Preselection Archive


Women in parliament – still marginal

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the lack of representation of women in the Liberal Party, and it got me thinking about what sort of seats tend to be represented by women. Do they tend to hold safer seats, or more marginal seats? I recently noticed that most coalition women hold marginal seats, in the context of Jane Prentice and Ann Sudmalis facing preselection threats.

Firstly, I just looked at what sort of seats current federal MPs hold. For this graph, I divided seats into “safe” (margin over 12%), “reasonably safe” (margin 6-12%) and “marginal” (margin under 6%).

A majority of Labor MPs in marginal seats are women, and that proportion gradually drops in the safer categories. The Coalition likewise has more women representing marginal seats. Half of its women, but only a third of its men, represent a seat with a margin under 6%. We already know that Labor does much better than the coalition in terms of equal representation overall.

But it’s not all about those who were elected. I was curious about the candidates who ran in 2016.

Seat type# of seatsALP F %LNP F %
Safe coalition3336%11%
Marginal Labor3145%50%
Reasonably safe coalition2832%13%
Marginal coalition2748%31%
Reasonably safe Labor1540%31%
Safe Labor1127%27%

Interestingly, Labor runs less women in safe Coalition seats (people who are very unlikely to win a seat). The seats with the most women candidates for Labor are marginal seats, either held by Labor or the Coalition. Labor also has a high proportion in its reasonably safe Labor seats, but in its safest seats it ran a much lower proportion.

The Coalition shows a similar trend, although on a much lower baseline. Just under a third of candidates in marginal Coalition seats, and half of candidates in marginal Labor seats, were women, but about 12% of candidates in safe seats were women.

So both parties are usually happy to run women in seats where the election will be hotly contested, but are more likely to run men in safer seats.

So this suggests that the lack of women in parliament is not a symptom of voters preferring male candidates (otherwise we’d expect the opposite trend), but I reckon there’s better evidence out there.

Of the 55 seats where the margin was less than 6%, there were 20 where a man and a woman came in the top two. Of these races, women won 9 races and men won 11. The pattern is the same if you narrow your sample to seats decided by less than 3% – women won four and men won five races where the top two candidates were of different genders.

So this evidence suggests gender doesn’t make much of a difference in a close race (although you’d want a larger sample to be sure) and it doesn’t appear either major party is resistant to run women where the race is close enough for these personal characteristics to matter.

So why is the gender balance so different in safe and marginal seats? My last theory is that the problem is with incumbency: even if you run a lot of women for open seats, the predominantly male incumbent MPs will throw off the balance. And incumbents are more likely to be running in safer seats, since marginal seats change hands more often.

PartySeat typeIncumbents F %Non-incumbents F %

Labor had a perfect 50/50 record amongst non-incumbents in their marginal seats and safe seats. But while they ran 36 non-incumbents in marginal seats, there were only two open Labor seats with margins of over 6%. The deficit in women’s representation in Labor lay entirely amongst the pre-2016 incumbents, particularly those in safe seats.

This explanation doesn’t hold up as much for the Coalition. While they are running a lot of women for marginal seats, some of which they would win (although non-incumbents in marginal seats don’t tend to win when you go backwards), they barely bothered in safer seats. And the only two women running for open safe seats were not running in super-safe seats. Nicolle Flint won Boothby (margin 7.1% before the election), and a Nationals woman ran for the safe Liberal seat of Pearce, so really shouldn’t count.

Overall I can conclude that Labor’s gender imbalance is entirely due to its longer-standing MPs, who tend to be in safer seats. Half of current sitting Labor MPs who were first elected in 2010 or later are women, while less than a third of those elected up to 2007 are women. This is a legacy that should work its way out of the system as they are succeeded, but may take some time since it can take a long time for incumbents in safe seats to move on.

The Liberal/National coalition does not have this excuse. Their newer MPs, elected in 2010 or more recently, are more balanced, but not by much (20% of 2010-2016 MPs are women, compared to 15% of the longer-serving MPs), and evidence from 2016 suggests that most safe seats, even when they are vacant, go to men.


Macarthur musical chairs

Just days after the Liberal Party actually conducted a local preselection to choose their candidate for Macarthur, the ALP has delved into the unedifying spectacle of dividing up the federal electorates of southwestern Sydney without any consideration of what any actual members might think about their candidates, or local links to seats.

According to reports in the Australian, Sydney Morning Herald and Macarthur Chronicle, the musical chairs have been triggered by desperate attempts to save Laurie Ferguson after his seat of Reid was effectively abolished in the recent redistribution.

Reports suggest that Chris Hayes, Member for Werriwa, could be shifted from his safe seat to nearby ultramarginal Macarthur, with Werriwa going to a member of the Left. The Australian reports a deal to impose the Left’s Damien Ogden, 31, who appears to be a former Sutherland Council candidate (nowhere near Werriwa’s territory in Liverpool and Campbelltown) in exchange for which the Right would choose the candidate for Hughes, which covers parts of Liverpool, Bankstown and Sutherland and is held by a slender margin by Liberal MP Danna Vale.

However, the Chronicle reports that the “soft Left” is pushing Wendy Waller, Mayor of Liverpool, in Werriwa, and a number of reports suggest Ferguson, who has no links with that part of Sydney and whose entire career has been based in Granville, could be shifted to Werriwa. The Campbelltown branch of the ALP has clearly stated its support for Chris Hayes continuing in the seat.

Hayes has reportedly refused to move, understandable considering how he would be moving from a safe seat that he currently holds to an ultramarginal one. While he does appear to have the support of local members, that appears unlikely to be of any relevance to the ALP.

Meanwhile, the deal is tied up with agreements around the parcelling out of Greenway, Macquarie, Fowler and Throsby between the factions. None of them seem to involve any actual members ever having a say or seeing candidates tested in rank-and-file preselections.

In Macarthur, apart from Hayes, candidates named include 2007 candidate Nick Bleasdale, local paediatrician Mike Freelander, Deputy Mayor of Camden Greg Warren and paralympian Paul Nunnari. While Bleasdale claims strong local support, he was effectively preselected in 2007 without any opposition in a climate where the party did not think Macarthur was winnable, and can expect to face fiercer competition this time around. What may ultimately doom Bleasdale’s chances are his seeming lack of factional support or political capital. While his candidature saw a major swing to the ALP in 2007, no-one would claim that was due to the individual candidate, rather than a mixture of national factors and a backlash against Pat Farmer.

It appears that the party machine is enthusiastic about Mike Freelander as a contender, although he would likely be pushed aside too if it was needed to get Chris Hayes out of Werriwa (a terrible deal for Hayes, of course). With ALP preselections being decided by a panel of the Prime Minister and five factional headkickers in Canberra, what ALP members in Western Sydney actually want will not come into consideration, but they will surely take it lying down, like they always do.