06 July 2013

How the 'man ban' coverage lets us all down

Politics is of course a popularity contest as well as a contest of ideas, and that any party that fails to convince the public of the merits of its proposals doesn't deserve to be popular. But that presumes there's a free market of ideas in which the merits of proposals are debated fairly and openly, and the public gets a chance to make up its mind based on an appraisal of all the facts. This week's leaked Labour Party proposal to encourage female candidates in electorate seats struck me of a prime example of how the superficial analysis of the New Zealand media lets down the democratic process.

Clearly, one prime political objective in an imperfect media environment is to make best use of those imperfections to advance your own interests, and Labour's opponents have shown a strong ability to manipulate media interest to pour scorn on a policy they see as politically correct. The numbskull misrepresentation of the 'man ban' slogan is quite artful in its simplicity, and you have to salute the Machiavellian wit who thought up the misleading rhyme to tar the proposal. Not since the debate over the bill to repeal section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961, which was peddled with the much catchier but wholly misleading 'anti-smacking bill' title by its opponents, has there been an idea shut down so rapidly by tabloid sensationalism.

That 'man ban' angle is certainly the narrative that media outlets have run with in the past couple of days, and it has seen Labour leader David Shearer back away from the gender balance initiative. I think this is a pity, because it represents the triumph of tabloid instincts over a real need for equity in Parliamentary representation. It also marks a real, if potentially minor, failure of the democratic process itself.

It's not as if there isn't a real problem affecting the gender balance of Parliament. New Zealand's performance in terms of female representation in Parliament has been poor in recent years, with only 39 women elected to Parliament in 2011 out of 121 - just 32 percent. Labour has traditionally been a bit more proactive in selecting women candidates, while National has lagged in this regard.  This is shown in the composition of each party's caucus at the last election:

  Female Male %Female
ACT 0 1 0
Green 8 6 57
Labour 12 22 35
Mana 0 1 0
Maori 1 2 33
National 15 44 25
NZ First 3 5 37
UFNZ 0 1 0

The details above show that only the Greens can say they have achieved a representative (well, slightly over-representative) balance of female MPs. National, the largest party at the last election, does poorly, but then Labour's numbers aren't particularly impressive either. In selecting three women in winnable list positions NZ First has greatly improved its standing, given in past Parliaments its caucus was almost completely male.

Labour hopes to boost its popularity amongst women, and strong female representation should be one good way to achieve that. Clearly the existing candidate selection process isn't delivering equitable representation, so the women-first proposal was devised. And to make it clear, the proposal was a nudge, not a ban: if two potential electorate candidates, all being equal, were a man and a woman, the woman would be selected to address an overall under-representation.

This ongoing under-representation is worse when you consider that by and large women are treated poorly by the present candidacy processes across parties. Candidates selected in the high-prestige winnable electorate seats tend to be men:

  Female Male %Female
Electorate MP 19 51 27
List MP 20 31 39
The point of difference the Labour proposal was trying to address was that Labour has the opportunity to compete with National in electing a higher proportion of women candidates to electorate seats. Currently there's little difference between the two major parties in terms of gender balance in electorate MPs:

  Female Male %Female
Labour Electorate MPs 7 15 32
National Electorate MPs 11 31 26
This imbalance won't be addressed by the status quo, because the status quo of setting targets for higher female representation has continued to deliver an over-representation for men, particularly in electorate seats, but also across Parliament. In the rush to trivialise a relatively uncomplicated issue, the media have shown how hard it is to have a balanced debate about important issues like female representation in New Zealand.
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