It could take more than two decades for Australia’s House of Representatives to reach gender parity, even if women win two in every three seats gained by the Coalition in the next few elections, according to new modelling.
The modelling by the McKell Institute, a progressive thinktank, indicates the growing momentum for quotas to increase the Liberal party’s share of female candidates won’t be a silver bullet for equal representation of women and men in the lower house.
The analysis also includes an even bleaker scenario, suggesting that if just one in two new Coalition MPs are women, it could take until next century to reach parity.
But because the modelling focuses on seats that change hands in contested elections, it assumes representatives who retire voluntarily are replaced by people of the same sex – so there are a number of variables that could affect how long until parity is reached.
Rachel Nolan, the executive director of the McKell Institute in Queensland, said the modelling exposed “just how deep the hole is that conservatives have dug for themselves”.
“A party of government cannot claim to represent women with any credibility when it’s moving at such a ludicrously glacial pace toward equal representation,” Nolan, a former Queensland state Labor minister, said.
“Those who still oppose quotas are basically telling women ‘hold tight until next century.’ It’s a joke.”
With Scott Morrison and numerous Liberal figures voicing their support for considering quotas, after the government faced weeks of pressure over its handling of rape and sexual assault allegations, the McKell Institute sought to calculate how such measures could affect the gender breakdown in parliament.
The modelling assumes that Labor will achieve parity in its representation in the lower house after the next election, due in 2022, and that the crossbench will continue to remain at six members: three men and three women. Therefore the key variable is the rate at which women win seats for the Coalition.
It suggests the earliest timeframe for which the House of Representatives will achieve gender parity is between 2043 and 2049, assuming that two in every three seats gained or regained by the Coalition (67%) are won by a female candidate.
That rate matches the highest rate achieved by Labor in 1998, when John Howard’s government was nearly defeated after one term.
If the female share of Coalition seat gains is consistently just 50%, then women’s share of lower house seats would remain around 49% towards the end of the 21st century.
Conversely, if the female share of Coalition seat gains is consistently around 75%, gender parity in the House would be achieved about 2040 – but that is seen as an overly optimistic scenario.
The modelling assumes Labor wins the 2022 election and then there is a change of government every two terms.
Those involved in the modelling said the historical data showed most of the gains in women’s representation came when a party experienced a large swing towards them and picked up a large number of seats.
When the tide went out again, they said, the party tended to hold on to those gains rather than seeing a decline in women’s representation.
The McKell Institute sought to model this pattern to show how long it would take to reach gender parity based on a political cycle that had the Coalition winning 94 seats at the top of its cycle (similar to Howard’s 1996 victory) and Labor winning 83 seats at the top of its cycle (the same as Kevin Rudd’s 2007 victory).
It is understood the modelling does not explicitly model voluntary retirements, which means it assumes that retiring female and male MPs are replaced by a member of the same sex.
That meant the modelling would overestimate the time it would take if the Coalition were able to persuade male MPs to retire faster than female MPs and replace more of them with women.
To compensate for this issue, the modellers point to the 67% rate of women gaining or regaining seats for the Coalition at elections as the most “plausible” scenario, reflecting the biggest gains made by Labor in 1998.
Nolan said fixing the Coalition’s “chronic female underrepresentation” required political will and a clear plan to achieve it.
“Gender equality can’t be some soft aspiration, it’s perfectly possible to model hard results here. If you’re not doing that you’re clearly not committed to a result,” she said.