Women holding out for gender equality in Parliament after this election are likely to be disappointed. The main mechanism for achieving gender equity within parties is the party list, and most of the parties that will do well in 2017 are far from gender equal. There are currently 38 women in parliament, and the outlook for doing much better is poor.
The high point for women’s representation was the 2008-11 Parliament, when 41 out of 122 MPs were women. Apart from that result, women MPs have held between 35 and 40 seats in every election since the first MMP Parliament in 1996.
MMP has proven to be an excellent tool to improve the representation of women, as well as of Māori and other ethnic groups. Prior to the 1996 election, the best numbers that women had achieved was 21 MPs out of 99, or 21 percent. That number shot up to 29% in 1996, and reached the heady heights of one in three in 2008. Now, though, we are down to 31%.
The dream of many for a gender equal Parliament under MMP is slipping away. Looking at the Party lists, National only has two women in the top ten, a shameful figure that demonstrates the party has little aspiration for gender equality. Apart from Simon Bridges, who is of Māori descent but is not known for his tikanga Māori, the top ten line-up is also a pākeha whitewash.
Despite the ‘Jacinta effect’, don’t look to the Labour list for gender equality. Labour only has three women in its top ten and, apart from Kelvin Davies, is also completely pākeha. The reason given for this is that Māori seat MPs (six of them) chose to stand aside from the list, but their presence would not have improved gender equality by much, with Nanaia Mahuta out of favour after a lacklustre performance over more than 20 years in Parliament (although she has crucial links to Tainui).
In the next ten list positions (11-20), National manages 5 women and Labour 4. This means that, for the two largest parties, gender equality on the list means 7 out of 20, or 35%. In positions 21-30 Labour has six women and National 3, and Labour also does better beyond list place 30. This means that a larger share for Labour equals more women MPs.
If New Zealand First does well in 2017, this will have a dampening effect on gender equality. Currently, only 25% of the party’s MPs are women. After Ron Mark was re-elected to Parliament in 2014, he took on and beat the high-performing Tracey Martin for deputy leader, in a disgraceful display of patriarchal politics. Bringing in Shane Jones can only increase the testosterone quotient. That party has not yet released its 2017 list but I estimate there will be two women in the top ten and four in the top 20 –the same as 2014.
Only the Alliance (from 1996) and the Greens have had a policy of equal gender representation in Parliament. The Greens have consistently produced gender equal lists, and in 2017 have women in six of the ten top places (as in 2014), despite Metiria’s departure. Their women are talented and diverse, dispelling the myth that politics is a male domain. If the Greens do poorly and NZ First well, this will decrease the proportion of women in the next Parliament.
A big party-based gender gap is evident in current general electoral seats (based on 2014 results). 30% of National’s sitting electoral MPs are women. Labour does well in this regard. In the general seats, women are 45 percent of electoral MPs. But in the Labour-held Māori seats two out of six, or 33 percent, are women. Adding in the Māori seats, women’s representation in Labour electoral seats falls to 42 percent, which is still impressive but well short of equity. Three other parties hold electoral seats, each holding one seat occupied by a male.
The Greens have reached gender equality in Parliament over a number of elections, showing that it can be done. Labour always presents itself as the party of progressive women, but has failed to use its party list to promote gender equality in Parliament. Given the achievement of women in the general seats for Labour, it should be concluded that the list process is actually holding women back in that party. That party needs to ask questions of its leadership about why women are so under-represented on the list.
Women’s position in society is under threat on many fronts, with weakened pay equity laws, low pay, huge benefit sanctions keeping over 15,000 families in severe poverty and inequality in many areas. We need a gender equal parliament and we need it now.
Dr Liz Gordon is a former Labour & Alliance Party MP