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Should we laugh or should we cry? Last week, the day after Australia’s new Liberal (Conservative) Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was sworn in, his office announced that he was taking personal ministerial responsibility for women’s issue. Can this be serious? Abbott, the Opposition leader who treated former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s well-founded accusations of misogyny as a political stunt, and who was deaf to international approbation for Gillard?* Abbott, who responded to the public criticism of his sexist comments during the election campaign with obliviousness and recidivism? Abbott, who appealed to the Big Brother household for votes, looking like Hugh Hefner, with his Amazonian daughters leaning on his shoulders? Abbott who has now appointed only one woman to a nineteen-member cabinet?

There was a time, not long ago, when the women of New South Wales could simultaneously list their Prime Minister, Premier, Deputy Premier, State Governor, and Governor-General, on the world’s tally of female office-holders. Now the tide has turned; the natural order has been restored, and the men are back. We have only the Queen and her Australian representatives left. Even the royal baby turned out to be a boy, adding another male heir to the British throne, and disappointing hopes that gender-neutralising the law of royal succession would be more than symbolic. At least the Governor-General who administered the Prime Minister’s oath of office is a woman. She is also a Labor appointee. How long will she last?

But monarchs and vice-regal officers are not legislators. The most important mechanism for achieving gender equity is women’s representation in their country’s legislature. This, above all, is what feminists should aim for. Although many might consider constitutional equality rights and their judicial enforcement as more significant, this, as I have argued elsewhere, is to put the cart before the horse. Before judicial review is possible, legislators have to be elected; governments have to be formed; laws have to be passed. To rest one’s hopes in judicial review is historically blinkered, like planting crops in an arid region after a rare season of rain. The reality is that judges are frequently conservative, and just as likely to invalidate or eviscerate egalitarian laws as they are to do the opposite. Most important is for legislatures to be capable of passing progressive laws in the first place. More women in parliaments; more women in government; these are both a cause and effect of women's equality.

So, how is it to be done? The single upside to Abbott’s cabinet announcement is that many minds have been turned to both the problem and the cure. Numerous media commentators have discussed the under-representation of women, with the debate finding a focus on the merits of gender quotas. As Stephanie Peatling and Daniel Hurst have pointed out, research by the Inter-Parliamentary Union demonstrates that gender ‘quotas are an effective way to increase the number of women in parliament’.** Quotas, furthermore, are not a rare or exotic thing: in 2012, twenty-two countries used gender quotas in their elections; at least 40 countries have provisions for gender quotas in their constitutions. Still, Australia’s parliament (without quotas) is reasonably good on overall numbers of female Members, but by far the majority are Labor MPs. The problem, then, is the dearth of women in government.

Even so, the very mention of quotas has raised predictable cries of counter-meritocracy and ‘tokenism’. Women elected under a quota system, one Liberal MP, Bronywn Bishop, claimed, are ‘permanent second-class citizen[s]’. (How would she know?) But, like all knee-jerk reactions, this is simplistic; it overlooks the fact that quotas are not a uniform mechanism. They come in many forms; their operation is complex and system-sensitive. They may be legislative or constitutional, permanent, temporary or transitional, mandated or voluntary, directive or aspirational, enforced or ‘soft’; they may designate numbers of seats or proportions of candidates, or the order of candidates on lists; they may target women specifically or have gender-neutral minimums and maximums, or alternatively a ‘Noah’s Ark’ two-by-two rule. They may require alignment with particular electoral systems or with other opportunity structures. They may be reinforced by party rules, or by official incentives. Alternatively, they may be thwarted when women candidates are pre-selected only in seats they are unlikely to win, or discouraged from standing in the first place, including by the institutional practices of legislatures. But the idea that quotas are exceptional, anti-democratic, and based on nothing but special pleading is, at best, ill-informed. Not only are gender quotas not uncommon, other types of constitutional quota are also in operation in many countries, without raising a whisper of protest. Even in Australia. Can this be possible?

Australia is a federation. As I wrote in Gender and the Constitution (Cambridge UP, 2008) federal systems typically involve geographic or regional quotas (even if it is not widely recognized that they do this). They do so by mandating a fixed number of places in the national legislature for each state, regardless of its population. The principle of federalism is a departure from majoritarian democracy. It recognizes the place of minorities in the constitutional community and creates constitutional structures for their recognition and special protection.

Would Bronwyn Bishop seriously maintain that every one of the twelve Senators and five MHRs that are constitutionally guaranteed for even the smallest Australian state would win on merit alone, if the electoral system were demographically ‘democratic’? Can she honestly believe that the over-representation of National Party MPs in cabinet under her own party’s coalition rules is really a display of meritocracy?

The equal representation of women does not even require the same type of justification that the constitutional protection of regional minorities relies on in a federal system. Women are an equal majority and, in some countries, even an outright majority. Their equal representation in parliament would be nothing more than the result of democratic logic. Quotas designed to achieve this would be no more anti-democratic than, say, compulsory voting which, too, constrains 'choice.' But the rationale aside, electoral gender quotas will simply not fly in Australia. And the likelihood of constitutional amendment to entrench them is beyond fanciful. Is there an alternative?

Equalisation of numbers in parliament, it is clear, must start at the pre-selection stage. Political parties must not be allowed to be comfortable if their candidates are predominantly male. Women candidates must be encouraged, and selected for seats they have a chance of winning. No one should be scared off raising concerns about sexism or misogyny by taunts of ‘playing the gender card’. Above all, women’s access to participation-facilitating opportunities, in particular childcare and human-friendly institutional practices (reasonable parliamentary hours, for example) must be a constant campaign target. Pressure must not be taken off the government (here’s betting, however, that the Liberals’ generous paid parental leave policy will be among the first of their campaign promises to be broken).

The post-election surge of commentary on the shortage of women in government is encouraging. It must not be allowed to wither. The Prime Minister says there are women 'knocking on the door of cabinet'; he claims to be ‘disappointed’ that there are not more inside. Didn't he notice? - the choice was his. In this, and in his campaign, he has begun poorly. What a surprise. We wait for him to prove us wrong.

*I was in Ottawa at the time, and watched it being reported, not only on the politically correct Canadian networks and the BBC, but also American news channels, where, permitted a rare moment of authenticity, generic anchorwomen looked genuinely empathetic.

** http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/quotas-best-way-to-elect-more-women-20130917-2txc7.html