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  Issue No 87 Official Organ of LaborNet 10 March 2001  




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The Future is Female

Julia Gillard outlines the campaign to increase female representation within the Australian Labor Party.



The Australian Labor Party both reflects Australia's mainstream culture and has a culture of its own. The Labor Party's roots are in unionism and militant industrial struggle. While many women were heroes in these struggles, the culture born was one of male bonds, male mateship, male leadership and male aggression.

For much of this century this culture fitted neatly in an Australia where the cultural stereotype, if not always the reality, was of a male breadwinner bringing wages home to a non-incoming-earning wife whose world was centred on home-making and childrearing. Today's Australia no longer resembles this 1950s imagery. Neither does today's Labor Party.

In this chapter, the position of women in today's Labor Party will be examined by analysing the Party's decision-making structures, both formal and informal, and the effect of the affirmative action rule and women's organisations within the Labor Party. Finally, a strategy for pursuing further change for women will be outlined.

State Branches And Union Delegates: Formal Structures Of Power

Part of the difficulty with analysing the Labor Party's structure is that, like Australia generally, in many ways the Party remains a federation of state-based organisations with their own idiosyncrasies. Each of the state-based structures is founded on an amalgam of individual membership and trade union affiliation. In general terms, individuals can join the Labor Party and attend a locality-based branch, with individual membership giving a right to vote for the delegates who will form the peak decision-making body of the Party in that state. Trade unions affiliated to the Party for a claimed membership number and are allocated delegates to the peak decision-making body in proportion with that membership number. The number of delegates to the peak decision-making body is divided between affiliated trade unions and those elected by individual memberships in an agreed ratio, which is either 50 per cent each or 60 per cent for trade unions and 40 per cent for delegates elected by individual members.

This kind of culture clearly has it shortcomings. Obviously, locality-based membership branches are a hangover from an era when working hours facilitated men, in particular, gathering at evening meetings that were within walking distance. The limited forms of mass communications meant such meetings played a valuable role both in informing those who attended about current political issues and in performing 'on the ground' campaigning activities. While a number of local branches are vibrant and clearly meet a need for the members who participate in them, the reality is mot Party members do not regularly attend their local branch. Many branches are held together by a dedicated, but small, group of Party members in the older age bracket.

The Labor Party is now alone in struggling to maintain a vibrant membership base and updating its structures to meet the needs of the modern world. Many civic organisations, which rely on volunteerism, are finding it increasingly difficult to renew their membership base as we confront a time-pressured world with much of the population only just keeping their heads together as they struggle with work and family obligations.

The difficulties of maintaining volunteer involvement are compounded for political parties, such as the Labor Party, by the way in which modern politics is conducted. In this era of mass communications, increasingly political leaders conduct their dialogue with the electorate directly through free media and, at election times, through paid advertising. The message delivered by political leaders is shaped by the work done by a full-time and professional political class of advisers, strategists, pollsters, spin doctors and the like. As the day-to-day pursuit of politics shifts increasingly into central hands, it is difficult to offer individual members much more than a role in fundraising, handing out how-to-vote cards and other campaign-orientated tasks.

While each state branch and the Labor Party nationally maintain a policy-generation structure in which individual members can participate, the historic tension as to who really controls policy questions, the party or its parliamentarians, remains.

There has been a general debate in the Labor Party in recent years about how to renew its membership base. Both John Pandazopoulos, the new Minister for Major Projects, Tourism and Gaming in Victoria, and Jim Claven, the author of The Centre is Mine, have written persuasively about the need to move to a mass-based membership model like that used by British Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair. Within Britain, individual members have been empowered within the party's decision-making structure through the use of plebiscites, and highly professional 'marketing' strategies have been used to sell membership. Such strategies have included highly discounted memberships, youth recruitment drives, the mass distribution of slick recruitment material, the use of targeted direct mail and telephone canvassing, and high-profile recruitment events such as 'Red Rose Week'. These strategies are credited with doubling British Labour's membership in a five-year period.

Within the Labor Party in Australia, this debate has yet to result in concrete changes. The to the extent that membership rules have been altered, the tendency has been to tighten the criteria for being eligible to vote in preselection contests as a result of increasing concern about 'branch-stacking' and membership manipulation.

There is no evidence to suggest that the continuing problems with giving individual members a real say and a real role discourages women more than men. However, given that for women the struggle to balance work and family life is particularly intense, it is not surprising that a locality-based branch structure, generally based on evening meetings at which childcare is not provided, tends to attract fewer women participants than male participants.

Alternatives to locality-based branches, such as work-based branches, issues groups, women's branches and the like, have been suggested but not warmly embraced. Just as the debate about increasing membership has become hostage to concerns about membership manipulation, so has the debate about branch structures, with fears expressed that those seeking to manipulate membership will misuse more flexible branch structures.

As the Party has debated issues about the rights of individual membership, recruitment strategies and different branch structures, it has also debated the question of the appropriate degree of trade union influence on the Party. Some in this debate have suggested that as trade union membership numbers have declined, so should the percentage of votes guaranteed to trade union affiliates. Others put the view that, given the history of the Labor Party and the connection that still exists between unions and large numbers of workers, the Party would downgrade trade union influence at its peril. It is also suggested that, given it is virtually unheard-of for trade unions to vote as a block, such a change would be no more than symbolic and have no substantial effect on outcomes.

When analysing this debate it would be simplistic in the extreme to characterise trade union influence in the Party as simply equating to male influence. In recent times, trade unions have systematically developed affirmative action programs in order to better reflect and serve the constituency of working women. However, some historic organisational biases do exist. For example, teachers' unions, nurses' unions and the unions representing direct public sector workers have not traditionally been affiliated to the Labor Party. These are also unions with high female membership and leadership. The failure to affiliates is explained, in part, by the professional association backgrounds of these unions and, in part, by the political difficulties of developing an organisational link to the political party that may become the government and the employer. However, the non-affiliation of these unions does mean that many of the key unions affiliated to the Party have a larger male than female membership constituency and a larger number of male and female officials.

Consequently, while the Labor Party's formal structures are not directly discriminatory, there are factors that mean those structures facilitate male involvement more than female involvement.

At The Right Pub At The Right Time: Informal Structures Of Influence

Clearly, every organisation has an informal structure that shadows and enlivens the formal structure. In the Labor Party the factional structure is a large part of this informal structure but it is not the whole story.

As noted above, the nature of modern politics has given rise to increasing amounts of influence being placed in the hands of the professional class. Given the increasing importance of this political class, it is important to note that, at its most senior level, it is almost exclusively male. Currently, the chiefs of staff to our federal and state Labor leaders are all male�with the exception of Premier Bob Carr in New South Wales. The Labor Party's National Secretary and each State Secretary are male except for the State Secretary in the ACT.

In part this can be explained by the family-unfriendly nature of the jobs, which have historically required long hours and constant travel. The 'work till you drop' ethos which pervades this political class means there has been no real attempt to facilitate part-time work or working patterns which recognise family needs. In addition, these jobs tend to become a lifestyle in which being at the right pub or the right dinner at the right time can be as important as performing professional duties during the day. The ability of those with young families, and women in particular, to get in and stay in the networks is therefore limited.

It is time that these practical and cultural matters were addressed and that the apparent barriers to women in filling these positions are systematically analysed and overcome. Unless this is done, we risk severely limiting the sources of advice and talent to Labor governments and leaders�by losing women's perspectives and skills.

Turning to the factional structure, which is so key to understanding the functioning of the Labor Party, we find a state of flux. The ideological divide which first defined the Left/Right split, namely attitudes towards communism and the former Soviet Union, has given way. In many ways the factions are now far more personality-based groupings with differences in style rather than substance.

This is not to say that the Labor Party lacks participation from a broad ideological spectrum. The Party continues to incorporate participants from a conservative Catholic background right through to those who still hold misty dreams of revolutionary rather than evolutionary change. In searching to define the current division between the Right and the Left, it can be said, in the broadest of terms, that the Right has a more free-market economic perspective and a more conservative social perspective than the Left. Like all good generalisations, there are many exceptions to the rule. For many within the Party whose views were not tightly formulated before taking up membership, whether they join the Right or the Left is increasingly a decision based on personal connections, friendships and happenstance. Indeed, the breakdown in the clear ideological divide between Right and Left has meant that in a number of states there has been increasing factional fluidity, with a break-down of Right and/or Left groupings into smaller subgroups.

Where does all this leave women? Historically, the leadership of factions has been exclusively male, with the greatest displays of male political aggression saved for inter-factional negotiations and intra-factional dissent-crushing. Only recently have we seen the emergence of female factional leaders. Clearly, these leaders, like the male leaders, do not have complete freedom of action and generally such female leaders are working within a paradigm largely defined by male trade union leaders, given the importance of trade unions to factional politics. However, some changes in style and substance are discernible, and it would be a mistake to under-estimate the importance of this development.

There remains a debate about the desirability of the Labor Party having any form of factional structure. However, whatever one's position on this debate, it seems inevitable that factions will continue to exist within the Labor Party and within political parties generally. Consequently, women's involvement in factional structures at the senior level is desirable if we want to ensure that factions within the Party and the Party generally are fully open to women's participation and women's perspectives.

Affirmative Action�Has It Worked?

This review of the formal and informal structures of the Labor Party points to a number of factors militating against women's full involvement. Yet women have been making progress in getting the positions prized most by political parties, namely parliamentary positions. This progress stems from the cultural shift within the Labor Party signified by the passage of the affirmative action rule through National Conference in 1994.

Affirmative action for multi-member internal party committees has been a feature of the Party's internal structure since 1981. While successful at generating increased female involvement in Party committees, the guarantee of at least on-third membership of internal Party committees did not, in and of itself, solve the problem of getting more women into Parliament.

With Labor state governments providing Australia's first two female premiers, Joan Kirner in Victoria and Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia, it was easy for a period in the 1980s to think that women were making steady inroads into the parliamentary sphere and that this trend would continue.

In Victoria, in particular, the shattering defeat of 1992 exploded that illusion. The truth was women had made inroads but had tended to be clustered in marginal seats. As a result, when Labor hit its bedrock vote, few women were left. The 1992 election defeat halved the number of women in Victoria's Labor Caucus. Federally, a similar crunch point was hit after the 1996 election, with the number of Labor women in the House of Representatives cut by more than half to a mere four parliamentarians.

As a result of the 1992 defeat, Victorian women and in particular Joan Kirner organised an extensive campaign for an affirmative action rule that would guarantee women a specified percentage of winnable seats. The campaign was characterised by cross-factional women's support and, in breach of all the assumed rules of Labor Party decision-making, was adopted despite the vitriolic opposition of some of the most senior male factional players. Interestingly, this factional opposition came not from trade union leaders, who had come to terms with the operation of affirmative action rules within their own environment, but from male parliamentarians and men aspiring to be parliamentarians who worried about the personal cost they could bear as a result of such a rule change.

Following the adoption of the affirmative action rule change by Victoria, which applied to pre-selections for Victorian State Parliament and Federal Parliament, the 1994 National Conference of the Party agreed to adopt a similar set of affirmative action rules. The rule adopted nationally, which formed a template for state branches, deals with federal parliamentary seats and guarantees that by 2002 women will hold a minimum of 35 per cent of seats held by Labor when the party is in government, and the same minimum percentage of seats required to win government when Labor is in Opposition.

All state branches have modified their rules in accordance with this template and applied a comparable scheme for pre-selections for State Parliament.

The adoption of the affirmative action rule has proven that�despite factors like greater male membership than female membership, a preponderance of male union officials in affiliated unions, generally male factional leadership and far greater numbers of men in our various parliaments than women�the Labor Party's culture can incorporate and cater for strategies to facilitate gender equality.

The difference made by the affirmative action rule can clearly be seen from Tables 3, 4 and 5, which detail the number of Labor Women who have been elected into the Federal Parliament from the states of New South Wales and Victoria since 1980. Victoria and New South Wales have been selected for the purposes of this comparison because of their different pre-selection systems. Victoria has a system in which local party members have half the say in pre-selecting their House of Representatives candidate. New South Wales has a system in which local party members have 100 per cent of the say in pre-selecting their House of Representatives candidate. In both Victoria and New South Wales, Senate candidates are selected centrally.

It has been argued by some that a rank and file pre-selection system, like the New South Wales system, is more likely to facilitate women being pre-selected than a system like Victoria's with a central component. However, these statistics do not bear out this theory, and in both pre-selection systems the statistically significant jump came in the last round of pre-selections, which were effected by the affirmative action rule.

Women's Organisations Within The Labor Party

Women within the Labor Party have organised through women's organisations for a considerable period, and the ALP National Women's Conference continues to meet periodically.

Currently, within the party, the officially sanctioned women's organisation is the Labor Women's Network. Working outside the party, but with the aim of supporting Labor women candidates, is EMILY's List.

In part, the Labor Women's Network was established as a reaction by Labor's Right to the development of EMILY's List, which was seen to be more aligned with Labor's Left. Notwithstanding these antecedents, both organisations embrace women from all factions and in some states work in close co-operation.

Historically, women within the Labor Party, and the feminist movement generally, have debated whether a women's agenda is best advanced by women organising outside or battling through the mainstream structures. There seems no doubt that, in practice, this debate has been resolved within the Party with women opting to battle through the mainstream structures, while using women-only structures for networking, training, personal and financial support.

However, given the time pressures on women involved in the Labor Party generally, the various women's structures have suffered from lack of attention and on-going effort. There is no doubt that the level of activity is sporadic and the organisations are reliant on the work of too few. There is also an issue about the relevance of some of the activities, given the increasing level of integration into the Party's mainstream activities.

As women continue to focus on making inroads in obtaining parliamentary positions and power within the factional structures, there is a need to review and re-invent the role that can be best played by women-only structures within the Labor Party.

The Future Agenda: Suggestions For Reform

In 2001, as Australia celebrates the centenary of the Australian Parliament and effective nationhood, the Labor Party will celebrate its centenary as a federal political party.

In the lead-up to these celebrations there will be a focus on Labor's past. The task for Labor women is to ensure that this examination of Labor's past is not merely an exercise in nostalgia, but that there is a clear-eyed review of the way in which women have been marginalized in the past and a clear resolve to take further steps towards reaching true gender equality in the future.

The campaign for the affirmative action rule change proved the effectiveness and benefits of women working cross-factionally towards an agreed goal. This successful model should be pursued and efforts made to secure cross-factional agreement for women on an agenda of change for the first five years of the new century. Possible elements of that agreed agenda for change could be the following.

Strengthening affirmative action

Pressure must continue to be applied to ensure the delivery of affirmative action in accordance with the current rule. In addition, a review of the rule should be undertaken in 2002 to see if further strengthening is required. Possible areas for improvement could include an increase in the affirmative action target to 40 per cent for both parliamentary positions and internal party positions, and the application of affirmative action principles to the selection of the ministry/shadow ministry, committee positions and the like. It could also include the application of affirmative action to ministerial/shadow ministerial offices with a view to encouraging the greater integration of women into the professional political employee class. One would hope that over time the inclusion of women would be so much the norm that such rules would no longer be required. However, it does seem likely that such rules will be useful in the next five- to ten-year period.

Nuturing a policy debate on the needs of Australian women

Currently, a women's agenda on policy is in part integrated into the policy-making structures and in part separated into committees like the National Status of Women's Committee. While this structure will probably continue, there is merit in ensuring that Labor women sponsor policy debates in order to embrace a wider feminist constituency generally and to create forums where women's views can be heard. From the mainstream media one could easily get the impression that new policy ideas in the Labor Party are confined to a couple of male federal parliamentarians. The reality is somewhat different but women seem to have been less aggressive marketers of policy positions. The sponsoring of periodic policy dialogues, where a Labor woman is equally likely to be heard on defence policy as childcare, would enable women to present policy positions in a more supportive environment with a view to strengthening their ability to pursue those policy issues within the formal party framework.

Pursuing structural change

The debate in the Labor Party about mass membership models and trade union affiliation levels will continue. There is not going to be a generally agreed women's position on this debate. However, agreement could be pursued about what criteria any proposed model would need to meet in order to be considered as family friendly and sufficiently inclusive of women's involvement. For example, questions could be asked as to whether a proposed model offers a forum that can be readily accessed by women at home caring for small children, or whether the proposed model's recruitment strategy is likely to deliver recruitment information to women. Clearly, these suggestions are some of a number that could be incorporated with a clear plan for change. However, to be successful the plan would have to be focused and cross-factionally agreed upon amongst the majority of women, in the way the affirmative action rule plan was agreed.


Women in the Labor Party have made enormous gains in recent years, and Australian women generally can increasingly expect the face of Labor to be female. However, more must be done if we are to have a Labor Party that cherishes its past but faces its future with an organisational structure and culture truly inclusive of women as equals. Labor women, strengthened by their successes, are now ready and able to move on to create that future for Labor.

Extracted from Party Girls


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In this issue
*  Interview: Working Woman
Cheryl Kernot on women in the workplace, Labor's male culture and where Meg went wrong.
*  Activists: Honouring Our Heroes
Anna Stewart changed the lives of Australian working families by helping women achieve balance between the competing demands of work and family.
*  Women: The Future is Female
Julia Gillard outlines the campaign to increase female representation within the Australian Labor Party.
*  Unions: Sweatshops � Beyond 2001
FairWear convenor Debbie Carstens looks over a unique partnership between churches and unions to end exploitation in the textile industry.
*  Politics: The Battle for Bennelong
Many trade unionists are working to kick John Howard out of office. But only one woman has a chance of kicking him out of his own seat. Meet Nicole Campbell.
*  International: Border Skirmishes
Alana Kerr travelled to Thailand to observe first hand the battle to organise Burmese women workers in exile.
*  History: Inside the Ladies Lounge
The McDonald sisters run Trades Hall, and have for over half a century. The building can�t speak about what has gone on in that time, but Lorna and Elaine probably know it all.
*  Satire: Taliban to Put One Nation Last
The Parliamentary fate of Pauline Hanson�s One Nation party was further obscured today as key fellow right-wing extremists moved to distance themselves from the controversial Queensland politician and the group she founded and leads.
*  Review: Seven Steps to Slavation
Jenny Macklin details the seven barriers that stand between women and a better working life.

»  Sweat Stains the Great Aussie Cossie
»  Chinks Emerge in Carr�s Call Centre Stonewall
»  Telstra Called on Part-Time Work
»  ACTU Pushes for Reasonable Hours
»  Ruddock Faces Legal Action Over Working Visas
»  National Textiles Revisited: More Workers Dumped
»  New on the Menu: Home Delivery AWAs
»  Pay Equity Case Up And Running
»  Child Care OH&S 'a Time Bomb'
»  New Precedent for Workers with Print Disabilities
»  Australian Shippers Promote Slavery
»  Ambos Tried Without a Jury
»  Unions Cautious Over New Insurance Deal
»  Fears Over Future of Unfair Contracts
»  APESMA Launches Professional Women�s Network Directory
»  Women�s Gateway Launched
»  EMILY's List Raises Flag for Women Candidates
»  Web Pioneer Goes Global
»  Public Education Day on March 15
»  Activists Notebook

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Viva La Shane!
»  Still the Same
»  Sydney Council Tip of Iceberg
»  New Battle Grounds
»  Patricks Footnote
»  The Ripple Effect

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