Who'da thunk proposing that women should get representation equal to their share of the population would be such a controversial notion?
OK - I've got myself all het up about this issue of Labour (maybe, possibly) changing its selection rules to require that 50% of its MPs be female (by 2017) and also to allow individual electorates to request permission from the party to have "all-women short lists" for constituency candidates. I should point out that it isn't really my fight at all - I'm not a Labour Party member, and I have no desire to represent that party (or any other) at any stage of my life. But the response to the proposal has got under my skin for a bunch of different reasons. And so this post is an attempt to itch the scratch until it bleeds.
My first thought is that the coverage of this issue is pretty revealing of the crappy state of political journalism in NZ. The media have essentially taken the narrative spin of a couple of explicitly pro-National blogsites (complete with the manufactured slogan of "man ban") and replicated it verbatim - after searching out a few disaffected Labour-connected voices to underpin it. There's been no attempt to set the issue in context (I've yet to see any discussion about the general issue of the ongoing, static under-representation of women in NZ's Parliament), no attempt to look at overseas precedent (it took me 2 minutes on google to discover that "all-women short lists" are par for the course in the UK) and no attempt to compare Labour's gender-representation record with that of anyone else.
So, sure the measure is likely to cause a measure of internal friction within Labour, and I accept that friction in a party is "news". And Labour probably should have been more on the ball in terms of how it was going to "message" this issue. After all, the basic premise of the argument isn't that hard to defend - women make up more than 50% of the population, and so a party (much less a Parliament) that systemically and repeatedly fails to reflect this fact is unfairly shutting out the views, experiences and needs of the majority of the population. So let's set up a system that gives everyone who wants to represent Labour - be they male or female - a fair go, in that they can be sure the selection processes for the party as a whole does not result in people getting a better chance to be an MPs because they have penises.
But still, the eagerness with which the media has lept on what is, after all, a fairly innocuous internal selection rule change (going from 40-odd per cent women to 50 per cent over two election cycles) and allowed itself to be manipulated into presenting it as part of a partisan discourse ("Labour is ruled by the sisterhood!", "Labour hates men!", "Labour is obsessed with PC nonsense!" etc, etc) is pretty shameful. In fact, it makes you wonder if there is any point to it beyond putting what bloggers think onto newsprint and more-heavily trafficked web pages.
My second thought is that DPF has changed his tune on the issue somewhat since I pointed out that the UK Conservative Party is going to do the exact same thing that the NZ Labour Party is proposing to do: adopt all-women shortlists for choosing constituency candidates. (Actually, the UK Conservative Party approach is even more draconian, in that its central office will force all-women shortlists on to a set number of individual constituencies that it thinks are winnable, whereas the NZ Labour proposal simply allows local LECs to request such short-lists.)
Also the UK has FPP. MMP allows a party to have a more diverse caucus. But quotas are a sign of no confidence in the party’s ability to balance up the complex mix of skills, geography and diversity. It is saying we want you to make sure half the caucus are women, regardless of the fact that the last woman in may be massively less competent than the man who misses out.
So, apparently the UK's FPP system means it is absolutely fine for David Cameron to force Conservative Party voters in some parts of the country to vote for a woman in order to ensure some set proportion of the MPs representing that party are female ... but here in NZ there's no need to do so because the party lists allow for achieving that end goal. But if you set a rule that this party list be used to bring about some specified mix of gender representation, then that's not OK. Because gender balance in the abstract is desirable and something that parties should try to achieve when putting their candidate lists together, but once you actually set about trying to bring it about in practice then that is wrong. Or something.
(Incidentally, if quotas "are a sign of no confidence in the party’s ability to balance up the complex mix of skills, geography and diversity", then what does the fact that the National Party's list selection process has produced an outcome in which there are 3 male MPs for every female (44-15) tell us? Does it indicate that competent and high quality women simply don't want a place in that party? Or does it indicate that that party doesn't value competent and high quality women? Or does it indicate that while there are competent and high quality women wanting to be selected, and the party values them, it simply can't sort its shit out so as to get them into electable positions? Because for all his spluttering about Labour's "crazy" selection policies, DPF is remarkably quiet about how his own party does things ... and the observable consequences thereof.)
Well, DPF is doing as DPF does and spinning whatever new line will work to deflect, dissemble and destroy, but his last comment raises a point that has been made by a lot of commentators (including on this site). Quotas will result in less-competent and lower-quality female candidates having to be picked ahead of better qualified men. Or, to put it like one of the commentators on my post yesterday did:
I couldn't care less if our MP's are male, female, somewhere in between, brown, black, white, yellow, green. Heck I don't care if they come from Mars. I want the best people in there doing the best job.
I've two responses to that.
First of all, the selection processes a party adopts in part determines the sort of candidates that come forward. So if women can be assured that they have an equal chance of being selected as a candidate (and, just as importantly, a candidate who is in a winnable seat or list position), then that creates an incentive for the sort of "competent", "qualified" or "high calibre" individuals that we might want to represent us to come forward. Whereas, if you think there's a better than even chance that any effort you put into getting selected will be wasted (because 60% of the MPs in your party are from the other gender), then you won't.
My second response is derived from my reply in that previous post's comment thread to one Pete George (who sees fit to lecture the Labour Party on what a party's candidate selection processes ought to look like, despite himself being a candidate for a party that had one woman in its top 10 list candidates, and only 2 on the entire list of 15).
The metrics of "competence" or "quality" as currently applied by political parties when selecting their candidates somehow, mysteriously, magically result in a disproportionate number of male candidates getting chosen (and subsequently elected) to Parliament. And this has happened time-and-time again. Here's the breakdown of female-to-male MPs since MMP elections commenced in 1996:
- 1996: 35-85
- 1999: 37-83
- 2002: 35-85
- 2005: 40-81
- 2008: 41-81
- 2011: 40-81
Note that the numbers of women in Parliament have not shifted since 2005, and barely have risen since 1996.
Furthermore, gender imbalance happens even in parties that are strongly committed to gender equality. As Tim Watkin argued in that previous comment thread, Labour could be expected to have done as much as any party to expunge gender-biases from its selection procedures. Yet even it can't get above 40% of its MPs being female.
Finally, this gender imbalance seems impervious to any suggested solution of "finding more better qualified women to stand". Every political party tries (and has tried) to do, to little discernable effect. So saying that parties just need to "try harder" or "make more of an effort" is like telling a colour blind man to be more determined when it comes to distinguishing red from green. There's something else going on that means the best efforts of parties (while desirable and praiseworthy) just aren't going to be enough to produce the desired outcome.
So given that basic fact, there are only two available explanations for the persistent, ongoing gender gap in representation:
- Women are less competent or of lower quality than men, full stop; or,
- The apparently clear and unbiased metrics of competence or quality are not, in fact, neutral when applied by parties in candidate selections. Meaning that the sorts of things that get recognised as making a "good" candidate are things that men (on the whole, in the main) are more likely to display than women. Meaning that the people who get elected to Parliament disproportionately display qualities that, in fact, don't represent more than half of the country's population.
Therefore, if (2) is the preferred explanation (because I assume no-one is going to go with (1), at least not in the open), then there are three choices.
(1) Shrug, and say "whatevs". Life ain't fair, and if women can't get into Parliament to represent the people, at least they can be nurses.
(2) Say "gosh - we must try even harder to recognise our unconcious biases and make sure that our ideas of 'competence' and 'quality' really are blind to gender." Which is, of course, a form of "discrimination", in that we are going to "skew" the selection criteria from what it was (i.e. favourable to male candidates) to something new (i.e. equally favourable to female candidates) in order to produce a desired outcome. But also note how hard this is to accomplish - as Tim Watkin has pointed out, Labour has tried its damndest to create selection processes that treat men and women the same ... yet the representation gap continues.
(3) Say "well, despite our best efforts, we just can't come up with a selection process that treats individual women equally to individual men. So we'll tie our own hands by forcing ourselves to do so, through mandating that the MPs who represent our party actually reflect the population of the country as a whole." To which the response no doubt will be "but those mandated candidates will be of lower competence and quality" ... at which point the whole circle begins again.
So ... there we go. I feel a bit better now. Thanks.