This ballot paper was deemed informal
A ballot paper submitted in the seat of Calwell at the 2016 federal election; it was deemed informal. Third Party and Kids Party weren’t candidates (source: The feed)

Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, has outlasted six prime ministers, yet John Howard reckons the Australian Parliament is unlikely to get 50/50 balance between men and women because “women play a significantly greater part in fulfilling the caring role in our communities, which inevitably places some limits on their capacity”.

A reader of the Sydney Morning Herald, Roger Hadgraft from Erskinville, disagrees with the former Prime Minister:

There is a straightforward way to achieve gender balance in any parliament: halve the number of electorates and have each elect a man and a woman. I believe this would radically change the nature of our democracy for the better and truly balance male and female points of view.

This strikes me as a remarkably simple proposal that’s worth thinking about further. We already know that equality of opportunity doesn’t produce equality of outcomes; it creates a meritocracy and exacerbates inequality. The idea of setting aside a fixed number of parliamentary positions for each sex would undoubtedly be politically difficult but it’s not conceptually challenging. We already privilege geography (electorates) in our electoral systems; sex is surely a more fundamental differentiation.

There are plenty of precedents for multi-member electorates. For example, the Senate is comprised of twelve members for each state. Up until the 2006 election, Victoria’s Legislative Council was elected from 22 two-member electorates; it now has eight electorates that each return five members.

Multi-member electorates usually involve proportional voting and that can have an effect on how major parties fare vis-a-vis each other and vis-a-vis smaller parties. The current players would be hyper-alert to any possibility that change on this scale would disadvantage them electorally. But it’s not the only way. Voters could instead simultaneously vote in what would in effect be two elections in their electorate; one for the male member and one for the female member.

Halving the number of electorates by doubling their average size as proposed by Mr Hadgraft is probably preferable but it’s not the only approach. Another option is to retain the existing number of electorates and double the size of the parliament. In the case of the Federal House of Reps, that would mean 300 members. It’s a lot, but it’s not a game-ender; the UK’s House of Commons has 650 members and the US House of Representatives has 435.

This isn’t the sort of idea that could be implemented overnight. It presumably requires constitutional changes. And like every idea, it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because it isn’t perfect; nothing is. Along with the positives, there’re sure to be some drawbacks relative to the status quo. For example, one possible issue is whether the scope for persons who identify as intersex to stand as candidates would be limited.

Mr Hadgraft is right to say “Mr Howard’s comments reflect his own lack of imagination rather than a shortage of talented women.” This is an idea worthy of serious consideration.