Woman Asher, Louise (1956 - )
Brighton, Victoria, Australia
- Parliamentarian and Politician
- Alternative Names
- Lasher (Known as)
Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne
On April 16, 2013, deputy leader of the Victorian parliamentary Liberal Party and Victoria's longest-serving female MP, Louise Asher , became the first female manager of government business in the Victorian lower house. A trailblazer for women in the Liberal Party in Victoria, Asher added this role to a number of other firsts. In 1982, aged twenty-five, she was elected as the Young Liberals' first female president. Asher entered parliament in 1992 and was quickly promoted to the cabinet in 1996 as Minister for Small Business and Tourism. After the Liberal Party's shock election loss in 1999, she was elected the Liberal's first female deputy opposition leader. Since then, she has stepped down from the deputy leadership, been elected back into it (in 2006) and now, in 2013 has achieved another first for Victorian Liberal women in politics. Louise Asher - nicknamed 'Lasher' - has been involved in Victorian Parliamentary politics now for over twenty years , although her association with Liberal politics extends back further. Says Asher, 'I was a child politician - I've been working for a parliamentary career since I was nineteen' (Interview).
Born an only child in Brighton, Victoria in 1956, Asher was introduced to political discussion by her parents at an early age. Both of them were Liberal voters and her mother was particularly enamoured with Robert Menzies, who she loved 'as a gentleman' and as a leader who delivered prosperity to the Australian middle class (Wilmoth). There was no TV in the Asher household. 'My father,' said Asher, 'said it was an obstacle to me learning' (Wilmoth). Louise's parents had high hopes and great expectations for their daughter. 'I was to do well at school and go to uni and I was to read and acquire skills,' she recalled, hastening to add that 'there was some fun along the way' (Interview).
Asher graduated from Bonbeach High School in 1973 - 'a high school, very odd for a Liberal' (Wilmoth) - where she received excellent support from her teachers, particularly her literature teacher. She enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne (1974-77) which she followed with an MA in history, a historical study of the Women's Electoral Lobby (78-79) and a Diploma of Education at Monash University (1980). Paradoxically, it was the classes given by a left wing British historian that she enjoyed the most. Being exposed to big ideas such as liberalism and socialism by someone who was passionate about them engaged her own passion. She enjoyed university learning immensely.
While at university Asher dabbled in politics and joined the Young Liberals. She was not interested in the 'blokiness' and conservatism of the Liberal Students, and so spent very little time on student politics. She certainly felt as though she was in the minority while on campus, amongst 'the Maoists and the Trotskyites' with her anti-Gough Whitlam views and her Young Liberal membership. And while strongly identified as a feminist, she did not feel comfortable at Women's Liberation meetings ('too left wing') and could not relate to the consciousness raising aspects of women's liberation (Interview). She was interested in the pragmatic politics of feminism, not the identity politics. She was a conservative feminist who wanted women to have choice and power through the existing capitalist system. She did not want a feminist revolution, she was happy with the existing economic and social structures. What she wanted from feminism was for women to have equal access to those structures. This continues to be the focus of her feminism; demanding equal access to existing structures.
Because she was a bonded undergraduate student, Asher was required to teach in the government school system once she graduated. She worked at schools in Melton and Springvale, continued to aspire towards a political career and, believing that in order to realize that aspiration she would need a better grounding in economics, completed a Bachelor of Economics at Monash University while teaching at Springvale High (1983-86). In 1982, at the age of 25, she was elected the first female Young Liberals President. In 1987, she left teaching to get broader employment experience. She was a research officer for the Victorian Credit Co-operative Association (1987-88) and then moved to Sydney to work for the then NSW Minister for Health, Peter Collins, as a policy advisor. (1988-91) She successfully contested pre-selection for the seat of Monash in the Victorian Upper House in 1991, returned to Melbourne and won the seat in the Liberal landslide at the 1992 Victorian election. Her potential was acknowledged by then Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, who gave her cabinet responsibilities in 1996. After a tough pre-selection battle, she moved to the lower house seat of Brighton when she was elected to the seat in 1999. Victory, however, was 'a bitter pill to swallow'; the Liberal Government lost the election. Describing her victory as 'a bit like being the Norm Smith Medallist in a losing AFL Grand Final Team', the experience of loss was central to Asher learning some important political wisdom. 'Nothing is certain and you are not entitled,' she says, reflecting on the lessons taught by the defeat. 'Experiencing loss makes you do a minister's job differently when you get another chance' (Interview).
Over twenty years in parliamentary politics has taught her much about the challenges of leadership in political life as she has sought to lead in her electorate, her portfolio and her party. Different skills and styles are required in each context and balancing the responsibilities is a constant challenge. Throughout that period, her understanding of what constitutes good leadership has evolved. Authoritarian leaders are far less likely to succeed these days; approaches have to be much more consultative. 'Leadership is not directing, it is suggesting,' she observes. 'Modern leadership involves getting the best out of people and taking them with you.' (Interview) Importantly, good leaders are confident enough to share their networks and knowledge as a way of signalling trust in those working with them. 'Leaders are disciplined teachers … and they inspire loyalty, which is very important in politics.' Furthermore, they are capable of recognising their own fallibility and weaknesses, or when they are not the right person for the job. 'Leaders acknowledge when they make mistakes' (Interview).
Political life is volatile but that, according to Asher, is part of the appeal. Needless to say, it is more fun when in Government, but even when in opposition, the pleasure of assisting constituents provides job satisfaction. There is a buzz associated with delivering services and being in charge, about being in parliament at question time, she says. 'The job is addictive. It can be frustrating, but it is never boring and it is always satisfying' (Interview).
Given the attractions of the job and its social importance, Asher believes that Liberal women should be better represented in the parliament. There are concerns amongst her cohort that the number of women seeking pre-selection is not improving with time and so an internal review has been launched which Asher and other Liberal women hope will address cultural problems impacting upon women's decisions whether to nominate for preselection. 'The party has been very good at preselecting young men, but it needs to be a lot better at preselecting young women so they can eventually take on senior roles,' she says. 'Unless we preselect a significant number of women for the 2014 state election, we'll basically lose a generation' (Tomazin). There are some factors impacting upon the decision that affect both sides of politics - sitting hours being key. Broader change beyond the scope of this internal review would be required to change them. But if talented women are choosing not to stand for parliament for reasons within the Liberal Party's control then Asher believes that more must be done. Citing the importance of Jan Wade to the passage of key domestic violence legislation and Jeanette Patrick to getting Equal Opportunity Legislation through parliament as evidence, she observes that 'if women aren't in parliament, then important issues relating to them don't get discussed' (Interview).
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection
- Asher, Louise, 'The Liberal Party and Women', in Brandis, George; Harley, Tom; and Markwell, Don (eds), Liberals Face the Future: essays on Australian Liberalism, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1984, pp. 104 - 116. Details
- Asher, Louise, 'The Women's Electoral Lobby: An Historical Inquiry', MA thesis, The University of Melbourne, 1980. Details
- 'Asher, Louise (1956 - )', The Australian Women's Register, National Foundation for Australian Women, http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE1267b.htm. Details
- Cafagna, Josephine and Asher, Louise, 'Josephine Cafagna interviews Louise Asher, Deputy Liberal Leader', in Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): Stateline, Interview Transcript, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 31 March 2006, http://www.abc.net.au/stateline/vic/content/2006/s1605916.htm. Details
- Jenkins, Melissa and Iaria, Melissa, 'Victorian minister quits over leak', The Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax Digital, 16 April 2013, http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/victorian-minister-quits-over-leak-20130416-2hxol.html. Details
- Tomazin, Farrah, 'Asher joins call for more female MPs', The Age, Fairfax Digital, 20 January 2013, http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/asher-joins-call-for-more-female-mps-20130119-2d087.html. Details
- Wilmoth, Peter, '"Lasher" strikes back', The Age, Fairfax Digital, 30 April 2006, http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/lasher-strikes-back/2006/04/29/1146198391666.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1. Details