Today, thousands of Australians are expected to march around the country, angry and fed up at the treatment of women. In Canberra they will form a ring of protest around Parliament House.
This comes after Melbourne academic and entrepreneur Janine Hendry wondered how many “extremely disgruntled” women it would take to link arms around parliament to tell the government “we’ve had enough” (the answer is about 4,000).
It follows Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape in a minister’s office in 2019 and an allegation Attorney-General Christian Porter raped a 16-year-old in 1988 (which he denies). It also comes amid multiple claims of a toxic work culture at Parliament House.
While Higgins’ case has sparked numerous inquiries, she claims she was not supported in the aftermath of her alleged assault. Regarding Porter, the government is resisting calls for an independent inquiry, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring him an “innocent man under our law”.
As Australia heads into another pre-election season, questions have been raised about the potential impact of recent events.
Women are obviously a significant demographic, and data shows they are already drifting away from the Liberal Party.
So, what’s at stake when it comes to women voters and the Liberals at the next election?
Gender and voting behaviour
The Australian Election Study is a nationally representative survey of voter behaviour that has run after all federal elections since 1987.
In 2019, it showed that although the Liberal-National Coalition won the federal election, the Liberal Party attracted the lowest proportion of women’s votes since 1987.
While 45% of men gave their first preference to the Liberal Party, just 35% of women did so. Parties on the political left also had an advantage among women, with 6% more women than men voting for the Greens, and a smaller margin of 3% more women voting for Labor.
Looking at the gender gap over time, we see it has actually reversed over the past 30 years. Back in the 1990s, women were slightly more likely to vote for the Liberal party, and men were more likely to vote Labor.
This has gradually switched, so men now prefer the Liberal Party and women prefer Labor. The gender gap in voting Liberal is now at its greatest point on record.
This reversal of the gender gap in voting behaviour isn’t unique to Australia, it has also been observed in other democracies including in Europe and North America.
Why are we seeing a gender gap?
There are a number of factors underpinning this transformation of gender and voting in Australia.
This includes tremendous social change, such as women’s increased participation in higher education. Higher education is associated with political ideology that is further to the left.
Women’s increased participation in the labour force is also a factor. The election study shows in 1990, 41% of union members were women, by 2019, that figure had increased to 55%.
Read more: Labor's election loss was not a surprise if you take historical trends into account
But womens’ voting behaviour can also be attributed to major changes in Australia’s major political parties. Back in the early 1990s, women were similarly underrepresented in both the major parties — just 13% of parliamentarians in 1990 were women.
Since then, Labor has dramatically increased its proportion of women in parliament, reaching 47% through party quotas as of the last election. The Liberal Party on the other hand, has made slower progress, reaching just 23% at the most recent election.
New research published in the journal Electoral Studies shows left-leaning women are more likely to support female candidates.
The Liberal Party’s ‘women problem’
So, even before the current crisis, the Liberal party was losing the electoral support of women.
The Liberal Party’s “women problem” has become a common criticism, not just by political opponents but also prominent Liberal Party figures including former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The current crisis has the potential to exacerbate the gender gap in voting behaviour.
That said, election results are often influenced by the most important issues at the time of the election. The salience of different issues — shaped to a large degree by media coverage — can change considerably over time.
Approval ratings of Morrison from the Essential Poll show he lost a lot of support during the bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020, which he was perceived as handling poorly.
Since then, Morrison has benefited from Australia’s relative success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of a phenomenon known as “rallying ‘round the flag,” voters have supported him and the government during this time of crisis.
The next election
The election can be held anytime from August this year, although political observers currently expect it to be next year.
The electoral impact of current events will depend not only on the government’s response to the sexual assault allegations (and voter satisfaction with those responses), but also which issues are salient at election time. A historical sexual assault allegation against former Labor leader Bill Shorten was not a major factor in the lead up to the last election (he denies the claims and in 2014, police said they would not proceed with charges).
Read more: Polls say Labor and Coalition in a 50-50 tie, Trump set to be acquitted by US Senate
Interestingly, the Australian Election Study shows trust in government reached its lowest point on record in 2019 with just one in four voters believing that people in government could be trusted. In contrast, three quarters thought those in government were more interested in looking after themselves.
On the issue of sexual assault, recent polling data also suggests the government is similarly perceived as putting itself first. Of those polled, 65% agreed “the government has been more interested in protecting itself than the interests of those who have been assaulted”. This includes half of Coalition voters, and a similar proportion of men and women.
Elections are decided on many issues and factors, including what is making headlines closer to election day, and the performance of leaders and parties.
But the growing gender gap in voting will be on the radar of both major parties. The Liberal Party ignores it at its peril.