Comment

COMMENT

Women in politics: one step forward, one step back

Perhaps we need a Women's Equality Party.

Perhaps women need to forget about organisations which are "trying to bring about reform" because reform is impossible to achieve; and because those who have the capacity to bring about change also have the most to lose.

News this week that NSW Labor will try to implement affirmative action programs through changed rules to boost the number of women in key roles is at once exhilarating and depressing.

Exhilarating because it reveals that NSW Labor recognises it has a problem (one which exists in nearly every other party of every hue, in any state or territory). Depressing because of the way this program of reform has come about.

Former head of the NSW Bar Association Jane Needham and her colleague Renée Bianchi were engaged to report on the status of women inside the NSW division of the Labor Party. It was not, as you might have hoped, a forward-looking moment where some organisationally intelligent senior member took a long look at what was going on and thought an inquiry might help facilitate some changes.

Instead it was a rescue mission.

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Needham, who has been a barrister for more than 25 years, was brought in to write her report at precisely the same time as the Jamie Clements scandal unfolded. Clements, NSW Labor general secretary, was accused of sexual harassing staffer Stefanie Jones, who took out an apprehended violence order against him. He finally resigned from his position last week.

Clements's grasping behaviour was in unfortunate contrast to former federal Liberal minister Jamie Briggs, who at least resigned quickly, trying to ensure his reputation was not unutterably damaged (although not before someone managed to leak photos of his victim and try to damage her reputation). Of course Briggs was told what to do by the Prime Minister, also in sad contrast to Bill Shorten's tardiness. Both instances awful. Neither instance rare. Two women who stood up – more power to them.

Needham's report found the culture in NSW Labor was appalling. The rules themselves were not too bad but the atmosphere and the process in which these rules are played out worked against women.

The report says: "It was a significant theme of our conferences that the rules were not so much the problem with achieving gender equality, but with the culture of the party."

Women at all levels of the state branch were interviewed and the response was pretty much the same from all of them: scathing.

The report said: "There was a tendency to see women as either biddable, or as troublemakers. Women who want leadership roles or preselection or similar are not fostered or celebrated. There was a tendency to give women a chance when everything else had gone wrong (Gillard, Keneally, etc).

"We do not wish to identify particular grievances, but issues identified in the party include:- (a) women being given less prestigious roles than men (particularly in volunteer capacities); (b) sexualised environments being accepted (sex stories, use of crude descriptions for women, reference to women's presumed sexual history); and (c) denigration of women on the basis of marital status or for having children."

So, women were mocked for having for children and for not having children; about their sex lives and sexuality; about their looks. Sadly, the report also found that the Clements style of behaviour was not unusual nor were stories of men speaking at work with the same kind of language they might use at a buck's night.

NSFWW. Not safe for work. And definitely not safe for women at work.

The NSW Labor Party is full of young women now. The acting replacement for Clements, Kaila Murnain, is just 29. Campaign organiser Rose Jackson is just 31. Tara Moriarty is in her thirties.

That's what happens when you have a culture so hideous that older women decide to leave (according to one staffer, women get sick of "banging their heads against the men"). These experienced women figure they have more opportunity to shift the culture in other organisations and companies, where there might be more of a chance to make change. And change will need to be made, beginning with Needham's No. 1 recommendation, that the role of NSW general secretary no longer combine the powers of both a CEO and a chair. Not only will the state electorate councils and federal electorate councils be forced to meet a quota, but the consensus among the many people interviewed was that affirmative action should also apply to unions when they interact with the Labor Party, particularly delegations to its annual conference.

And the women at NSW Labor say that just like other institutions, the organisation has internalised sexism. But one says: "It's not worse than the big law firms. It's not worse than the Liberal Party." And it's true that the Liberal Party is way behind Labor – just half – when it comes to elected representatives.

The excessive pragmatism hurts too many along the way. Stefanie Jones will never return to the Labor Party. She's at home studying for a new career. Jones had to choose between running away or running at the problem.

And even if she will always be considered "that girl" by the party, the truth is that she acted as a catalyst for an organisation that needed a dramatic change. Let's hope that no young Liberal woman is forced to go through the same.

Twitter @jennaprice or email jennapricejournalist@gmail.com.

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