Time to update the electorate guidelines
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Time to update the electorate guidelines

The decision to name the third Commonwealth Parliament electorate in Canberra after a white Australian male calls for a major rethinking of the way electorates are named. The choice of ‘Bean’ over ‘Cullen’ is a timely reminder, as indeed other events in parliament have been over the last week, that we must pay more attention to the equal representation of women in Australian public life.

Ngingali Cullen, a prominent Aboriginal activist who was co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee.

Ngingali Cullen, a prominent Aboriginal activist who was co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee.

Canberra’s newly formed electoral division recognizes Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean (1879-1968), correspondent to the Australian Imperial Force during World War I, official war historian and prominent advocate for the establishment of the Australian War Memorial. There are 150 existing federal divisions, with just 15 named after women in their own right, with a further five divisions recognizing women as members of a family or couple, like Lyons and Hasluck. By contrast, 92 divisions are named after men, including three named after Indigenous men, with the remainder being geographic places.

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The guidelines for naming federal divisions were developed by the Australian Electoral Commission from recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in 1995, and include criteria for naming electorates after deceased Australians who have rendered outstanding service to their country. The guidelines also recommend that Aboriginal names should be used where appropriate.

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The Electoral Commission’s Redistribution Committee developed a shortlist of three names for the new electorate but ultimately proposed Bean, generating a substantial number of submissions, both in favour of and against the name. An inquiry to consider objections to the proposed redistribution was held on June 4 and many argued that it would be more appropriate to recognise an Indigenous person and/or woman.

One of the names short listed was Ngingali Cullen (1942-2012), an Indigenous woman, activist and co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee. Cullen advocated for the Stolen Generation memorials in Reconciliation Place, initiated the Journey of Healing campaign and also served as health policy officer for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. A long-time resident of the ACT (which Bean was not), Cullen would have been an appropriate choice both because of her significant achievements and her status as an Indigenous woman.

Charles Bean and the initial borders of the three new ACT electorates.

Charles Bean and the initial borders of the three new ACT electorates.Credit:Fairfax Media

As the Commission’s final report on the redistribution of electoral boundaries noted, naming the three divisions ‘Cullen’, ‘Canberra’ and ‘Fenner’ would have achieved gender parity within the ACT electoral boundaries, with one division named after a place, one after a man and one a woman. Moreover, naming Canberra’s newest division after Cullen would have been a positive step for reconciliation and the recognition process, and would accord with the Commission’s own criteria for using Aboriginal names where appropriate. Significantly, it would have made a statement to the community about the importance of women’s active citizenship in our country and the important role of Indigenous women in that space.

And yet, the Redistribution Committee’s proposal to name the new division after a white, Australian male was adopted by the augmented Electoral Commission, with three votes in favour of Bean, two in favour of Cullen and one in favour of the third name on the shortlist, Dr Lewis Nott. It is not known for whom the individual members of the committee voted, but it is hard to miss the fact that the committee’s composition was comprised of four men and two women.

In a system of representative democracy, where women make up more than 50 per cent of the population, we must direct our attention to how we can encourage women to think of themselves as future members of our parliament. The activities of the parliament over the last week also call upon us to think of how women’s participation can be affirmed and acknowledged rather than ignored or undermined. A simple way to start to is to remind women that their active citizenship and contribution is valued within our community. Naming electorates after women is one simple way in which this can be done.

But the vote in this instance is also a reminder that we must also be committed to having equal numbers of men and women making decisions about symbolic importance like the naming of new electoral divisions. The guidelines therefore should be updated to ensure that equal numbers of men and women constitute the decision-making bodies. But given the disparity in the numbers of women’s names, it is time to ensure that the gender imbalance is repaired. This should involve requiring only women's names be chosen until parity is restored.

Some may argue that adding these gender considerations to the guidelines would constitute an ‘unnecessary’ form of affirmative action. However, it is difficult to deny that, for many years, we have effectively had a system of affirmative action in favour of men. This is clearly reflected by the numbers of men that have already been disproportionately recognised by our federal electoral division system by comparison to women. Considerations of gender in the electoral naming guidelines are long overdue and would go some way towards amending past injustices to women and recognizing their contributions to society and most importantly, in subtely encouraging young women that they have a real and important role to play in the future of Australian public life.

Kim Rubenstein is a Professor in the Law School at ANU and Katrina Hall is a law student who has just completed her honours thesis on job sharing in parliament.