The Liberal Party avoids a sin of affirmative action with Dave Sharm pre-selection

The Liberal Party may have just avoided the cardinal sin of affirmative action: sacrificing a man for a less-talented woman.

Dave Sharma’s victory in the Wentworth Liberal Party preselection on Thursday evening is an example of how party democracy can overcome the natural inclination of desperate political leaders to think short term.

Sharma was one of two leading candidates for the seat – both male – placed under pressure to withdraw because the Liberal hierarchy decided a woman would reduce the chances of a humiliating loss.

The two main females in the race  Katherine O’Regan and Mary-Lou Jarvis – are party stalwarts. Until his victory, Sharma was an outsider, politically and geographically.

Katherine O'Regan spent years building up political support in the Liberal Party's Sydney branches.
Katherine O’Regan spent years building up political support in the Liberal Party’s Sydney branches.

Port Moresby v the eastern suburbs

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O’Regan and Jarvis spent years establishing political and business contacts, befriending branch members, and joining grand-sounding boards in Sydney’s privileged eastern suburbs. It was gruelling and time consuming, and they understandably wanted a return on their investment. 

At the same time, Sharma, who is now 41, was helping protect Australia’s place in the world.

His first diplomatic posting was behind a wire fence in Port Moresby. Important other jobs followed: adviser to the foreign affairs minister, political counsellor in Washington, head of the international division in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, ambassador to Israel.

One of the most common complaints about politics is that party apparatchiks are taking over. Australians would like to see more people with “real life” experience running the country, we’re frequently told.

Labor MP Emma Husar wasn't able to sustain her early success.
Labor MP Emma Husar wasn’t able to sustain her early success.

Difficult adaption

When people outside the political system get elected, they often find the adaption difficult. The behavioural expectations of politics are very different to the business world, and it is often difficult to thrive without the personal connections formed through years of involvement in political organisations.

Labor’s Emma Husar and the Liberals’ Julia Banks are outsiders who were unable to sustain their initial political successes. Neither adapted to the ruthless, paranoid life of politics.

Other female politicians have been subjected to intense pressure and advanced professionally. They include Labor’s Kristina Keneally and the Liberals’ Jane Hume.

Sharma may be different. He succeeded in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a political organisation skilled at advancing its interests. There is no more political a city than Washington, where Sharma honed his skills in White House diplomatic meetings.

A welcome worldliness 

The grandson of an Indian immigrant, he would bring a welcome worldliness to the House of Representatives. (His Labor opponent, Tim Murray, looks like he could make a strong contribution to politics, too.)

 In the Liberal Party vote, Sharma overcame two big factors: his gender, and his home. 

Sharma’s residence on Sydney’s North Shore – to look after his 90-year-old single father – was used against him. Surely a city as international as Sydney can move beyond petty parochialism, especially in some of its most highly educated suburbs?

The gender question was more substantial. The evidence suggests the Liberal Party suffers from entrenched sexism. Women are less likely to be selected for safe seats, and take longer to be promoted. As the party membership becomes more conservative, the situation is getting worse.

Ultimately, the Liberal voters demonstrated they weren’t swayed by gender. Jarvis came fourth in the first round of voting and O’Regan fifth, out of eight candidates. The top three places were filled by men: Sharma, insurance lobbyist Richard Shields, and the seat’s previous holder, Peter King.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attention to the problem is a good sign. But rarely has the potential cost of trading off gender equality for qualifications been as stark as in Wentworth.

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