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Thursday, 2 June 1994
Page: 1158

Senator MINCHIN (9.51 a.m.) —As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, I support the motion to take note of this report and commend the report to the Senate. I join with Senator Foreman in thanking the parliamentary library's research service for all the work its people did in making this a very valuable document. It is a useful publication. It brings together all the available research on this very important topic and will have a life of its own, as a document out in the community, and as a very useful resource for everybody interested in this very significant topic. It is a good overview of the current situation and therefore very important.

  It is also useful to note that this is a bipartisan report. The Labor, Liberal, Democrat and Green members of this joint standing committee have all agreed on this report; so it comes to the Senate, the parliament and the people with the support of all the major parties. I also commend the recommendation that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters have an ongoing monitoring and coordinating role in this area so that we can monitor developments and disseminate ideas for increasing the opportunities for women to enter parliament.

  It has become something of a motherhood statement, but it is true that on all sides of the parliament there is a genuine commitment to seeing more women participate in political life, particularly in our parliaments. They do have a very important contribution to make and bring qualities to parliamentary life that are different and distinct from those which males can contribute.

  It should also be noted that an enormous amount of progress has been made in this area. There are a lot more women in parliament than was the case not that long ago. I am proud that a quarter of the members representing South Australia in the House of Representatives on the Liberal side are women, with Trish Worth and Chris Gallus joining the parliament and making an excellent contribution.

  But the real issue at stake is how do we achieve the objective that we all share: how do we increase the numbers of women in our parliaments? I note Senator Foreman's personal commitment to affirmative action. But it is really a choice between what I describe as an evolutionary process and the alternative, which in fact is a revolutionary approach. I have to say that affirmative action, which really means quotas, is entering into what I call a revolutionary approach to this whole issue.

  I say here firmly that I favour an evolution in this issue. I think that moving to a revolutionary approach of quotas is quite wrong and quite dangerous. What we have to focus on in what I call the evolutionary approach is to remove the barriers that have been there—and perhaps still exist—to women entering parliament. I would like to think of it as adopting a supply-side approach to this very important issue and not adopting an approach of ordaining outcomes, which I think is dangerous.

  We need to make parliamentary life more attractive to women. That has been a great barrier to the entry of women into parliament. There is a great deal to be done by both parties to encourage women to seek preselection in the first place, because that is a major element in the process. Most important of all, in my view, is that it is absolutely essential that selection of people by the political parties for parliament continues to be based on merit.

  Any departure from that principle will set back the cause of women immeasurably. I think it would be highly dangerous for the ALP to embark on the course it has suggested of affirmative action. I am pleased that on our side of politics there is no dispute and no debate about this. We continue to be committed to selection based on merit and to giving women equal opportunity to seek preselection, to seek a role in parliament. Therefore, I do reject the revolutionary approach being suggested within the ALP.

  I think all of us should be concerned by moves in the ALP for quotas. It is interesting for us on this side to note that we now have a major brawl in the ALP, which has flared in particular in Queensland, with everybody fighting each other on this issue. I join with Premier Wayne Goss in his rejection of affirmative action, that is, quotas. I note that recently he said:

  I think that all voters—and women voters are included in that—want the best possible member to represent them. And I think we've seen in a number of cases good women members of parliament elected for that reason, because they're a good member of parliament, not simply because they're a woman.

Unusual as it may be for us to endorse the comments of ALP members, I totally endorse everything that Labor Premier Wayne Goss has said and I hope that the ALP will take careful note of what its only Labor premier is saying on this very important issue, because I do think that the alternative approach will set back the cause.  Quotas are wrong. They are really not the approach which a free society should adopt. Essentially, they involve tokenism at its worst.

  All the women on our side of politics can say without any reservation that they are there on merit. Once we adopt a quota system, that can no longer be said and I think such a system would be very bad for Australian politics.

  Anyone who has lived in the United States and experienced the consequences of the adoption of quotas for race would understand the great concern and the great problems that are caused by such an approach—in many cases this has actually set back the cause of black Americans—and would be concerned about the adoption of such an approach in relation to females in parliament. This inevitably sets up the problem of demands for quotas for other groups. Are we then going to see demands for quotas in the parliament for people of different racial backgrounds, different geography, different types, different handicaps? A never-ending chain of events would be set off by the demand for or implementation of quotas for women in parliament.

  In my view, we should keep very much in mind the principle of merit and we should also bear in mind what qualities are required and demanded in our members of parliament. In my view, those qualities are based on a person's character. We should be focussing on the character of our members of parliament and not their gender.

  What should concern all political parties in the selection of the people they put forward for parliamentary office are character issues, not gender issues. We should be talking about the integrity of the people we select for parliament. We should be talking about their honesty, their moral values, their objectivity, their spirit of public service and their sense of conviction—their conviction about the principles that they believe in, whether of the left or the right. But it is their character that is important and not their gender. I fear that going down the track of quotas will bring gender to a point where it overrides the essential principles of merit and character.

  In conclusion, I think it is heartening that this excellent report has been presented as a bipartisan report. The report has avoided the question of whether there should or should not be affirmative action—that is a matter for the political parties themselves to debate. I take pleasure in supporting this motion.