OPINION

To get elected, be high on mongrel and low on Pollyanna

The unsafest seat in all Australia is Herbert. The local member is Labor's Cathy O'Toole who holds it by a teensy tiny margin of 0.02 per cent so just a few votes could see it change hands. She has, apparently, been working from dawn to midnight, a renowned worker and real local, but still the polls would make her anxious.

Herbert is unusual for another reason. From eight candidates, five are women. All the candidates are now on the Australian Electoral Commission website.

Bill Shorten with the member for Herbert Cathy O'Toole. Photo: Michael Chambers

Bill Shorten with the member for Herbert Cathy O'Toole. Photo: Michael Chambers

We need more women candidates and we need them now. We've had barely any improvement since 2016 according to Ben Raue's Tally room. Which is why I hope Ruth McGowan doesn't sell any of her books to men. McGowan is the author of my new favourite book, Get Elected, a step-by-step guide to winning public office. I'd like to buy it for 2000 young women across Australia, the ones in their final year of school, studying history and economics, the ones who put their hands up for all the extracurricular things, the blood drive, the local Amnesty group, the team sport girls.

Ruth's a bit of an expert on the topic of winning campaigns. She was her sister's keeper during the 2013 campaign for Indi, when Cathy McGowan, Ruth's older sister by 11 years, won by 439 votes from the Liberals' Sophie Mirabella. The result shocked, surprised or delighted, depending on who you were; and the Independent for Indi was born. As well, Ruth and her mates Carol Kiernan and Elizabeth Hartnell Young have brought new and concentrated attention to the problem of Australia's Honours list, a list still dominated by men, with their campaign Honour A Woman.

But of course, the honours list is not the only list dominated by men. Top 100 companies on the ASX. Blokefest. Cabinets in governments all across Australia, dominated by men. And why is that? There are not enough women standing for electable parties in safe seats - or even in marginal ones.

As Annabel Crabb puts it in The Wife Drought, "If you're contesting a seat your party deems is unwinnable ... it can be refreshingly easy. If you're after a safe seat in a party that is in government or about to be, you are almost certainly in for a long and potentially bruising campaign."

So what's happening this time? Kerryn Phelps is the only woman standing in Wentworth, the former seat of Malcolm Turnbull, victim of a backstabbing. In Corangamite, held narrowly by the Liberals but now regarded as notionally Labor after a redistribution, there are four women from eight candidates. In NSW's Gilmore, in a field of seven, two electable women candidates are going toe-to-toe, Labor's Fiona Phillips and the Nationals Katrina Hodgkinson; and the Liberals' Warren Mundine. Gets a little tighter from here. In WA's Cowan, marginally Labor, Anne Aly is one of two women in a field of seven. In Queensland's Forde, of six candidates, only one is a woman, the Greens' Kirsty Petersen. Of the nine candidates standing in Capricornia, now held by the LNP's Michelle Landry, only one is a woman. That's Landry herself. In Australia's safest seat for the Coalition, Nicholls, the Nationals' Damian Drum holds it. Eight candidates, the only women standing are candidates for the Greens and for One Nation. The next safest is Paul Fletcher and it wouldn't matter who else stood in the seat but for the record, all five candidates are men. Labor's safest seat. Grayndler, is similarly held by a man, Anthony Albanese. Of six candidates, the only women standing are the parties which are lost causes in this electorate: the Science Party and the United Australia Party.

Cathy McGowan celebrates after winning the seat of Indi in 2013. Photo: Justin McManus

Cathy McGowan celebrates after winning the seat of Indi in 2013. Photo: Justin McManus

All over Australia, divided up into our 150 seats in the House of Representatives, there are many more men than women; and there are still many more men standing than women, in a country where there are more women voters than men. Which doesn't mean that women lack ambition. It means parties lack ambition, or even vision. Good women must be better than good men, to get a go.

I ask Ruth, indignantly, why her book isn't just directed at women - and she reminds me that we need diversity in all its forms.

"A rising tide lifts all the boats, younger people, people of colour, people of multicultural backgrounds," she argues.

The book, released earlier this month, has sold out half its print run (albeit tiny but really this should be on everyone's shelf). Already, those who've been elected tell her they wish she'd written the book when they ran for the first time. The one surprising response has been from those who've been preselected and elected for major parties, who nearly universally said that they had little support during their campaigns and not much afterwards.

"They are given templates but not the details, even though they are aligned with a party," says McGowan Jr (one of a dozen McGowan siblings, your own little team of campaigners right there and then).

I have lots of favourite parts of the book but some bits stand out for me. One is Cathy of Indi's commitment to meet 1000 new people a week in her electorate during the campaign. Imagine trying to do that yourself and then connecting with those people in a way which would persuade them to vote for you. Pouring your commitment out to strangers 150 times a day. The other remarkable part of the book is the action plan before the election. Which begins with "Confirm you are eligible to stand for office and ensure you are enrolled to vote (on the electoral roll)." So many many people could have benefitted from that advice, most recently the United Australia Party's Fardin Nikjoo.

Speaking of advice, Ruth says this: "Don't be a Pollyanna. You've got to have mongrel in you to run for politics and one slip up could wreck your campaign."

Be a mongrel with an excellent training manual.

Get elected. Start now.

  • Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.