Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Shearer running scared over women in the House

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National MP Jackie Blue.
National MP Jackie Blue.

Instead of a women's-only candidate list, what might be of more use to the poor old Labour Party right now is a nice comforting mummy it can hide behind when that scary National Party poodle Cameron Slater yaps.

How on earth did Labour come out the losers in a debate over gender equality and parliamentary representation? Even recently resigned National MP Jackie Blue went into bat for it, wearing her new hat as Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner. This despite Labour criticising her hiring as a job for the girls.

Dr Blue pointed out that over the past five elections there had been virtually no increase in the proportion of women MPs and told TV One's Breakfast "it's not acceptable when women make up 51 per cent of the population to be currently only about 32 per cent of MPs in Parliament. We are in a society of equality and while women are under-represented in politics, we do not have equality at all".

It was a reprise of her valedictory speech in May when she told fellow MPs, "this is unacceptable in the 21st century, we can and we must do better".

Acknowledging that the Labour Party was serious about increasing the number of women MPs, Dr Blue told TV One the challenge is for other parties to match that. Her finger was firmly pointing at her old National Party colleagues. Currently, 14 - or about 41 per cent - of Labour's 34-strong caucus are women.

The proposal that was going to the November party conference was to raise the percentage to 45 per cent after next year's election and 50 per cent in 2017.

Labour's record is much better than National's. With Dr Blue's recent departure, only 14 of its 59 MPs are women - just 24 per cent.

Yet somehow Labour has bought into the idea it's the guilty party. After refusing to discuss the issue when it first arose, leader David Shearer eventually declared his personal opposition to the proposal going to the November conference to allow some electorates to have women-only selection lists to help boost female MP numbers.

Yesterday he went even further, forcing the party hierarchy to remove the proposal from the conference agenda. He said: "The distraction is turning our attention away from the issues that most New Zealanders are concerned about."

If "equality" has become a distraction - what a strange concept - it was surely because he and his parliamentary colleagues first dithered when Mr Slater "exposed" the agenda item, then scattered in disarray. One-time leadership hopeful Shane Jones somehow managed to paint women as less than "entire" men, saying "the overwhelming response is the public doesn't want the country run by geldings".

Despite all this hysteria, the idea of all-women short lists is not new. The British Labour Party introduced them in 1997 to help achieve a parliamentary gender balance. Because of a subsequent employment tribunal finding that this breached the Sex Discrimination Act, the act was amended in 2002 to allow the practice in all British elections. The Equality Act 2010 extended the use of all-women shortlists until 2030. The British Labour Party has made considerable use of it - sometimes against the strong opposition of local party organisations.

The Conservatives have baulked at the idea, although leader David Cameron said in the run-up to the 2010 election that if more women weren't picked as Tory candidates, he would copy Labour and introduce all-woman short-lists. He was quoted as saying too many local party organisations saw choosing a potential MP as like seeking "the perfect son-in-law rather than the perfect candidate". He said leaving it to "meritocracy ... doesn't work". Since becoming Prime Minister, he's backed off the idea.

Speaking to me just before Mr Shearer canned the "man ban" debate, Labour Party general secretary Tim Barnett argued it would have been just another tool in the fight to achieve gender equality. "Our problem is we're stuck with women percentage in the caucus between the high 30s and low 40s for nearly 20 years, which implies there's something more than casual chance involved ..."

He said an all-woman list wouldn't be a major tool, but put up the example of an area like Wellington where "all our electorate MPs are men but one". If Annette King were to retire - he insists this is a hypothetical example - the electorate organisation might say "we'd like a bunch of good women to apply".

For Labour, the main tool in achieving equality has been the party list. But the risk of relying solely on this mechanism is that the list will become seen as the women's and minorities door into the Labour caucus. It's an interesting debate. The sort of discussion you'd expect to take place at a political party conference. Instead, Mr Shearer has been spooked by noises and banned it.

At Labour's annual conference last November, former Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Judy McGregor noted the party's "slippage" in female political representation, and challenged it to make "a formal commitment to 50 per cent women's representation in party selection processes - both list and constituency".

Mr Shearer has rejected the party organisation's plan to meet this challenge. We're waiting for his alternative.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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