The New South Wales Liberal party has endorsed a target of 50% of female candidates at the next federal election due by May 2022, but the party’s past track record with non-binding targets suggests it will struggle to achieve this aim.
The party unanimously endorsed a target, as opposed to a firm quota, in May this year at a fax ballot, after the move was supported by the prime minister, Scott Morrison.
But the decision has not been made public and the party is yet to hold several crucial preselections amid factional manoeuvring between the right, the centre-right and the moderates.
Senior Liberals are now attempting to nudge the party into taking the issue of preselecting women seriously, although there is scepticism at the party’s ability to meet the target, considering past failures.
A senior Liberal member of the state executive told the Guardian: “We set a target every election, then we fail to meet it.
“In the upcoming NSW local government elections we set a target of 50% women and we achieved 32%. We do this every election but we don’t achieve it, ever.”
This was disputed by the Liberal Party’s head office which said the target for this weekend’s local government elections was 40%, and 38% of candidates were women.
According to the women’s council representative on state executive, Mary-Lou Jarvis, the party was on track to achieve 38% of female candidates in winnable seats in this weekend’s council elections.
Despite local councils being the most grassroots level of government, only 21% of Liberal councillors were women prior to this election.
The Liberals’ performance in selecting women at other levels of government is little better.
In the state parliament, where representation is highest, 40% of Liberal MPs are women.
In federal parliament it is about 25% of Liberal MPs, with the party falling well short of a 2025 target of equal representation that it set in 2016.
Labor instituted quotas in 1994 under an affirmative action policy that targeted 35% of winnable electorates being preselected with female candidates by 2002. The ALP has since increased its female representation in parliament to about 48%.
In 2016 former Howard minister Sharman Stone led a similar reform but the party opted for non-binding targets with an aspiration to reach 50% of women by 2025.
Instead, women in federal parliament have remained under-represented with the number stubbornly hovering around 24%.
The test for the Liberal party will present itself in coming weeks when it meets to preselect candidates in several safe seats where Liberals are retiring or in winnable marginal seats.
These include Warringah (against Zali Steggall, the independent), Hughes (currently held by Liberal defector Craig Kelly) and Bennelong (where John Alexander is retiring). Gilmore, regarded as a bellweather seat, Dobell, Eden-Monaro and Parramatta are also regarded as marginal and likely to be hotly contested.
But there are also several Liberal female MPs who may face preselection challenges, including one minister.
These include: Fiona Martin in Reid in Sydney’s inner west; the environment minister, Sussan Ley, who is facing a challenge from the right’s Christian Ellis in Farrer; and Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells, who is facing a challenge from Dallas McInerney, the chief executive of Catholic Schools NSW.
The ability of the party to achieve its targets might also be affected by new preselection rules.
In 2017 the party adopted the Warringah motion, championed by the former prime minister Tony Abbott. These rules, designed to introduce more power for the rank and file, require plebiscites to be held.
Some Liberals have claimed that Morrison’s factional ally Alex Hawke, who sits on the NSW executive, is trying to delay the preselection process to manufacture a crisis that would then require head office to intervene and appoint candidates instead of holding plebiscites.