In the midst of the debate about the gender deficit in the new Abbott cabinet, we risk failing to recognise a milestone for Australia. Australia’s first female governor-general is swearing in Julie Bishop as our first female foreign minister today.
As Annabel Crabb argues, Bishop is not a token woman in the woefully women-deprived federal cabinet. She has earned her position as the nation’s top diplomat and deserves recognition for this achievement.
Bishop worked hard as shadow minister to get across her brief. I give her particular credit because she has taken a deep interest in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, travelled to the region many times and has said the relationship with PNG should be one of Australia's highest foreign policy priorities.
However, the prime minister’s decision that Bishop will be the sole woman in his cabinet creates some immediate difficulties for Bishop in prosecuting Australian policy in the Pacific Islands region.
Our neighbourhood bears the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest representation of women in parliament in the world. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women make up just 4.2% of the region’s parliaments (excluding Australia and New Zealand). In three countries in the region there are no women in parliament. The world average is 20.9%.
Australia has been a strong advocate for better female representation in Pacific parliaments. Former prime minister Julia Gillard launched a 10-year, $320 million initiative to help improve political, economic and social opportunities for Pacific women in August 2012. This initiative is meant to support the development of improved opportunities for women to enter parliaments in the region. The Abbott Government’s pre-election foreign policy statement included a commitment to engage with female leaders in our region through establishing a second-tier dialogue of prominent women and establishing networks of mentors to work with younger female leaders.
The poor representation of women in the new Australian cabinet and wider ministry diminishes Australia’s capacity for advocacy in these important initiatives. Prime Minister Abbott’s lacklustre reasoning for not promoting more women to his ministry ('I’m disappointed there are not at least two women in Cabinet. Nevertheless there are some very good and talented women knocking on the door of the cabinet and there are lots of good and talented women knocking on the door of the ministry. I think you can expect to see, as time goes by, more women in both the Cabinet and the ministry’) creates headaches for Bishop not just at home but also in the Pacific. It will give unintended succour to the many senior male politicians in Pacific Island countries who lack commitment to improving opportunities for women to enter parliament, and makes it more difficult to encourage reform.
But the upside is that the advocate-in-chief for Australia’s commitment to assisting the advancement of women in the Pacific will be Australia’s first female foreign minister. Bishop’s success in a party and now a government where the path for the promotion of women is far from easy may hold some useful lessons for women struggling with glass ceilings in the region. As foreign minister, Bishop will travel to the region frequently (more often than former prime minister Gillard) and can demonstrate by example the value of women in senior cabinet positions.
While we should celebrate the national milestone that Julie Bishop is achieving today, it is worth reflecting on where we stand globally. This link shows a surprisingly large number of female foreign ministers over the last 70 years. Even more surprising is that they are not just from North America and northern Europe. The strongest representation in the list is from developing countries. Perhaps we are not as advanced as we like to think.