If the Liberals don’t get this, they’re in deep trouble

The SA Liberals’ latest attempt to increase the number of women in its parliamentary ranks is doomed to failure, with the real risk that its incapacity to take decisive action will also sink the party’s electoral hopes, writes Matthew Abraham.

Mar 10, 2023, updated Mar 10, 2023
Opposition Leader David Speirs with members of his shadow cabinet. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Opposition Leader David Speirs with members of his shadow cabinet. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The trick to stumbling through life as a political reporter is to keep it simple.

You don’t need a doctorate in political science, or even a degree in journalism, to carve out what can only be loosely described as a career covering politics.

Why rack up a HECS debt for a job that can be done competently with little more than keen observation and common sense?

Journalism is less a profession and more a craft or, better still, a trade.

Instead of fluoro vests, boots and a workplace radio to drive the neighbours nuts, all you really need to be a political hack is a yellow Spirax note pad – for me it’s always been the 200-page, 8mm ruled, model No 563A – a pencil, a mobile phone, a well-curated collection of contacts and a smattering of shorthand.

But for those contemplating chasing inglorious fame as political journo, here are three golden rules of the trade.

NEVER feel sorry for a politician. Nobody forces them to apply for the job and these days they are handsomely rewarded with salaries and conditions often far greater than in their previous jobs, unless they were a union boss. Or lawyer.

DO treat them with the respect they deserve as they are democratically elected in a fair, rigorous although imperfect system that sees some right numpties, clowns and creeps slip through the net. Treat the latter with disdain.

WATCH AND LISTEN. The brilliant Lindy Powell KC once said that a good lawyer needs to “listen like stink”. This is tremendous advice, for young lawyers and young journalists. If you observe a politician closely at press conferences or on television, you’ll get to know when they’re telling the whole truth, or spinning like tops. When interviewing them, listen like stink for weasel words like “we have no plans”, “not to my knowledge” or “we have set our sights on a crucial goal”.

Liberal leader David Speirs says his party has now “set its sights on a crucial goal” of having a 50 per cent gender balance of Liberal women preselected for the next South Australian election in March 2026 and the same percentage sitting in parliament within three terms. On current form, it won’t happen.

And this is where we must break Golden Rule Number One – Never Feel Sorry for a Politician. Because when it comes to getting more Liberal women preselected and then elected into the House of Assembly, you’ve got to feel sorry for the Opposition Leader.

He thinks he’ll succeed where all other Liberal leaders have failed, or not even tried.

“They haven’t actually rolled up their sleeves and gotten involved to drag this party into the 21st century,” he said. “And that’s what I’m doing.”

This is trademark Speirs wishful thinking.

All you need: Matthew Abraham’s political reporting toolkit.

The Liberal leader was speaking at a media conference on Monday unveiling the delayed recommendations of the “Women’s Taskforce” he set up to advise him on how to get more Liberal women into parliament, particularly the House of Assembly, where it matters.

The two key recommendations from the taskforce are to “adopt a target” to preselect 50 per cent female candidates for the 2026 election and to “adopt a target of 50 per cent female representation within our state parliamentary ranks within three terms”.

On my arithmetic, that’d be by 2038, or 15 long years away. No hurry.

The crushing loss suffered by the Marshall Government at last year’s election left the party with just three women MPs in the 47-seat House of Assembly. And then there were just two.

Within weeks of the election loss, Vickie Chapman quit her safe seat of Bragg and the local branch members promptly selected a bloke, Jack Batty, to contest and win the by-election. Of course they did.

Then only last month, the party chose another bloke, Mount Gambier’s Ben Hood, to fill the plum Legislative Council vacancy created by the resignation of former Health Minister Stephen Wade.

It did so despite public pleas by Speirs for the party to choose a woman and reporting by The Advertiser’s Paul Starick that the Liberal leader had a “frank conversation” with Hood, telling him “he did not have his support, would have limited promotion and warned of a strategic blunder” in not contesting a lower house seat.

Ben Hood is the brother of Lower House Labor MP Lucy Hood. He sits on the red benches with former Family First, now Liberal MLC, Dennis Hood. That’s a lot of Hoods in the ‘hood.

This is behind the jibe by Premier Peter Malinauskas this week that “there’s more people in the state parliament with the last name Hood than there’s women in the Lower House for the Liberal Party”.

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The line had already been bench tested by other Labor MPs, but it’s a killer because it’s true.

Labor has a total of 14 women MPs in the Lower House – seven are first-timers elected in March last year.

The Liberals have just two – Ashton Hurn in Schubert and Penny Pratt in Frome, both talented first-termers and both in country seats. What a dismal state of affairs.

… the Liberals have an irrational phobia about gender quotas.

While Speirs can roll his sleeves all the way up to his neck, he faces two intractable problems in getting anywhere near his twin 50 per cent goals for women.

The first is that so many Liberal branch members enjoy preselecting men over women. They love it. What other explanation can there be for such a woeful gender imbalance?

The Liberal branches in SA are an ungovernable rabble and always have been, oblivious to the pleadings of their leader, and especially the party’s state executive, to preselect candidates that dovetail with the party’s wider aims of reflecting the real world and occasionally winning elections.

While Speirs is confident the party’s executive will back the taskforce recommendations, neither he nor the executive has any effective control over the local preselection colleges, who’ll continue to do their own thing, rejecting perfectly good women for winnable seats.

His second problem is the inexplicable fear of adopting enforceable quotas, not just targets or goals, to choose female candidates. Labor embraced quotas and the proof is in the parliamentary seating – they work, and work fast.

But the Liberals have an irrational phobia about gender quotas.

The head of the Women’s Taskforce, Nicola Centofanti, who is Liberal leader in the Upper House, said on Monday that women consulted for the report saw quotas as a “blunt instrument”.

“They wanted to be there (in parliament) because they wanted to do the best job,” she said. “They wanted to be picked on merit.”

Both the Liberal and Labor parties often preselect men who may not have been the sharpest pencils in the schoolbag. They may be chosen over other men and women who are smarter, better educated and should have been chosen on “merit”, whatever that means. So what? They sometimes go on to make the best politicians, ministers and even leaders. Why shouldn’t the same sensible standard apply to choosing women?

It’s a classic case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

One prominent Liberal woman, who chose not to be named, despaired of the party’s internal mindset – among men and women – that won’t be changed by unenforceable targets.

She told me choosing women to run in near-impossible seats, while selecting men to fill the latest two safe vacancies, was insulting to women and signalled to the wider community that “the brand is buggered”.

“It is actually nuts,” she said. “The real issue is that many people – including women – in this party think these recommendations are a big bold move.

“It demonstrates just how out of touch we are with our community. I actually wonder if our brand is salvageable with women anymore, if we can’t recognise this.”

Even golden rules are meant to be broken. So, shed a tear for David Speirs. It may be the world’s smallest violin, but it’s playing just for him.

Matthew Abraham’s weekly analysis of local politics is published on Fridays.

Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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