ARC Future Fellow at UNSW, Professor Louise Chappell, of the School of Social Sciences and International Studies says the one thing NSW Labor has over the Coalition is its willingness to put in place a quota system that challenges male-dominated party processes.
Saturday was not just a bad day for NSW Labor. It was also a bad day for NSW women. If the results are as predicted, women now hold fewer positions in the lower house of the NSW Parliament than they have for 12 years, and for the first time in decades the number of women elected to the Legislative Assembly has gone backwards.
From 28 per cent of lower house seats, women look likely to drop to about 20 per cent, compared with 24 per cent federally.
This puts NSW on a par with countries such as Cambodia and Malawi.
These results are important to women as citizens and hold important, but different, lessons for both sides of politics. Women make up just over 50 per cent of the population of the state and deserve to have their voices heard in Parliament in at least equal numbers with men.
Extensive research in Australia and abroad demonstrates that women politicians often raise different issues from their male colleagues and when present in reasonable numbers can use their influence to shape policy in ways that address important issues in women's lives. Maternity leave, equal pay, domestic violence protection, reproductive rights and child-care provisions are just a few of the more obvious issues that have been put on the policy agenda through direct pressure from female MPs.
There is now a sharp contrast in female representation between Labor and the Coalition. Labor will have at least eight, and possibly 11, women in the lower house, leaving it with its highest percentage ever of female MPs: about 40 per cent. These results might suggest that men carried the brunt of the blame for the mess that Labor had got itself into. But the results are likely to be of cold comfort to Labor women who survived. Despite their relative success, they are left with the unenviable job, and often inevitable position, for female MPs: to clean up the mess.
Nor can the Coalition gloat about its efforts. Women hold only 11 of its confirmed 67 seats. This improves the number of Coalition women by a grand total of five from the 2007 election (but reduces their percentage) - an unimpressive result given the size of the landslide.
The Liberals and Nationals have missed a golden opportunity to advance the position of women in the NSW Parliament. Polling has been telling them for a long time that they were a sure bet to win government. They certainly had enough advance warning to select strong female candidates.
Overcoming the male incumbency factor, recognised as a serious impediment to women's election chances, was not an obstacle this time, yet the results did not reflect this.
For many years the Coalition parties have rejected the use of quotas to increase the number of women MPs, suggesting that they work against merit-based selection. Given the education and professional standing of women across society, the argument that women are not meritorious is no longer sustainable.
Either women are not putting their hand up to be selected on the conservative side of politics, or the Liberals and Nationals are not selecting those who do. Whatever the case, serious questions need to be asked about the internal workings of the Coalition.
There is not much that Labor in NSW can now claim to have over the Coalition. But there is one thing: the willingness to put in place a quota system that challenges male-dominated party processes.
As last week's results show, this system does not turn out token women, but key representatives who are seen by electors as an alternative to the status quo. Given the extent of its victory, the Coalition is likely to retain government for at least two terms. It now has the opportunity to introduce internal reform measures. Let's hope it does before NSW drifts further backwards and leaves women on both sides of politics with years of hard work to make up the lost ground.
Professor Chappell is the co-editor with Deborah Brennan of No Fit Place for Women? Women in NSW Politics, 1856-2006 (UNSW Press).
This opinion piece originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.