Julia Gillard has urged the Liberal Party to re-examine quotas if it is serious about boosting the number of women in Parliament.
The former Labor prime minister, who is now the chairwoman of independent non-profit organisation BeyondBlue, made the comments during a broad-ranging interview with ABC’s AM about World Mental Health Day.
“It matters to political culture to get more women into parliament and it matters from the point of view of merit,” Ms Gillard said.
“If you believe, as I do, that merit is equally distributed between the sexes, then you can look at any organisation – the Parliament, the Cabinet – and not see around half-half men and women, then that must mean that there were women of merit who should’ve come through, but didn’t come through.”
Ms Gillard pointed to the Labor Party’s adoption of affirmation action quotas in the mid-1980s, which was controversial at the time.
“I mean, there is no doubt it’s worked. The Labor Party is well on its way in the Federal Parliament to having 50 per cent women,” she said.
“The Liberal Party didn’t take the same path and indeed it was kind of critical when Labor took that path … I think the scoreboard’s in now and the Liberal Party has only managed to claw its way over 20-odd per cent women, I think it’s 23 per cent.”
Ms Gillard said the success of the quotas within the ALP should prompt a review within the Liberal Party.
“There is a need for the conservative side of politics to think again around questions of targets and really getting serious about encouraging more women into parliament on their side,” she said.
On the revolving door of parliament
During the past decade, Australia has had six prime ministers, with both the Liberal and Labor parties changing leaders in partyroom coups.
The last prime minister to serve a full term was John Howard, more than 10 years ago.
Ms Gillard was elected Labor leader, and subsequently became prime minister, during a surprise challenge in 2010.
She lost the job in another partyroom challenge in 2013.
Ms Gillard was asked whether the frequent change in leaders had damaged Australia’s polity.
“I do think that the most recent leadership change is, in some ways, an Australian echo of the fracturing of conservative politics that is happening in so many places around the world,” she said.
Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t personality questions and other things involved, but right around the world we’re seeing conservative political parties torn on their direction.”
Speaking from New York, Ms Gillard noted the current US political climate had seen the Republican Party “torn between contending forces”.
“It’s true in the UK, where I spend a lot of time now building a Global Institute for Women’s leadership, the Conservatives are torn around Brexit,” Ms Gillard added.
“And I think that has had a bit of an echo in our own politics.”
Advice for Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull lost the prime ministership two months ago, when the Liberal partyroom voted to spill the leadership position by a vote of 45 to 40.
Mr Turnbull subsequently quit the Parliament, fulfilling a promise to retire if he lost the leadership of the party.
A by-election is currently underway in Mr Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth, while the former PM and his wife Lucy take a break in New York.
Mr Turnbull unleashed on previous prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott this week, describing them as “miserable, miserable ghosts” who should have left parliament the moment they lost of the top job.
When Ms Gillard became PM in 2010, she replaced Mr Rudd.
But he subsequently ousted her from the role during another party challenge in 2013 and Ms Gillard left parliament shortly afterwards.
She declined to offer advice to Mr Turnbull, but reflected on her own career post-politics.
“I don’t conduct my post-political life on the basis of seeking gold stamps,” Ms Gillard said.
The former leader said she wanted to focus on making important contributions in areas such as education, women’s leadership and mental health.
“I had to think to myself, ‘What are the big golden threads that really mattered to me across my lifetime and mattered to me across politics, and how do I want to take those sorts of golden threads with me for the rest of my life?’,” she said.
“Mental health, which has been in my background right back to my youngest days as a girl growing up in Adelaide, in my family with my dad working at Glenside psychiatric hospital.
“So that’s how I think about it and how I shape what I do now.”
On the importance of open conversations about suicide
Ahead of World Mental Health Day on October 10, next Wednesday, Ms Gillard also reflected on the increasing rate of suicides in Australia, which is a key focus of the organisation she chairs.
Ms Gillard said the figures were shocking, and should be a call to action for all Australians to talk to each other about suicide.
“Many Australians think – I used to think this, so it’s a really common community belief – that if you’re worried about someone and if you talk to them and say: ‘What’s going on with you? Are you thinking about suicide?’, that if you use that word, that you increase risk factors, that you put the idea in their head,” she said.
“We’ve done a lot of research at BeyondBlue and found out that’s not true.
“Open caring, supportive conversations are protective to people.
“There’s a lot of resources on the Beyond Blue website if you want to talk to someone about suicide, if you are concerned with someone’s state of mental health in your family, in your workplace, in your circle of friends.”
If you or anyone you know needs help: Lifeline on 13 11 14