The importance of leadership

Claire Annesley’s book with Karen Beckwith, and Susan Franceschet, Cabinets, Ministers and Gender, shows significant changes in women’s representation often result from pre-election pledges made by a leader.

For example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged a parity cabinet ahead of his election in 2015 and achieved this goal. The pledge is a powerful tool because many leaders are fully empowered to make their ministerial selections.

Albanese is on record as saying: “Australia should be leading the world in equality between women and men”.

While he did not make a pledge for gender equality in cabinet during the campaign, the ALP Constitution does have affirmative action rules which set out an objective “to have 50 per cent women at all levels in the Party organisation, and in public office positions the Party holds” with a minimum percentage requirement of 45 per cent from 2022 and 50 per cent from 2025.

However, Labor leaders have traditionally relied on the party factions to nominate ministers that are then agreed to by caucus. As the late Labor minister Susan Ryan has noted, factional politics have been a significant barrier to women gaining access to senior positions.

Even with quotas, the factional “king makers” have shaped Albanese’s cabinet. This was not without “a kerfuffle” according to political journalist Katharine Murphy, who reported “the right faction was in danger of not complying with Labor’s affirmative action rules”. This resulted in some surprise last-minute ministerial appointments.

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Look at the line-up

An important feature of Albanese’s cabinet is not just the diverse range of women who now sit at the table, but the prestigious portfolios in which they hold.

The appointment of Wong to foreign affairs, Clare O’Neil to home affairs and Gallagher to finance place women at the centre of government power.

Women are also leading ministries with large spending responsibilities, including Amanda Rishworth who has been appointed minister for social services. In contrast, some have been disappointed by Tanya Plibersek’s surprise shift from education to environment.

The test of the new cabinet is to see what difference diversity makes. To what extent will the experiences of these ministers bring new priorities, innovative solutions and accountability to Australian government?

Two areas hold promise. The allocation of the women’s portfolio to Gallagher is important, given she jointly holds the finance portfolio and has oversight over key budget decisions. At the very least, we should expect as a priority a renewed whole-of-government women’s budget statement, led from a key central agency.

The second area of promise is Burney’s appointment as minister for Indigenous Australians. As an expert in Indigenous affairs, and someone with a strong commitment to the implementation of the Uluru Statement of the Heart, Burney may well oversee the signature reform of this government: a constitutionally enshrined First Nation’s Voice to Parliament.

The incoming cabinet also has a new and potentially game-changing resource in the new parliament. The lower house has the highest number of female MPs ever, at 38 per cent. The crossbench – the largest of any parliament – also includes many women independent members who want to see action on integrity, climate change and women’s rights.

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There is an enormous opportunity now for the government to draw on the expertise of this crossbench to drive important changes through parliament and recast the gender status quo of Australian politics.


This article is written by Louise Chappell, Scientia Professor, UNSW Sydney and Claire Annesley, Dean, UNSW Sydney. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.