Affirmative action (AA) policies have always been a contentious subject in Australia, despite their obvious merit. Part of that is due to misinformation and ignorance. AA is not ‘taking jobs away’ from white people or men, yet that is a strangely popular idea that seems to exist among the public. A quick browse of the comments on the Guardian’s Facebook page, deeply depressing as they are, confirms that tall-poppy syndrome is alive and well. Any hint of positive discrimination is immediately shouted down, and the beneficiaries of AA are dismissed as entitled and lazy. ‘If you want a job,’ people say, ‘then just work hard and you’ll get one’. But it’s not as simple as that, especially in the political system. Australia is not a completely merits-based society. There has always been, and continues to be, systematic oppression that prevents women and other minorities from being represented.
There have been some attempts to combat this bias, with Labor’s pledge to have 50% female MP’s by 2020, by use of a quota system. It’s an admirable idea, but better executed in theory than practice. In 2016’s federal election, for example, it was overwhelmingly women preselected for hard to win seats. Herbert and Longman in Queensland, and Cowan in WA were all very marginal, and are now held by women. It’s a neat way of getting around the quota, and it limits the benefit that AA can have politically. Truthfully, issues like marginal seat preselection greatly lessen AA’s impact, and can work to reduce representation in parliament. This goes double women of colour, who face both institutionalised racism and sexism. It’s clear to anyone who researches even a little, we need more women in parliament. Affirmative action needs to be strengthened, not weakened and dismissed.
You only need to look to Rwanda to find positive evidence of AA’s influence. Ravaged by the 1994 genocide, Rwanda emerged from its civil war as a ruined and poverty-stricken country. The country seemed poised to descend into conflict and political corruption. Yet just 22 years later, and Rwanda is Africa’s second-best economy. Life expectancy has grown by over 14 years, literacy rates have risen, and Rwanda’s health care improvements have been cited as “one of the most dramatic the world has seen.” The country’s crime levels are low, and standard of living is amongst the highest in Africa. Driving these achievements is a government that is organized and dedicated, and one that has an effective AA system. Since 1994, it’s been stipulated that at least a third of MPs must be women. This quota requirement prioritised the role of women in leading Rwanda towards success and recovery. This requirement has been exceeded, and 64% of Parliament is female, making it the country with the best political representation of women in the world.
It’s not a perfect system. The President and other prominent leaders are still men, and old patriarchal system is still prevalent, especially in rural areas. There are many issues to be addressed, such as suggestion of coerced voting, proposed changes to the constitution, and everyday discrimination. Women still struggle to be heard in Rwanda, but AA has given them an opportunity to be represented. Just recently, in fact, Rwanda became the first country to prosecute mass rape as a war crime. Despite the ongoing fight against systemized oppression, Rwanda, a tiny developing nation, is making great strides towards gender equality in the political system. Far from ‘giving away’ jobs to undeserving people, Rwanda’s AA policy has provided an avenue to deconstruct gender roles and allow the population to cooperate and heal together.
It’s a lesson Australia should be taking notes on. We regard ourselves as progressive and equal, but the vitriol we sling at female politicians prove otherwise. From the infamous sexist jokes the Liberals had at the expense of Julia Gillard, to disparaging attacks on Jacqui Lambie’s appearance, even to comments on Penny Wong’s hair. It’s all evidence that sexism in politics is still here today. The vicious hatred directed towards AA is only a reflection of that, and it’s why those policies are needed so badly, and why they need to be extended and strengthened. 32% is not good enough. We need to ensure women aren’t just preselected for hard to win seats. We need to extend AA for at least 50% of preselection’s in safe seats are for women. We should be striving for better, not sitting back and claiming that everything is fixed because we had a female PM four years ago.
As it happens, Rwanda has called for an end to its affirmative action policy. Not because the people think it’s discriminatory against men, but because it’s simply redundant. So many women have been voted into Parliament that the quota doesn’t need to be enforced anymore. Rwandan women have truly transformed their country, and are now looking to the future with confidence that their government can, and will, represent them. As for Australia, despite our wealth and privileges, we have a long way to go.
Words by Ella Fox-Martens
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 4 GIRL