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Women in parliament – still marginal

June 12, 2018 - 09:15 -- Admin

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the lack of representation of women in the Liberal Party, and it got me thinking about what sort of seats tend to be represented by women. Do they tend to hold safer seats, or more marginal seats? I recently noticed that most coalition women hold marginal seats, in the context of Jane Prentice and Ann Sudmalis facing preselection threats.

Firstly, I just looked at what sort of seats current federal MPs hold. For this graph, I divided seats into “safe” (margin over 12%), “reasonably safe” (margin 6-12%) and “marginal” (margin under 6%).

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A majority of Labor MPs in marginal seats are women, and that proportion gradually drops in the safer categories. The Coalition likewise has more women representing marginal seats. Half of its women, but only a third of its men, represent a seat with a margin under 6%. We already know that Labor does much better than the coalition in terms of equal representation overall.

But it’s not all about those who were elected. I was curious about the candidates who ran in 2016.

Seat type
# of seats
ALP F %
LNP F %

Safe coalition
33
36%
11%

Marginal Labor
31
45%
50%

Reasonably safe coalition
28
32%
13%

Marginal coalition
27
48%
31%

Reasonably safe Labor
15
40%
31%

Safe Labor
11
27%
27%

Crossbench
5
40%
17%

Interestingly, Labor runs less women in safe Coalition seats (people who are very unlikely to win a seat). The seats with the most women candidates for Labor are marginal seats, either held by Labor or the Coalition. Labor also has a high proportion in its reasonably safe Labor seats, but in its safest seats it ran a much lower proportion.

The Coalition shows a similar trend, although on a much lower baseline. Just under a third of candidates in marginal Coalition seats, and half of candidates in marginal Labor seats, were women, but about 12% of candidates in safe seats were women.

So both parties are usually happy to run women in seats where the election will be hotly contested, but are more likely to run men in safer seats.

So this suggests that the lack of women in parliament is not a symptom of voters preferring male candidates (otherwise we’d expect the opposite trend), but I reckon there’s better evidence out there.

Of the 55 seats where the margin was less than 6%, there were 20 where a man and a woman came in the top two. Of these races, women won 9 races and men won 11. The pattern is the same if you narrow your sample to seats decided by less than 3% – women won four and men won five races where the top two candidates were of different genders.

So this evidence suggests gender doesn’t make much of a difference in a close race (although you’d want a larger sample to be sure) and it doesn’t appear either major party is resistant to run women where the race is close enough for these personal characteristics to matter.

So why is the gender balance so different in safe and marginal seats? My last theory is that the problem is with incumbency: even if you run a lot of women for open seats, the predominantly male incumbent MPs will throw off the balance. And incumbents are more likely to be running in safer seats, since marginal seats change hands more often.

Party
Seat type
Incumbents F %
Non-incumbents F %

Labor
Marginal
40.9%
50.0%

Labor
Safe
33.3%
50.0%

Coalition
Marginal
37.0%
47.2%

Coalition
Safe
12.2%
12.5%

Labor had a perfect 50/50 record amongst non-incumbents in their marginal seats and safe seats. But while they ran 36 non-incumbents in marginal seats, there were only two open Labor seats with margins of over 6%. The deficit in women’s representation in Labor lay entirely amongst the pre-2016 incumbents, particularly those in safe seats.

This explanation doesn’t hold up as much for the Coalition. While they are running a lot of women for marginal seats, some of which they would win (although non-incumbents in marginal seats don’t tend to win when you go backwards), they barely bothered in safer seats. And the only two women running for open safe seats were not running in super-safe seats. Nicolle Flint won Boothby (margin 7.1% before the election), and a Nationals woman ran for the safe Liberal seat of Pearce, so really shouldn’t count.

Overall I can conclude that Labor’s gender imbalance is entirely due to its longer-standing MPs, who tend to be in safer seats. Half of current sitting Labor MPs who were first elected in 2010 or later are women, while less than a third of those elected up to 2007 are women. This is a legacy that should work its way out of the system as they are succeeded, but may take some time since it can take a long time for incumbents in safe seats to move on.

The Liberal/National coalition does not have this excuse. Their newer MPs, elected in 2010 or more recently, are more balanced, but not by much (20% of 2010-2016 MPs are women, compared to 15% of the longer-serving MPs), and evidence from 2016 suggests that most safe seats, even when they are vacant, go to men.