In 1902 Australia became the first country in the world to grant women both the right to vote and to stand for federal election. But it took another four decades for women to enter the hallowed chambers of federal Parliament.
If we are content to move at the same glacial pace in redressing gender inequality in Canberra, we will be condemned to watch generations of female talent being squandered.
We know the Abbott government ministry is among the worst in the developed world for gender diversity, with just two women in cabinet.
A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development found Australia is pipped at the post only by Greece, Korea, Turkey, Hungary and Slovakia in its dearth of women among the highest ranks of government.
Those with higher gender diversity rankings, such as Nordic countries, have introduced mandatory quotas or voluntary targets to redress the bias in men's favour.
There is an understandable reticence among men and women alike to adopt such measures to increase the representation of women in parliament.
Quotas or targets can threaten to overshadow the merits of the highly skilled and capable women they are designed to promote. They go against meritocracy, challenge the bedrock principle of equality and can set unintended precedents for other organisations.
However, if we are serious about change, it is time to consider something new. It is clear the argument about favouring "merit-based appointments" masks the reality that there are conscious and unconscious barriers to female progress that have nothing to do with women's suitability for high office.
"What gets measured gets done ... if you don't have targets or goals, you won't do it," former prime minister Julia Gillard said at the launch of a corporate gender diversity initiative last Wednesday.
Victorian Liberal MP Sharman Stone has backed mandatory quotas, while Queensland MP and former Howard government member Teresa Gambaro has called for a 30 per cent target for female representation across all seats. Government frontbencher Kelly O'Dwyer also supports targets, but others such as Education Minister Christopher Pyne prefer grass-roots initiatives to support women to choose public life.
The UN has identified 30 per cent as the "critical minority" required for women to exert influence in parliamentary decision-making.
The Labor Party adopted an "affirmative action model" of 40:40:20 in 2012, meaning women and men should each fill 40 per cent of seats with the remaining 20 per cent open to either gender.
The party now aims to increase the number of female parliamentarians to 50 per cent by 2025.
The ALP has not yet reached its target, but a range of affirmative action measures has helped increase female representation in state and federal politics.
This is not to say Labor has all the answers. There were 10 women in the Gillard government cabinet but the nation has been slipping backwards for years in global rankings of gender diversity in parliament.
As at 2014, Australia was placed 48th in the world compared with 20th in 2001.
Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop, a standout performer in the Abbott government, says political candidates should be selected on merit but "the Liberal Party is mindful of the need to attract a diverse range of candidates".
It is now time for the Coalition to turn its mind in earnest to setting targets to achieve this aim, or face the spectre of mandatory quotas to force its hand.
SOURCE: Sydney Morning Herald, 01/08/2015, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/smh-editorial/sunherald-editorial-its-time...