We can forget just how groundbreaking Australia once was when it comes to gender equality. In 1902, it was the first country in the world to give women the vote and the right to stand for Parliament – although it took another 41 years for that to occur.
Since Federation, just 132 women have been elected to the House of Representatives. In the lead up to last year’s election, of the 1056 candidates nationally, about one third – 341 – were women. In total, 46 women were elected.
Things look much brighter in the Senate with 50% representation – an all-time high. It’s something to celebrate.
But even with this, our federal parliament is still not reflective of the gender balance of Australian society. Quite plainly, there appear to be systemic blockages to true representation.
To get to a fuller understanding, we need to look at what is going on in the broader economy. While women comprise 46.9% of all employed Australians just under half of them – or 21.6% – are working part time.
To look at it another way, women make up 37% of all full-time employees and 68.5% of part-time employees.
It is easy to see why many women are perhaps reluctant to put themselves forward as a member of parliament given the the 24/7 nature of political life.
Adjusting the parliamentary schedule and trialing a system of proxy voting during parental leave are useful starts. But the thinking needs to be more deep-rooted – such as the idea of shared representation.
Adjusting the parliamentary schedule and trialing a system of proxy voting during parental leave are useful starts. But the thinking needs to be more deep-rooted – such as considering the idea of shared representation.
Job sharing has worked well in many other areas of employment, so why not consider it for members of parliament?
The idea has already been canvassed in Britain by aspiring Greens MPs Sarah Cope and Clare Phipps, who applied to stand as joint candidates for the general election in 2015. Neither could work full time. Cope was the principal carer for her two young children, one of whom had autism. Phipps suffered from a chronic medical condition.
Their application was rejected by the court on the grounds that the relevant legislation described a situation in which parliamentary constituencies were represented by a single member only.
Job share is, in many fields, a means whereby diversity may be increased in the makeup of particular professions or roles.
But the judge made a highly pertinent point: “There can be no doubt about the seriousness of the issue or the fact that job share is, in many fields, a means whereby diversity may be increased in the makeup of particular professions or roles.”
He went on to say that Cope and Phipps had raised an issue of fundamental importance to parliamentary democracy.
This view is underscored by the 2018 findings of the UK Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit which identified unpredictable and long hours as one of the four main barriers to women seeking parliamentary office.
This is well-known to Australian female parliamentary members. Tanya Plibersek opted not to run for Opposition leader on the grounds it would be too disruptive for her young family. Kelly O’Dwyer and Kate Ellis both resigned on the grounds of they needed more time with their family, as did Perth MP Tim Hammond. In his retirement statement, Mr Hammond said: “It just wasn’t working. I just cannot reconcile the father that I want and need to be to three little kids while serving as a federal parliamentarian from Western Australia.”
By contrast to electoral legislation in Britain, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1919, on the face of it, does not exclude the possibility a Senator or Member of the House of Representatives could be constituted by more than one person. Section 163 of the Act simply describes the characteristics that would make a person eligible for nomination.
The idea of job sharing in parliament is also fully supported by existing legal frameworks in Australia
The idea of job sharing in parliament is also fully supported by existing legal frameworks in Australia, including the Sex Discrimination Act and corresponding anti-discrimination legislation, the Fair Work Act, and the principles of representative government and democracy prescribed by the Constitution.
While job sharing would require practical consideration of the precise mechanisms of any arrangement, including to ensure transparency and accountability, the legislative, constitutional and policy basis for facilitating job sharing is strong. It is well within the power of the parliament to address any practical concerns involved.
With the specific benefit of facilitating part-time work, shared representation offers a promising additional option for furthering the participation of women and other under-represented groups. A more representative parliament will be better informed and more sensitive to the multiple needs and interests of the public. It will also have greater legitimacy.
The statistics on the present field of parliamentary candidates speak for themselves.
Kim Rubenstein is a Professor in the Faculty of Business Government and Law at the University of Canberra, which has supported the production of the new podcast series It’s not just the vibe, It’s the Constitution. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law and the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.