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Time for SA Liberal women to revolt

Opinion

A key vote tomorrow could change the internal power balance in the South Australian Liberals, but it could mean much more if women in the party defy their traditional male masters, argues party insider Robert Campbell*.

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Tomorrow, the state Liberal Women’s Council will convene to copy their respective tickets onto a ballot in the tightly fought contest between a re-energised conservative faction and the ruling moderate junta.

In the wets’ corner is Federal Government adviser and moderate spear-carrier Hannah March.

Former Crown prosecutor March, who was once a state vice president for a whole six months, is now Christopher Pyne’s House of Representatives vote counter.

For the conservatives comes Ursula Henderson – a virtual unknown who boasts a familial relation to factional strategist Alexander Hyde and a recent preselection loss in Torrens.

As they cast their votes, some members of the Women’s Council might easily think this is about them; they might believe that this rare contested ballot for the body’s president is an important and overdue discussion about the future; that, in a party plagued by a pitiful lack of female representation, this might be an opportunity to renew.

History shows they would be wrong.

Whether the women of the Liberal Party vote for the affable and bright March or the green but enthusiastic Henderson, the winner looks set to remain the same.

Invariably the winner of this ballot will be men.

Control of the Council comes with a vital spot on the party’s State Executive and a block of 12 votes on State Council.

It’s a game-changer for the male-dominated conservative faction; it’s a potential life-saver for the male-dictated moderate faction.

It’s a battle seemingly orchestrated by men for the benefit of men.

Despite all the chest-beating, Liberal men are sweating over tomorrow’s result. For once, women are in the box seat.

For years, the presidency of Liberal Women’s Council has effectively been determined by powerbrokers Christopher Pyne and Simon Birmingham.

Moderate women are given “guidance” about which positions they might run for. Often energetic and talented but ultimately inconvenient women are persuaded not to stand, instead promised future opportunities that don’t necessarily eventuate.

The conservatives, who can scarcely find a uterus in their ranks, are none better.

While Henderson’s intentions may be well-placed, there is a strong perception her factional overlords will have little interest in reinvigorating anything but their presence on State Council.

If past experience is any guide, Tuesday’s ballot will simply mean more of the same for the party’s women.

They’ll continue to be pitted against each other in preselections. They’ll be elected the secretaries of local branches, rarely the presidents. Sometimes, they’ll be the token female vice presidential nominee.

Come March 2018 it is likely they’ll be publicly wheeled out again, in a pathetically transparent attempt to counter bad commentary. In a humiliating test of party loyalty, they will be asked to sit behind the State Leader at campaign launches; forced smiles and nodding on cue.

See, television cameras! See, voters! A woman! Right there behind Steven Marshall! We’re concerned about lady problems – just like you! Bonus points for obvious ethnicity, conventional prettiness or a bouncing baby on their lap.

Women’s policy issues are often cherry-picked and reduced to insipid motherhood statements or easy vote-grabbers.

Behind the party’s doors, they will be 12 silent ticket transcribers of State Council, their male counterparts craning their necks to check ballots.

They’ll be expected not to question or to make a fuss. To toe the party line backwards and in high heels.

Some women will swig kool-aid like a bold Barossa red, insisting that if they play along then eventually their male powerbrokers will come around. One day they will be rewarded with preselection or the freedom to disagree and chart their own course.

These women are almost certainly doomed to a career without recognition, doing the grunt work and jobs that the boys turned down, sentenced to a lifetime of smiling through the chauvinism.

By Henderson’s statistics, the South Australian Liberal team has seen 11 worthy female federal MPs in 116 years. There have been a mere 15 female state MPs in 122 years. (No matter – the blokes of the state partyroom have always been statesmen, intellectual powerhouses and strategic geniuses – right?)

If the Liberal Women’s Council – which has had quality members over the years – want anything to change, they must change it.

Despite all the chest-beating, Liberal men are sweating over tomorrow’s result. For once, women are in the box seat. Despite years of neglect, they will now determine who rules the state Liberal Party. It’s a delicious irony.

Casting aside factional allegiance, members must ensure the best result for women. Those 12 State Council delegates must be activists for female representation and champions of women’s policy.

March and Henderson must be bold. They are stronger united. Defy their orders. Their chieftains need them more than they need them.

It’s time to fight like girls: nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Robert Campbell is the pseudonym of a sometime Liberal ministerial staffer.

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