The case for Liberal women

Marian Sawer, Australian National University

Margaret Fitzherbert So Many Firsts: Liberal Women from Enid Lyons to the Turnbull Era, Leichhardt, Federation Press, 2009 (286 pp). ISBN 9-78186287-717-7 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

There have always been brave women among Liberal politicians—from Florence Cardell-Oliver in 1939, the sole parliamentary voice against banning advertising of contraceptives in Western Australia, to Judi Moylan and Senator Judith Troeth standing up to the Howard Government’s demonising of asylum seekers.

It is often said there are not enough serious books about conservative politics. Margaret Fitzherbert is making a serious contribution to remedying this deficiency, at least in relation to Liberal women. This book is a history commissioned by the Menzies Research Centre (the Liberal Party think tank) and written by a Liberal Party member and former ministerial staffer with serious political aspirations. Only last year, Fitzherbert challenged a sitting member for preselection in a safe Victorian seat.

Fitzherbert established her credentials as an historian of women within the party with her earlier book Liberal Women: Federation to 1949. The current book takes the story up to ‘women of the Turnbull era’—an unfortunate subtitle, suggesting limited shelf life. But the book itself has the virtues as well as the vices of an insider account by someone with both good connections and continuing political ambitions. It provides a largely reliable and well-researched history of Liberal women and women’s policy from the perspectives of Liberal politicians, even if it rarely moves beyond these perspectives to attempt broader analysis.

There have always been brave women among Liberal politicians.

The book is strongest on the factional and personal inter-relationships of Liberal politicians and how women fit into these, including Bronwyn Bishop’s various attempts to deal herself into Cabinet. It also offers the interesting suggestion (p. 199) that all three women in Cabinet during the debate on WorkChoices in 2004–05 (Senators Coonan, Patterson and Vanstone) raised concerns over its impact on vulnerable workers, as contrasted with only one or two of the men. At the institutional level, Fitzherbert is good on the structures demanded by the Australian Women’s National League as the price of its merger into the new Liberal Party in 1944, such as the reserving of organisational positions for women at all levels, and how these have provided a base for women within the party. One example is how chairs of the Federal Women’s Committee have used its leverage to open up further spaces for women, as when the Liberal Women’s Forum was established in 1993–94 to encourage more women candidates. The Forum helped achieve an influx of Liberal women into parliament in the 1996 federal election, despite being denounced by its critics as a tool of the NSW Left—an interesting parallel of criticisms made of Labor women’s organisations. Senior party figure Chris McDiven responded that neither faction had been supporting women and, if anything, she was starting a new faction—women. Fitzherbert is also good on the politics of the first National Liberal Women’s Conference in 1986 and the use of this vehicle by Trish Worth (later a federal MP from 1993–2004) to promote women’s policy in the face of opposing pressures; the Liberal Federal Council had just adopted a resolution hostile to the Sex Discrimination Act. It is a pity there is nothing on the subsequent conferences and their trajectory.

Thanks to Fitzherbert and others, the Liberal Party makes much more of the history of its women’s structures than does the Labor Party. The Liberal Party’s website links to a substantial history of the Federal Women’s Committee and of the State and Territory women’s councils, including in some cases their particular policy concerns and initiatives (Liberal Party of Australia 2009).

It is sometimes suggested that the individualism of Liberal parliamentarians has precluded sisterly forms of collective action. Fitzherbert shows, however, that Liberal women have worked effectively with other women, even across party lines, on topics such as RU486 and other women’s health matters. Already in May 1983 Liberal Senator Kathy Sullivan (then Martin) joined Democrat Senator Janine Haines and Labor Senators Pat Giles and Susan Ryan in an Adjournment Debate in support of ratification of the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Given the author’s attention to institutional issues, it would have been useful to have some discussion of parliamentary bodies on the status of women—a more institutionalised way to focus attention on the gender impact of policy and policy proposals than ad hoc events such as women’s dinners. Australia, unlike other Western democracies, lacks any parliamentary committee on equal opportunity or women’s rights, and of the parliamentary parties only Labor has a status of women committee.

The book is better on politics than on policy.

In general, the book is better on politics than on policy but would benefit from being framed by the international comparative literature on gender and politics (for example, Tremblay 2008; Stevens 2007; Sawer, Tremblay & Trimble 2006). Fitzherbert comments in some detail on how Jocelyn Newman, Amanda Vanstone and Judi Moylan were shifted out of their preferred ‘non-traditional’ (for women) portfolios of defence, attorney-general and small business when the Howard Government won office in 1996. Once in government they were given responsibility for the much more traditional ‘nurturing’ portfolios in which very large cuts were scheduled to take place. There is an extensive literature on the invidious roles given to women ministers in neoliberal governments, particularly relating to women in the Blair Government in the United Kingdom (Sykes 2009; Bashevkin 2002). Fitzherbert does not refer to this literature but she does provide further evidence of some of its propositions. She quotes Kay Patterson and Judi Moylan on the bugbear of trying to implement social policy designed by Treasury and includes interesting reflections from Moylan on being too successful in gaining the support of the Australian Democrats for bad government policy. Moylan’s conclusion was that if she had been less assiduous or persuasive in addressing the Democrats’ party room, the worst aspects of the Aged Care Act 1997 would have been removed by Senate amendments and she would not have had to carry the political blame for them.

Fitzherbert provides useful information on how some Liberal women have avoided the gender-stereotyped big-spending portfolios and, in the case of Senator Helen Coonan, have deliberately set out on a path of achieving economic portfolio responsibilities. Liberal women such as Dame Margaret Guilfoyle and, more recently Coonan, have had more success than Labor women at the federal level in laying claim to such portfolios. On the other hand, Fitzherbert’s praise for Guilfoyle’s ‘acute political judgement’ somehow overlooks the scandal of the ‘Greek conspiracy affair’, which took place while she was Minister for Social Security (1975–80). Some 180 people, almost all Greek, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud the Commonwealth, and almost 700 had their benefits withdrawn and payments cancelled. Only four were ever convicted of conspiracy (Grabosky 1989). The assumptions of guilt and the abuse of process (and eventual Commonwealth compensation payments of almost $100 million) are somewhat reminiscent of the more recent Haneef affair.

One jarring note is the partisan overtone that sometimes creeps into the narrative.

One jarring note is the partisan overtone that sometimes creeps into the narrative, as in the depiction of Anne Summers as simply driving ‘a media campaign to repaint Keating as a champion of women’ (p. 148). This ignores the substantive policies that Summers helped achieve while in Keating’s office, including the strengthening of the Sex Discrimination Act and the cashing out of the demeaning Dependent Spouse Rebate and its payment to primary carers. Fitzherbert is also too hasty to write off (on the basis of a single source) the actual electoral benefits of what Summers did—Keating had a large deficit among women voters that was significantly narrowed over the period of the election campaign. Women who were ‘late deciders’, that is, who decided how to vote a relatively short time before the election, were much more likely to vote Labor than women who were early deciders—51 per cent as contrasted with 35 per cent (Australian Election Study data analysed by Wilson & Breusch 2003).

Elsewhere it appears to be over-reliance on ministerial memories that accounts for misleading history. One example relates to the admittedly complex story of the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Act 1986 and of the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Statutory Authorities) Act 1987. The first was supported by the Coalition; the second was not, leading to a Senate revolt among ‘small l’ Liberals. While Fitzherbert provides an accurate account of this revolt and who did and did not support it (Senator Amanda Vanstone, for example, did not join her male factional colleagues in crossing the floor to vote for the 1987 Act), the policy detail is wobbly. The affirmative action legislation, which had its genesis as far back as 1981, had never meant quotas and had always meant requiring employers to identify and clear away obstacles to recruitment and promotion on merit. Affirmative action (as contrasted with complaint-based legislation) meant shifting this responsibility to employers, rather than leaving it up to relatively powerless employees to achieve organisational change. Liberal spokesmen did not have to move the Labor Government to this position (p. 134, compare Sawer 1985).

Moreover, while Shadow Minister for the Status of Women, Senator Peter Baume did move an amendment to the affirmative action legislation to make it apply to Commonwealth trading authorities, his amendment did not set the terms for the subsequent government legislation as Fitzherbert claims. It was the Public Service Act provisions (covering Aborigines, migrants and people with disabilities as well as women) not the Affirmative Action Act provisions that were extended to the trading authorities by the 1987 Act and, as Baume pointed out, the Liberals had never previously opposed them. Senator Baume’s decision to resign from the shadow ministry in 1987 over the Coalition’s back flip on equal opportunity was a heroic action; the failure of any of the women Senators, particularly Vanstone, to join the revolt was striking. Fitzherbert does point out that Vanstone was rewarded both by promotion to the shadow ministry and to the top of the South Australian Liberal Senate ticket. Still on the issue of equal opportunity, it is a shame that Fitzherbert seems to have failed to gain an interview with Senator Marise Payne. While Payne’s campaigning on behalf of asylum seekers is mentioned, her important role as Chair of the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs in defending the Sex Discrimination Act from the Howard Government’s proposed amendments is not.

The Liberal Party has eschewed quotas as ‘patronising’ to women.

Small mistakes include the name of the United Nations Refugee and Rehabilitation Administration (p. 32), the claim that Jocelyn Newman founded the first women’s refuges in Hobart and Launceston and was a founding member of Women’s Electoral Lobby in Sydney (p. 135) and the date (should be 1963) of the establishment of the Women’s Section of the Department of Labour (p. 60). Moreover the account of the latter gives all the credit to Ivy Wedgwood and the National Council of Women (NCW). While they were important, the Australian Federation of Women Voters had been lobbying for the establishment of a Women’s Bureau since 1945 and was joined by the Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women as well as the trade union movement (Russell & Sawer 1999). Such minor blemishes are inevitable in a book covering as much ground as this, but it is unfortunate that the author only asked male readers such as the Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs to comment on the draft, rather than any experts on gender and politics.

The Liberal Party has eschewed quotas as ‘patronising’ to women. Given the organisational quotas built into its structure from the beginning as a result of the bargain struck with the Australian Women’s National League, this stance may, as Fitzherbert points out (p. 133), appear paradoxical. Even the training and mentoring support provided to women candidates by the Liberal Women’s Forum wound down after the Howard Government was elected with an unprecedented number of new women parliamentarians in 1996. Women now (February 2009) comprise an average of 20 per cent of Liberal parliamentary parties compared with 37 per cent on the Labor side, where quotas have helped introduce some outstanding parliamentary performers such as Julia Gillard. The Liberal Party’s reluctance to patronise women has meant that of the seven women who have become heads of government in Australia only one (Kate Carnell in the ACT) has been a Liberal. There is a similar pattern in relation to gubernatorial appointments—Liberal or Coalition governments have only ever appointed one woman as a State governor (in South Australia). The ‘firsts’ referred to in the title of Fitzherbert’s book seem to have firmly retreated into the past. Indeed, the book may be read as a sustained case for the Liberal Party to assist the entry of more talented women, such as those described here, to assist in the rebuilding of the party and its electoral appeal. It is a case that deserves close attention.


Bashevkin, S. 2002, Welfare Hot Buttons: Women, Work and Social Policy Reform, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Grabosky, P.N. 1989, ‘The great social security conspiracy case’, Chapter 6 in Wayward Governance: Illegality and Its Control in the Public Sector, ed. P.N. Grabosky, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, pp. 93–112.

Liberal Party of Australia 2009, The Liberal Party of Australia Federal Women’s Committee History & Achievements 1945–2009 [Online], Available: [2010, Jan 19].

Russell, L. & Sawer, M. 1999, ‘The rise and fall of the Australian Women’s Bureau’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 362–375.

Sawer, M. 1985, ‘Affirmative action: Facts, fallacies and philosophers’, Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 195–198.

Sawer, M., Tremblay, M. & Trimble, L. (eds) 2006, Representing Women in Parliament: A Comparative Study, Routledge, London.

Sykes, P. 2009, ‘Incomplete empowerment: Female cabinet ministers in Anglo-American systems’, in Dispersed Democratic Leadership: Origins, Dynamics and Implications, eds J. Kane, H. Patapan and P. t’ Hart, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 37–58.

Stevens, A. 2007, Women, Power and Politics, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills.

Tremblay, M. (ed.) 2008, Women and Legislative Representation, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Wilson, S. & Breusch, T. 2003, Delayed transformation? Insights about gender and voting in Australia since 1987, paper presented at the International Research Linkages Seminar on Women and Electoral Politics in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Political Science Program, Australian National University, Canberra, 13 February.

Marian Sawer is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Political Science and International Relations at the Australian National University and Vice-President of the International Political Science Association. She has researched and published widely in the area of women, politics and public policy, as well as heading the Democratic Audit of Australia between 2002 and 2008.

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