Women and Franchise in Agricultural Organisations: A Case Study of the Australian Sugar Industry

Article excerpt

This paper is concerned with women's franchise in agri-political groups, and specifically, the gendered voting system of the Australian agricultural organization, CANEGROWERS. The Australian sugar industry covers three states, but is largely concentrated in Queensland where there are approximately 6500 farms compared with 650 in New South Wales and 20 in Western Australia. Many of the small towns along the eastern coast of Australia were built on the industry and continue to rely on it economically. For example, a significant proportion of the population in any cane-growing community is employed in one of the 26 mills established to process raw sugar. The majority of these cane enterprises are owned and operated as family farms while the remainder (less than 2%) are operated as private companies. There is some variation in size across these farms, but the average is 80 hectares. Today the industry is highly mechanised. However, as Jean Devanny evocatively reveals in her 1936 novel Sugar Heaven, work in earlier times was physically demanding and undertaken in harsh conditions. From 1863 until 1901 approximately 60 000 South Seas Islanders, many initially brought into Australia through kidnapping provided cheap labour for the industry, as documented in another Devanny novel Cindie (1949). With the repatriation of most of the Islanders at Federation at the beginning of the twentieth century, governments looked to migrants to meet the labour shortage on the cane fields.

Cane farmers are represented by the agri-political group, CANEGROWERS. It was first established in 1926 and today employs a staff of 100 located in district offices in cane-growing areas across the state of Queensland, as well as in a central state office located in the capital city of Brisbane. CANEGROWERS is presided over by 153 leaders across a three level hierarchy. Of these 153 elected leaders, only two are women.

The first level in the organisational structure is described in the legislation as Mill Suppliers' Committees. These committees handle local issues and act as a liaison point between growers and the sugar mill owner. The second tier in the structure consists of local district Executive Committees. These deal with matters common to a group of mill areas in a particular district or issues of broader relevance to growers. Elections for office across these two tiers are held every three years and administered by CANEGROWERS. There is one vote per farm assignment, even though the majority are farmed in partnership. Once elected to office, local area committees vote for a member to represent them at the highest tier of leadership, the CANEGROWERS' Council. This 26 member council is responsible for setting policy on issues of importance to all growers across the state.

The CANEGROWERS' practice of providing only one vote per farm, regardless of whether the farm is owned in partnership or as a sole operation is one that is typical of agricultural organizations throughout Australia.1 Typically this means the senior member of the farming family is allocated the vote. This is usually the senior male. This has three impacts on women's participation according to the literature. First, this means that women standing for election must be elected by an almost all male constituency. second, by denying women participation in the electoral processes, agri-political organisations devalue women's contributions to agriculture and this affects their willingness and ability to participate in agricultural leadership. Third, the lack of franchise for women simultaneously constructs males as the legitimate protagonists in the public agricultural arena. Given these factors it is thus not surprising that farming women consider franchise to be one of the most critical constraints to greater gender equity in the agricultural sector. Despite this, however, and farm women's agitation for change,2 there have been limited attempts by Australian agricultural organisations to be inclusive. …

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