KAY Setches has some words of advice for the women of the Liberal Party if they want to change the culture within their party: “They’re going to have to be strong and united, and they have to be ready for terrible characterisations of quotas. They have to know what they want and they’ve got to go in and negotiate it.”
She should know. Almost 30 years ago, Setches played a major role in introducing quotas for women to the Australian Labor Party.
And it has made all the difference. Today, women make up 46 per cent of Labor’s federal party room compared with 23 per cent of the Liberals.
Meanwhile the Liberal Party is clearly at a loss about how to deal with its “women problem”. Not only has it antagonised a large proportion of female voters but many of its most promising female members are abandoning it.
While the ALP has its Adam Somyureks to deal with, the party seems from the outside to be a far less stressful place for women than the Liberal party room.
Ms Setches, who has lived on Phillip Island for the past decade, still has close contact with many current Labor MPs and ministers after many years of mentoring aspiring female politicians. She knows that the gains made by women in the ALP had to be fought for over many years by a group of very determined women.
But to go back a step or two, Setches was elected MP for Ringwood in the 1982 state election, a landslide Labor victory after 25 years of Liberal government. She was one of nine women in the new Cain Labor government. At the next election, in 1985, 14 women were elected and two were made minister.
In 1988 Setches was appointed Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands, and in 1990, under Victoria’s first female Premier, Joan Kirner, she became Minister for Community Services. Women were on a roll. They thought it was just the start.
"You see these politicians walking around in their suits, and that’s the veneer, but at times the veneer is shredded. Sometimes I’m so shocked. I’ve always been so scared of this moment. I knew there had to be a reckoning."
When Setches was tapped on the shoulder and asked to become the chair of the ALP women’s policy committee, she declined, firmly.
“They came back in March. They were having their first meeting and wanted me to be the chair. I’d been thinking a lot about how the Labor women were wiped out in that election.
“I was in a pretty down place but I found myself saying ‘Yes, I will be the chair, but I want you to know that if you elect me as chair our one big thing for the two years we’re in will be to get affirmative action for women political candidates. We’re going to have to take on the party, the media, the unions, the factions …’
“They voted for me, every single one of them, and we had the best two years. All care and no responsibility. They were scared of us because no one could influence us, not the factions, not the leaders. They couldn’t hurt us. Joan was leader of the opposition and there’s nothing worse. There’s me on me arse. Marg Ray was out. Caroline Hirst was out. Caroline Hogg was still in there.
Regardless of the name, it seems a fairly modest target now, but in 1993 only 11 per cent of federal Labor MPs were women. Kirner became the front person for the campaign, touring state after state. Similar campaigns were happening in Western Australia and Queensland. Setches did Victoria. All over the country Labor Party women were saying “No More!”
“I took the proposal to the 400-delegate state council, I took it to the Labor Party conference. They deferred it because there were too many people who wanted to have a say in it. It absolutely turned the Labor Party on its head. It was regarded as outrageous.
“The men protested, don’t you worry. They’d say ‘Yes, there does need to be reform but – that old argument – selection should be on merit. At the time 87 per cent of the MPs in Victoria were male. I said ‘Are you telling me that 87 per cent of the merit belongs to the men?’”
But how was it to be done? That was the big question. Everyone wanted to know the mechanism. Inside the women’s policy committee, Setches proposed a new rule: if 33 per cent of the candidates were not women by the time pre-selections ended, then the whole selection process had to start again, including for the leaders.
She was half joking when she proposed it. Even the committee was a bit shocked. But they took it to the women’s conference and it was passed. Then they took it to the national conference and it passed there too. It meant the factions would have to actively seek out and promote the best women they could find.
“Every state and territory, as well as the federal, still has that rule. No woman will let it be taken away. Because we don’t trust them!”
Then prime minister Paul Keating had been invited to open a Labor women’s conference in the Melbourne Arts Centre. Setches’ job was to persuade him to announce “Half by 2000”.
“I spent so much time with the speechwriter, saying this is what he’s got to say, and the speechwriter saying ‘I don’t know if I can get him to say that’. I said ‘He’s got to. I know he’s your boss, but everything has been done to get him to say this.’
"And he said it! It was on the front page of The Age the next day. It’ll be 30 years in 2023.”
It was a historic victory, but it wasn’t the end of the story. At the next federal election, in 1996, the ALP pre-selected just one woman to a safe seat. “That was Jenny Macklin, which was a very good thing, but Julia Gillard and so many women missed out that year because all the men were lined up for the safe seats and they’d been given a commitment.
“Joan said we’ve got to change the culture. Leonie Morgan, who was part of our committee, said ‘We’ve got to get Emily’s List. They support Democrat women, they mentor them.’ I thought we shouldn't go down rabbit holes but she convinced me to have a lunchtime meeting in the conference. There were about 10 women there, and we decided we had no choice. So we set up Emily’s List and that has made all the difference.”
Described as “a financial, political and personal support network for progressive Labor women candidates”, Emily’s List has supported 273 women who have entered parliaments since it was established in Australia in 1996.
Alumni include Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, Queensland’s first female premier, Anna Bligh, Tasmania’s first female premier, Lara Giddings, Australia’s first indigenous female MP, Carol Martin, and Australia’s first indigenous female senator Nova Peris.
"Half by 2000"
“It is has been calculated, by Kay Setches, I think, that at the present rate of increase it would take another 60 years to achieve equal representation of men and women in the Commonwealth Parliament.
“In the meantime Australian democracy is the loser. This is the fundamental point, I believe we all lose. It is less that women have a right to be there than we have a need for them to be there. It is less an argument for women than an argument for the country.
“In the ALP we now have to take on the business of equal representation as a necessity. It has to become part of Labor Party culture. We have to take up the battle for hearts and minds on this, and at the same time pursue the necessary structural change.
“The campaign in the Party under the heading "Half by 2000" is one way of doing this. And I support it. … Early next year, I will also be meeting with the state Labor leaders to pursue the issue.”
Prime Minister Paul Kearing commits to “half by 2000” at the opening of the conference on Women, Power and the 21st Century, Melbourne, December 3, 1993
"It will be reached because of the iron commitment the party has to affirmative action," Setches states firmly. "Some state or territory branches have already reached 50 per cent. I'm overjoyed as I've spent 30 years on this project."
Greater female representation might be good for the women, but how much difference has it made to the Labor Party and its policies?
Every difference, says Setches. “There are women on every policy committee. There are so many women on the front bench and they know the women won’t take it.
“Of course there’s work to be done, still. We’re still not real good at knocking off the men who make up the factions.
“And you cannot take your hand off the tiller. Women have to remain very vigilant because this could just collapse over two years.”