Australia - Sophie Mirabella returns to Parliament to push for more female MPs

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Former Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella has returned to Canberra to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Tony Abbott and MPs calling on them to boost the number of women in federal parliament, saying the lack of women in cabinet is a "mainstream issue".

Mrs Mirabella, now a public policy fellow at the University of Melbourne, helped draw up the so-called Melbourne Declaration, along with former Julia Gillard advisor, Nick Reece, last week.

It calls for new targets for women to make up at least 40 per cent of party officials, parliamentarians, ministers and shadow ministers across all political parties and all tiers of government.

But Mrs Mirabella, who has confessed to feeling "responsible" for the lack of women in cabinet as a result of her shock election defeat, says the goal is not a call for mandatory quotas which conservatives oppose.

"It's an ambition. It is two preselection cycles and a lot can happen in those preselection cycles," she said. Mrs Mirabella said it was unfair that women seeking preselection were asked about how they planned to manage a family, while male candidates never fielded the same question.

"Often women get asked 'Who's going to look after the children?'. A young male politician gets applauded for having a family yet for a woman or an aspiring female politician it can be looked at as something of a challenge to be overcome," she said.

Mrs Mirabella urged MPs, including Mr Abbott, to sign the petition saying the lack of women in cabinet had become a "mainstream issue" and female participation in policy-making is now an "electoral imperative".

"There was a time when a majority of women voted for the Liberal party under Menzies. That is no longer the case and for all political parties it is has become an imperative to show that it is open and has women plentiful in its ranks," she said.

Principal fellow Nick Reece agreed but said quotas were critical to the Liberals' early success.

"Menzies was a world leading pioneer in the introduction of gender quotas for party positions. The early success of the Liberal Party was based on a very high female vote, which reflected the party's early ideals," he said.

But he said "the tables had turned" since the Labor Party had introduced a 35 per cent quota in 1994 and boosted it to 40 per cent in 2002 for party and public office positions.

"The ALP has well and truly overtaken the Liberals on that front and if you look at female voting behaviour it reflects that change."

"Companies with more women in senior roles are more profitable and governments who have more women in senior positions is a better reflection of democratic ideals deliver better government as a broader perspective is brought to policy making".

"And that is why leading international female executives like Christine Lagarde, CEO of the IMF, now support the use of quotas, or the use of targets," he said.

Mr Reece described his new colleague as a "force of nature" and said it was an honour to work with Mrs Mirabella – once a bitter political foe of his former boss – Julia Gillard.

"I would work with almost anybody for a good cause and this is an issue in which Sophie and I could achieve more together than by acting alone," he said.

Reflecting on her unplanned exit from Parliament, Mrs Mirabella said she would continue, as many retired MPs do, to advocate for party reform. She said she was grateful for the support she received from her former colleagues after conceding defeat to independent Cathy McGowan.

"A true character and heart is judged when you go through difficult times and I'm very fortunate that even in politics there are some good friends and some good people," she said.

SOURCE: The Age, December 16th, 2014,