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Parliament's gender balance

Is a gender quota system the best way to get more women into Parliament?

Gender New Zealand Parliament Labour Man Ban
Photo/Getty Images

What is it about the “woman question” that drives so many pundits and politicians to despair in New Zealand? To call the all-women shortlist a “man ban” shows how clearly many of them see politics as being all about them, men.

Thinking about it, when have men ever been banned from politics? Such a claim is surely the preserve of women: banned as voters in national elections until 1893; banned as parliamentary candidates until 1919; in effect banned as Labour parliamentarians until 1933, and as National parliamentarians until 1945. Women’s representation didn’t reach double figures until 1984, when 10 Labour and two National MPs were elected out of a total of 95.

It’s true that for a number of years Labour could afford to be smug about its achievements in getting women elected compared with National, whose record before 2005 was dismal. But in 2011 the number of Labour women elected dropped to its lowest level since 1990. So when Phil Goff says that “one year it might go in favour of men, one year it might go in favour of women”, more than half the population might be left wondering when has it gone in favour of women?


Pundits have made a lot of different claims on this topic and the reactions make a lot of usually rational men look positively paranoid. So, what are the key issues?

For any type of quota to work, there needs to be a target – and the target and time frames Labour has set in this case are realistic. Under its all-women shortlist proposal, no men would have lost their candidacy and so such an initiative would have applied to “open” seats, assuming there were retirements by some on the Labour side. In one sense, what Labour was trying to do is sensible and represents good organisational succession planning while in

Opposition, with gender equality as one of its goals. Gender quotas already exist in various forms in over 100 countries – some apply to all parties through legislation, others are voluntary party quotas (most of which include a 40% quota for men to prevent their being overwhelmed by women). Target percentages and target dates are seen as critical to moving beyond relentless rhetorical commitments.

The all-women shortlist is less common, although it was applied by the Labour Party in the UK in the run-up to the 1997 election, and more recently was embraced by Conservative Party leader David Cameron. It is probably the bluntest of instruments, and is the most susceptible to claims of discrimination against men. But it is a measure that ensures women are selected in safe electorate seats and it immediately increases women’s representation.

This doesn’t make it the right strategy for New Zealand’s Labour Party, although clearly some mechanism is needed. There is a lack of evidence for arguments that increases will happen anyway (when – in another 100 years?), or that we will end up with mediocre women. Moreover, when has the merit principle ever been anything but arbitrary and gendered? Who decides what counts as “best” among those doing the selecting? It is seldom women, who are rarely represented inside party machines.

It is necessary to remember that the focus in this debate is on “safe” electorate seats. Safe is usually defined as having a margin of 5-10%. Such seats are prized possessions for aspiring politicians. They provide the winners with a profession for life; the chances of a Cabinet position significantly increase; and it is these seats that most often produce leadership contenders. Unsurprisingly, in Westminster systems around the world where there are still single-member districts (as in New Zealand, Canada, the US, the UK and Australia), competition for these seats is fierce.

Gender female members of Parliament New Zealand
Current MPs (clockwise from top left): Mojo Mathers, Jacinda Ardern, Judith Collins, Paula Bennett, Hekia Parata, Annette King.


In New Zealand, with the introduction of MMP, the number of electorate seats has shrunk from 99 in 1993 to 63 in 2011, with fewer ­safe seats available to both major parties. Labour holds 22 electorate seats, all of which are safe, largely because it did not hold any of the marginals after its devastating loss in 2011. Eight of these are held by women, so 36%.

This contrasts with the list, where women hold half of Labour’s list seats. It was always hoped that one outcome of MMP would be that parties of all persuasions would use their list selections to promote diversity.

The problem, however, is that the major parties, Labour and National, win almost all the electorate seats, and when they win a large number of these seats, compared with  their proportion of the vote, their allocation of list seats declines.

Of course, the opposite is also true, but this additional element of volatility has ­created a perverse incentive system of sorts. It means safe seats elected under the old rules of First Past the Post, rather than safe positions on party lists, are the most desirable. And women on both sides of politics are still much less likely to be selected as electorate candidates than their male counterparts. At no election since the introduction of MMP has the proportion of female electorate candidates reached 30%.

Some pundits have suggested this is because women are less interested in politics and less likely to put themselves forward for election. However, there is insufficient data in New Zealand to know enough about women’s political ambitions; it may be that the culture of the major parties puts women off.

Finally, claims that Labour should return to class issues rather than focus on identity politics reveal many have forgotten that women have always been workers, have had to fight for rights to be organised by trade unions, and have battled within their party to have their issues, such as paid parental leave and equal pay, recognised as legitimate party-policy issues. Dismissing the representation of women as an issue not relevant to its core voters suggests Labour may not know who its core voters are.

This is probably all irrelevant. The adoption of gender quotas elsewhere has almost always been dependent on leader support. It took the Australian Labor Party 13 years to have its affirmative action strategy implemented, and its success was in part because then Prime Minister Paul Keating endorsed it.

Labour’s initiative is doomed to fail if leader David Shearer and his deputies continue to resist the party leadership. So we will be revisiting these same old arguments in 10 years’ time – or maybe our grand­children will.

Jennifer Curtin is an associate professor in politics at the University of Auckland.