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September 9, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Man Ban, No Thank You Ma’am

New Zealanders are pretty self-satisfied as a nation. Not about everything: we all know we’re not really clean and green; that the WELLYWOOD sign isn’t ironically uncool, it’s just uncool, and that no matter how much we try, to the rest of the world, we sound like Australians. We do pride ourselves on one thing, however: as the first country to give women the vote, New Zealand sees itself as a nation of equality and progressiveness. What we ignore, however, is that even after MMP, the highest percentage of female representation in Parliament has been 35 per cent. The majority of politicians who appear on the news are men. New Zealand politics has a women problem.

These issues were brought into the steely, misogynist eye of New Zealand a few months ago, with a Labour policy proposal. I refer, of course, to the “man ban”, as the proposals were dubbed by our beloved media. I’m not going to rage about the public response, because then I’d have to read Stuff comments about a women’s issue, and ain’t no one deserve that. Instead, I want to talk about the “man ban” proposals themselves: why they’re a bad idea, and why they miss the point.

So, what did Labour actually propose?* In New Zealand’s political-discourse sphere (i.e. Twitter), it’s often hard to pinpoint details. The policy Labour was suggesting was twofold. First of all, caucus had to be at least 45-per-cent women by 2014, increasing to at least 50 per cent by 2017. Secondly, local electorates could request that only women be put forward as potential Labour electorate candidates.

The first part to consider is the proposed electorate-selection changes. On the surface, this sounds like a semi-reasonable solution to a semi-existent problem. Although women make up a fairly decent proportion of the Labour caucus (41 per cent), they are underrepresented (although not spectacularly so) in electorate seats (eight of 22). Therefore, you could think that having only women standing would do something to fix this. Then you’re like, “Wait a minute. That’s absolutely mad.”

As is so often the case, the devil of this policy is in the detail. If local electorates are sexist to such a degree that they won’t select female candidates, then it seems deeply unlikely that they’ll ask for this restriction. If the problem is that the female candidates aren’t good enough to win the selection, then there is obviously a separate problem, requiring greater mentoring and training of female hopefuls. If the voters of the electorate are that rampantly sexist, then a female candidate is unlikely to be elected anyway. And wouldn’t it suck to be a female candidate selected under that system? Having every grumpy old man (and every hostile blogger or opposing candidate) you encounter pointing out you only got there because they banned the men; having it systematically implied that you were inferior, and couldn’t make it on your own merits. Thanks, but I’d pass.

Which brings us to the quota side of the policy. Quotas are a classically difficult issue. For me, it is a balancing act. Are you going to produce such an increase in women’s participation that it is worth the negative implications created by quotas—that they couldn’t get there on their own; that they displaced other, better candidates? In this balancing act, the “man ban” policy comes out firmly on the negative side.

Because, at least for left-wing parties, the problem isn’t mainly a bums-on-seats one. Labour already has 41 per cent of its MPs as women, which is really pretty good. It’s female invisibility on the left that really annoys me. In the current Labour Party hunger-games leadership negotiations, there isn’t a single viable female contestant. Aside from Ardern, when Labour talks to the media, the voices are overwhelmingly male.

The Greens do somewhat better, with more women than men, and a carefully gender-split co-leadership. When you look closer, however, the rosy picture fades. In the portfolios held by the different MPs, gender stereotypes are as striking as a blue-lit monument for the royal baby. Russel Norman plays it tough and talks about finance, Metiria Turei talks about social issues—housing and children. Cute. The same continues through the list. Men take tourism, commerce, sport, defence and foreign affairs; women (with a few exceptions, especially Genter’s transport portfolio) take food, arts, children, aid, human rights and education. Seeing a pattern?

Which is why the Labour “man ban” was far from promising earth-shattering change. I won’t be mourning its passing. Instead of looking for another ingenious way to lift statistics by a few percentage points, I think it’s time for some soul-searching from any party committed to equality. Because having an extra two women on the back benches won’t make a difference, it’s having another female finance minister that will. Instigating a controversial “man ban” policy creates hostility towards women candidates while achieving very little, and distracts attention from the more important problem. Last election, John Key notoriously stymied Phil Goff, demanding: “Show me the money”. I’ve got a similar call. Don’t just have women on your benches, but show us them.


*Or planned to propose. In their ‘mishandle-everything-conceivably-possible’ school of political management, they succeeded in having the proposals leaked, being attacked on them, losing lots of support, then backing down. Rest in peace, David Shearer. I’ll miss the fish.

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