Using "merit" as an excuse for why there aren't more women in cabinets across Australian parliaments hides the way opaque selection processes actually favour political reasons for appointments, rather than skill or experience-based selections, new research shows.
In a series of interviews with 30 MPs at federal, state and territory level, including with prime ministers, premiers, and cabinet ministers across the political divide, researcher Julie Gelman has interrogated why "merit" appeared to more often be associated with men.
Since federation, Australia's Federal Parliament has had more than 500 men in cabinet, and just 24 women. The issue of female representation in the halls of power has been in the spotlight in 2021, following the allegation of rape by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins made in February.
Following that, and the allegation of an historical rape against Industry Minister Christian Porter, which he strenuously denies, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an overhaul of cabinet to include more women's voices.
Merit is in the eye of the judgement of the prime minister of the time. There is no objective test.PhD candidate Julie Gelman
In a paper to be presented at the first Equals Now Symposium to be held at the University of Canberra's 50/50 by 2030 Foundation on Wednesday and Thursday, Ms Gelman will argue "standards of merit are contingent on the socio-political preferences and cultural values of those in power".
Originally researching how Australia's decision-makers were chosen, Ms Gelman said the subject of "merit" was brought up repeatedly, and unprompted, in the interviews, which showed how "complex and subjective the concept of political merit is".
"The participants to the study describe merit - as in you sit at the table on merit - as a political concept about holding onto power, rather than a personal trait or value, experience or competency held by an individual politician," Ms Gelman will say.
"Political merit is also not just about government holding onto power, through the success of cabinet decisions, but also about the prime minister holding onto their own power through a delicately negotiated dance with the various parliamentary party factions."
The interviews form part of a PhD thesis in its final stages, and according to women interviewed by Ms Gelman, they not only must meet the criteria that men must meet - communication skills, management skills, relationship skills, loyalty to the prime minister - but also be seen as a team player "not an individual who is perceived as promoting herself - then you are seen to rub a lot of people up the wrong way".
"Merit is in the eye of the judgement of the prime minister of the time. There is no objective test," Ms Gelman will say.
In an interview with The Canberra Times, Ms Gelman said each person had a different story about merit and how it is applied to the decisions about who sits in cabinet, but the political considerations often favoured men.
Using quotas to increase the number of women in cabinet was more often brought up by people belonging to the Liberal and National parties, Ms Gelman said, mostly to refute the idea they were needed.
- The Equals Now Symposium is being held in Canberra and online on Wednesday and Thursday.
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