First published by The Hoopla, 6 January 2015

Just before Luke Foley was elected Leader of the Opposition in NSW this week he described himself as an “unlikely leader”.

Foley, you see, is a member of the left faction in a state where the right of the ALP has traditionally had the numbers to anoint the party’s leader.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported his installment as: “Foley’s rise shows meritocracy, not faceless men.” It was as if the ALP was making a really bold and out-of-the-ordinary choice with Foley, and his candidacy was all about merit.

For anyone not intimately involved in politics, hearing a former union leader and past assistant general secretary of the NSW Labor Party describe himself as an “unlikely leader” is hysterically funny.

It’s like hearing, say, former soapie star Kylie Minogue describe herself as an “unlikely pop star”.

Foley, a 44-year-old bloke, is about as likely a leader as you can be right now in Australian politics.

Here’s a shapshot of the nation’s leaders:

  • The Premier of NSW is Mike Baird (46). In Victoria it’s Daniel Andrews (42) and Matthew Guy (40) became Leader of the Opposition after the last state election.
  • In the ACT, Andrew Barr (41) is Chief Minister, facing off against Liberal leader Jeremy Hanson (47). In Tasmania, the Premier is Will Hodgman (45) and in the NT the Chief Minister is Adam Giles (41).
  • The Leader of the Federal Opposition is Bill Shorten (47). The opposition leaders in South Australia and Western Australia are (respectively) Steven Marshall (46) and Mark McGowan (47).

In short, 11 of the 18 key leadership positions in the Australia’s federal, state and territory governments are held by forty-something men.

Add in the two women to the group – the opposition leaders of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk (45), and the NT, Delia Lawrie (48) – and the older Gen Xers Jay Weatherill (50) and Campbell Newman (51), SA and Queensland leaders respectively, and it’s clear that with 15 of the 18 leaders representing Gen X, there’s a generational change happening in politics. Even the Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt (42), fits the Gen X male mould.

And Julie Bishop says 60 is the new 40? At 59 she’s a senior. There are just three men at the top representing the Baby Boomer generation: PM Tony Abbott (57), WA’s Colin Barnett (64) and Tassie’s Opposition Leader, Bryan Green (57).

As a Gen Xer, I’m torn between wanting to cheer – Yay! My team is finally getting a turn to run the show! – and wanting to tear my hair out. Now my generation is in power, it seems that despite all their factional and party differences, they all just look so … so… similar.

We are still talking about mostly men, and not a particularly mixed bunch at that. Granted, Andrew Barr is often referred to as Australia’s “first openly gay leader” and Adam Giles is Australia’s first Indigenous head of a government.

But otherwise? It’s pretty much business as usual.

My generation didn’t invent the idea of celebrating difference or equal opportunity. But we were the first generation where women started to equal (and then outnumber) men at university. We mainstreamed the word “queer”. We were the generation that really believed we might actually start to run the world in ways that challenged the “dominant paradigm” (a phrase many of today’s Gen X leaders would have tossed around with abandon – or at least heard with great regularity – when they were at university).

While we’ve made great progress on the diversity front, our political leaders seem to be falling behind on the same measure.

In truth it’s always been the roaring forties when men make their mark in Aussie politics.

Paul Keating was 47 when he became Prime Minister. Malcolm Fraser, 45. Many premiers of recent history were in their 40s when they took office: Bob Carr (47) Peter Beattie (45) and Jeff Kennett (44).

Does age and gender really matter? I say it does matter – quite a lot.

Because while we often hear politicians talking about giving everyone “a fair go”, it’s worth remembering that before any of us even get a chance to drop the voting paper in the ballot box, only a few of us are destined to lead.

Let’s look more closely at some stats (trust me, they’re interesting).

  • In June last year, according to ABS figures, there were 1,901,331 men in Australia aged 40-51 (Australia’s total population was 23,490,700). With 13 of our 18 government leaders and opposition leaders in the “blokes 40 to 51-year-old” category, this means we are choosing 72% of our leaders from just 8% of the population. And remember this 8% represents all men in this age group – men from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, the vast majority of which aren’t reflected in our leaders’ upbringing.
  • If we look at all of the 16 men in this group of 18 leaders, then we are choosing close to 90% of our leaders from just 15.7% of the population (the proportion of the population who are males aged 40 to 64).
  • Let’s try, for argument’s sake, adding in the women again. An extraordinary 50% of the group (9 leaders) are men and women aged between 42 and 47. Yet men and women in this age group in Australia make up just 8.3% of the population.

Whilst many of the leaders in this group have young families – Foley is constantly being referred to as a father of three – it’s clear that being a parent and a leader is a harder thing for women to achieve. For every Joan Kirner, Anna Bligh, Carmen Lawrence or Kristina Keneally with kids, there’s a Julia Gillard, Lara Giddings or a Julie Bishop who have none.

Motherhood clearly doesn’t disqualify women from leadership. But the obvious point (made with clever good humour by Annabel Crabb recently in The Wife Drought) still needs to be repeated: ambitious men still find it easier than ambitious women to land partners who look after the children as part of the power equation.

One way many of our 40-something male leaders are like the rest of us is that they are increasingly likely to be the parents of young children.

But as delayed parenting becomes the norm, perhaps the resulting clash between the peak “leading” years and the peak “small children” years may mean we might have to wait until the Millennials are in charge before we see a 44-year-old woman with three children under eight (like Foley) in line to become premier.

We need to do better.

Perhaps the millions of dollars the major parties are spending on focus groups trying to figure what interests voters, and on media monitoring to figure out how they’re perceived, isn’t actually necessary.

It’s quite possible the rest of us would be a little more engaged with politics if the people elected to represent us actually… well…represented us.

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