Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Although I personally cannot see the $ value asked, in such a pocket-sized book, especially one about politics in Australia, this book, On Merit, is just one published under the genre Little Books on Big Ideas.
The author, Paula Matthewson, is a political columnist with The New Daily and editor of Despatches. She has had much experience in the arena about which she writes and draws heavily on the comments of other journalists and commentators to further her arguments.
The main thrust in this approximately 10,000 word text, spread out over 95 pages, is on women in politics especially in the Liberal Party. To introduce this topic she directs attention to a photograph of Julie Bishop’s red shoes taken at the Press Conference to ‘sign off as Australia’s first female foreign minister’ (1). Fairfax photographer’s unconventional shot of these ‘scarlet heels blazing before the dark masculine suits and shoes’ (2), appears to have sparked a backlash against the men in the Liberal Party. Matthewson tells the reader that Bishop’s red shoe emoji has become the emblem of an emerging resistance and that female Liberal MPs have begun including red in the outfits they wear in Parliament.
Although the Liberal Party has explained that Bishop’s loss in the leadership scramble last year was due to factional not gender issues, social media much prefers to go with the fashionable, high-heeled shoes. Matthewson suggests that perhaps it wasn’t just the red shoes that started this emerging women’s movement but also the +Me Too movement.
Under much discussion in the text is the value of the so called Merit Principle, adopted by the Liberal Party, and the quota system as used by the Labor Party. Matthewson suggests ‘that there is a tendency in the corporate world as mirroring an unconscious bias that leads people to hire in their own image, and its responsible for creating a gender gap in both business and politics’ (21).
Matthewson quotes former senator for Victoria, Judith Troeth: ‘I’ve certainly seen men of non-merit promoted over women of merit and the merit argument has been totally discredited in my view’ (49). Is the only choice then quotas? Former journalist, Chris Wallace wrote in September 2018 that quotas ‘are tools of last resort when dominant powers refuse to share power fairly…They work’ (57). While not a fan of quotas, red shoe brigade member Linda Reynolds has pointed to the example of the UK Conservatives as a possible example of how Australia might get more Liberal women into federal politics. Their solution was based not on quotas but on raising awareness of the issue and changing preselection processes.
Matthewson sees a closer association now developing between the red brigade and the National Farmers’ Federation. Both these women’s movements were drawn closer by another decampment to the crossbench in late 2018 which resulted as the Liberal Party being seen by many as: ‘homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers’ (86).
Marise Payne has a more optimistic view of the Liberal Party situation with women as she said, ‘We did a very good job in 1996… to ensure we had a very broadly representative team facing the community. We’ve proven we can do it, I know that we can do it again (86). This may be so but as a journalist for the Conversation said in 2015 ‘Those campaigning for gender equity in Australian politics need a great deal of stamina ’(84). Does the red brigade have this stamina? Only time will tell.
We may never know why Julie Bishop wore those distinctive red high heeled shoes that day to the media address, but they certainly started a wave which is crashing over the Liberal Party. Bishop recently donated those red shoes to the Museum of Australian Democracy and said that red was one of her favourite colours and she felt that colour evoked power, passion and fashion.
This text was an interesting read although I suspect it may have a more important part to play in the history of Australian politics in years to come, when we are not being bombarded with the same material every time we turn on our radios or TV. I could not find myself going to a book store to purchase this book when for roughly the same amount of money I could find a more extensive piece of work, probably on a more interesting topic. I give Matthewson credit for spicing up her deliberations with the story of the red shoes. That certainly added an interesting feature.
By Paula Matthewson
Melbourne University Press