When it comes to women as leaders, we’ve all heard the statistic that in Australia’s top 200 companies there are more CEOs named Andrew than there are female CEOs. The story regarding political leadership in Australia is similar: there have been more Prime Ministers named John than female Prime Ministers. If you expand that to leaders of the major political parties, the name Andrew comes back into play.

Andrew Fisher, 5th Prime Minister of Australia,

The most recent leadership spill in the Liberal ranks offered an opportunity for Australia to welcome the first female leader of that party. We know that the course of history did not shift in this direction, and hence Labor still has the Liberals beat in terms of federal leaders: 1-0.

But Labor is by no means a front-runner when it comes to female leadership at this level. The Democrats (of ‘keep the bastards honest’ fame) had a majority of female leaders while they were active in federal parliament. Of the 11 leaders of the Democrats, 6 were women. The Greens have had two males and one female at the head of the party since their decision to have an official leader back in 2005.

The record of women representatives in these two minor parties offers insights into the influence of historical bias on women’s ability to rise to leadership positions. This post aims to give coverage to the Democrats and the Greens and their track record on women, with an additional focus on how they have helped shape the political landscape.

So, what exactly have these minor parties done for Australia?

They’ve given their members considerable freedom

Although their share of total seats is considerably less than the major parties, minor parties have an established place in Australian politics. As younger parties, they are free from the traditional bias towards men that shaped the major parties, demonstrating that male dominance in parliament is not an inevitable occurrence. Rather, it is a historical hangover that Australia has yet to shake off.  

There have also been prominent women in the recent rise of personality politics. We’ve seen something of a cult following around Jacqui Lambie, who will likely run a strong campaign to return to Parliament in the coming weeks. Pauline Hanson has helmed various versions of One Nation over the years and it is difficult to envision the party continuing without her.

Jacqui Lambie in Parliament, Gary Ramage – The Daily Telegraph online

Ann Curthoys and Carol Johnson have indicated that the absence of a traditional power structure in smaller parties allows women to more easily rise to positions of leadership. It also provides more freedom for members (both women and men) of these parties, enabling them to pursue issues that might not fit the mainstream zeitgeist of Australian politics.

(Some of them) have given more women a go

Both the Greens and the Democrats ran more women candidates than men candidates in the 2004 federal election. For the Senate, the Democrats ran 14 female candidates out of a total of 22 (63.6%) while the Greens ran 17 female candidates out of 30 (56.6%).

In contrast, the Labor Party ran 11 female candidates out of 25 (44%) and the Liberal Party ran 7 female candidates out of 26 (26.9%). The 2016 election Senate nominations again saw a minor party field the most candidates: Greens candidates were 69% women, Labor candidates 55% and Liberal candidates 33%.

They’ve reshaped the political landscape

Before they lost all parliamentary representation at the 2007 federal election, Anika Gauja pointed out that the Democrats had considerable electoral success: on average they won 6% of the vote in the House of Representatives and 8.4% in the Senate between 1977 and 2004. They demonstrated the Senate’s ability to act as a ‘house of review’ and held the balance of power in the Senate from 1981 to 2005 – either alone or with other minor parties and independents.

In more recent years the Greens have emulated the success of the Democrats in holding the balance of power. They held it jointly with other parties and independents after the 2007 election and solely after the 2010 election. After the 2013 election the Greens experienced a reduction in popularity by 3.11% but gained back a swing of 1.6% in the 2016 election.

The rise and decline of the Democrats and struggle for the Greens to hold a sizeable portion of votes demonstrates that Australia’s two-party system can make it difficult for a minor party to keep a sustained presence in parliament. This could ultimately be detrimental to women’s numerical representation due to their higher numbers in the minor parties discussed here. Both these parties assisted with increasing the numerical presence of women in parliament.

Election leaflet from the 2013 election – http://www.electionleaflets.org.au/leaflets/1173/

What else might the minor parties give us?

While the Labor Party has been steadily increasing their number of women representatives over the years, there is speculation that the Liberal Party is unlikely to significantly increase its number of women representatives at the next election.

Women could numerically grow as part of the documented increase in the share of the overall vote going to parties other than the major ones since 2007. This is a trend to keep an eye on for the 2019 election as it is likely that the increase in the vote for minor parties and independents in 2013 and 2016 will be repeated. This will bring in a menagerie of different players and associated issues, and may go some way to assist with rectifying the current gender imbalance.