Numbers games: an argument for quotas

A month ago, the ALP national conference unanimously adopted a resolution that women will hold 50% of Labor parliamentary positions by 2025. The ensuing debate around equal opportunity and gender quotas was predictable, irreconcilable—and informative, insofar as it highlighted a fatal delusion we suffer about the nature of our parliamentary democracy.

Now I know its not really the done thing to comment on political events which have passed us by. One of the cruelties of our overheated media machine.

Nonetheless, I wanted to put my two cents on gender quotas for parliamentarians.

The argument most commonly mounted against quota schemes is that these schemes come at the cost of a merit-based selection of candidates. Peter Reith reiterated this line on #qanda last night.

The merit argument is powerful, on the face of it, as it juxtaposes equity against equality. Yes, we need more female representation in Parliament. But selection for office on the basis of numbers seems arbitrary—especially when targets replace merit-based criteria. So construed, fairness is endangered by political correctness.

Many of us instinctively recoil from this zero-sum equation; from the possibility of unqualified individuals being unjustly elevated over qualified ones. It is human nature to seek a fair society, and it is a particularly Australian impulse.

We are the lucky country. Our culture is characterised by egalitarianism, and we like to think of our society as a meritocracy. Through hard work, any of us can rise. And Australian society is, demonstrably, egalitarian. There are few social barriers to mobility and, if one commits to learning their field and building the right aptitude, one can generally achieve realistic goals.

Unfortunately, we make the mistake of assuming that our political system is, or even should be, as egalitarian as our society.

Our electoral system is most often a series of closed competitions between candidates of the major parties. Successful independents, though increasingly frequent, are still a rarity. So, on what basis are the majority of parliamentarians currently elected?

Firstly, the strategic calculations that party members make about a candidate’s likelihood of winning a particular seat. Secondly, by a two- or three-person popularity contest in which local, party, national and international issues play arguably a larger role than the candidate’s identity. If it is a factor at all, a candidate’s profile is reduced to a few key characteristics that resonate with the electorate.

Viewed objectively, one could be forgiven for confusing the process of election for a numbers game. True, individual merit may play a role at the beginning and at the end, but a large chunk of the process is formulaic, driven by polling and preferences, party dollars and media catechisms. The intrinsic merit of the individual becomes lost in the machinery of selection.

But let us assume for a moment that merit is the basis for our current selection of parliamentarians. Of what, then, is this merit constituted?

At the risk of being reductionist, the only prerequisites for the role of parliamentarian are: the ability to communicate effectively, to grasp rules and regulations, endure lengthy working hours and long periods away from home, and to adhere to high ethical standards. There is nothing here that a gender-based quota system would endanger.

As with all professions, politicians would have others believe that a great deal of merit is required to perform their duties. However, unlike other professions, even if they could articulate a comprehensive and defensible list of merit-based criteria, it would be in the public interest to ensure it was never, ever applied.

A formal list of merit-based criteria would act to exclude tracts of the population from representing their communities, thereby undermining representative government and thus democracy. Australia is not a meritocracy—ours is a democracy. Meritocracy is rule by the most qualified; democracy is rule by the people. In a democracy, it is the people, not the parties, which should determine whom is qualified and what their qualification should be, if any.

Parliament is a microcosm of our society. It, as a collective, is expressly constituted of our representatives. As women represent fifty precent of the population, the fact that this is not replicated in parliament speaks volumes about the distortions that can occur in a representative democracy. One such is when abstract concepts of ‘merit’ are formulated by entrenched power bases and used to justify divergences from a purely representative system.

Ironically, quotas that bring about a parliament less beholden to one demographic will be more equitable and, thus, over the longer term, more aligned to the egalitarian cultural values it should represent. To the extent that the ALP resolution redresses this imbalance, it should be applauded.

Representativeness – like freedom and honesty and other virtues –  is hard, painstaking work. It is a numerical ideal, a perfect reflection of society; the wellspring of legitimacy in a modern democracy. Insofar as we privilege vague claims of ‘merit’ over this ideal, we enshrine antidemocratic tendencies in the heart of our parliament.


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