At every level of political activism, there is a shortfall of women. At the highest level, the election to federal or state parliaments, women hold only 30 percent of seats. The numbers get worse when you look at women holding ministries, party leadership positions or daring to have a seat at the COAG table.
Increasing women’s involvement and women’s participation in the ALP must start at the grassroots level. Women’s involvement in branch meetings, campaigns and preselection is a critical path to put women’s issues at the centre of the debate, rather than having them slide toward the periphery.
But with only one-third of ACT Labor’s members being women (and a similar situation in other branches across the country), we know we have some work to do.
One thing that has been attempted here in the ACT is undertaking specific outreach to women. Women-specific recruitment and introductory events, women-specific campaign training working with EMILY’s List, and various degrees of mentoring have gone some way to addressing the involvement of women who are already interested in becoming active in the ALP.
It’s also important to identify women who show an interest in progressive politics, whether through social media or through other networks, and encourage them to get active in the ALP.
We won’t increase female representation in parliamentary labor caucuses without increasing the numbers of women members across the party.
At the next ACT general election, the Assembly increases from 17 members to 25 and there is no reason why women should not win at least half of those new seats.
Fitting a party created in the 19th century into the 21st century isn’t an easy prospect. In the ALP, we’re not just competing with the ALP of old for members.
We’re also competing with all of the other demands of daily life – who can spend an hour or two at a branch meeting when you’re already squeezing in some combination of work, family, friends, sport and study?
The pressures on modern political parties aren’t limited to time use. It’s sometimes difficult to see the value in joining a party when you can interact directly with your local representatives through social media; when you can debate and discuss ideas with friends over Facebook, or when you’re already on top of the political news thanks to a combination of traditional media and the Internet.
This means that the traditional issues of political parties not typically appealing to women are compounded by a lack of time and perceived lack of relevance.
This then further compounds when a woman shows up to a branch meeting only to find it full of old men and ambitious young men.
What can we do to change this?
There are so many ways that the ALP could lead the way on engaging their membership by using technology and reforming some of the more traditional ways of operation into providing members with the option of more modern, dynamic and real-time engagement opportunities.
For example, we could we take branch meetings into a more virtual space. Policy discussions could happen over email. Video blogs could be a way for members to put forward their views without leaving their homes. Meeting times could be more flexible to work around school and work hours?
Members’ volunteer work – either with community organisations or with party events like conference, shopping centre stalls, and fundraisers could all count toward eligibility for voting in party ballots.
All these are options, which would encourage more women to become involved in a progressive political movement like the Australian Labor Party.
None of these options would require a full-scale revolution of party processes rather that new and old ways of operating could run alongside each other.
There is no doubt that the ALP must constantly review and reform the way it operates if we are to remain relevant to our current members and if we are to continue to recruit new members, young members and women members.
The involvement of women in politics, not only the Labor Party, is essential to ensure that the voice of Australian women is heard and represented effectively in our democracy.
We certainly have a long way to go before we reach true equality in women’s participation both at the elected and membership level but there are ways to achieve this result and the results of reaching true equality would benefit the ALP.
WRITTEN BY: KATY GALLAGHER & LOUISE CROSSMAN
KATY GALLAGHER IS SENATOR FOR THE AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY AND LOUISE CROSSMAN IS THE PRESIDENT OF ACT LABOR.