualified women are appointed to top roles in their organisations, there is also a good deal of mere lip service paid elsewhere.

Sadly, it is easier too, for women to push the door open wider if men feel that women are not simply after their jobs, but are merely trying to ensure a fairer deal for a broader representation including themselves.

We are told that gender is a thing of the past - the debate has moved on. But anyone who reads the pay equity reports knows that is a false reality.

The great thing about Labour's proposal is that it does away with all that tosh.

The stated aim is to lift the number of women in Labour's caucus to 45 per cent after next year's election, then to 50 per cent at the 2017 election.

Local electorate committees can also ask Party Central to allow them to hold selections where just women (not men) are the candidates.

The notion of an "A-list" style approach is not just confined to the left side of politics. Current British Prime Minister David Cameron applied just that approach to even up the score after a massive electoral wipeout for the Tories six or seven years ago. Cameron ultimately shied away from a formal quota but is active in trying to break glass ceilings.

Labour leader David Shearer didn't even go through the pretence. Yesterday, Shearer fell into his National opponent's trap and came out against the "man ban". What fun he could have had if he had turned National's female MP metrics against it instead of reacting to hysterical claims from the right of politics.

Irrespective, Party Central can simply do what's always been within its powers and use the list ranking procedure to achieve the targeted number of female and male MPs.

The bit that I do like about Labour's proposal is that a diversity filter is also proposed. A moderating committee would look at whether Labour's list includes ethnic groups, Maori and various ages, and, because identity politics isn't entirely dead: sexual orientation.

The crucial factor is this is not the key criteria. The key differentiator is gender - X number of women and X number of men.

The proposal still has to be voted on at Labour's November conference. But with Party Central (aka Labour's New Zealand Council) in favour it should shoot through. Another milestone maybe in a century-long fight for equal representation.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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