Despite the rhetoric, this election fails the feminist test

What’s on offer on issues that disproportionately affect women? Some minor tweaks that are useful but not change-making. AAP/Lukas Coch

The idea that there are policies of particular interest to women goes back to the suffrage era at the turn of the 20th century. Among the key arguments for women gaining the vote was that it would allow them to address overlooked poverty and temperance.

Much more recently, we established the Women’s Electoral Lobby in 1972 to quiz candidates and lobby to put feminist policies on the election agenda. The incoming Whitlam government took up many ideas and made an early commitment to equal pay. In 1974, its win included our childcare policies. When Paul Keating later updated them, they helped his surprisingly successful 1993 election. He officially thanked us for our input.

My personal experiences with all of these show that women voters can respond to policies that affect them in a variety of ways. The following analysis offers a feminist assessment of whether certain key policies crafted by the major parties may influence women’s votes.

While both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party have issued women’s policy documents, these are strong on equality rhetoric but short on the continuing gender inequities, instead offering some funding to fix service problems. A comprehensive list of policies, mostly useful but not change-making, is listed by the National Foundation for Australian Women.

How the major parties shape up on gender

There have been significant improvements in gender rights and roles over my 40-plus years of involvement in feminism. However, most of these changes were in the first 20 years or so – now progress has slowed and may even have stalled.

Too many structural gender inequities still exist, as male-defined rules and criteria still determine the allocation of formal power and define what really matters. This shows in the way in which the major parties focus on gender equality: their policies aim to make women more competitive in paid workplaces and exclude activities that do not contribute to GDP.

Increasing gender equity requires policies that diminish the boundaries between public and private spheres to revalue the unpaid and underpaid social contributions via relationships, family, community, obligations, and caring. Public policies need to assess their gender effects, particularly when an election purports to be planning Australia’s future.

So, how the parties most likely to form government address parenting options, for instance, is important.

The over-emphasis on economic rather than social goals increases the focus on paid work, excluding social issues such as welfare payments, which have already been identified as absent from the agendas of both major parties.

Both major parties assume that employment is the only solution to poverty, ignoring the lack of jobs and the range of issues that exclude many people from even looking for paid work. Too many are now stuck on Newstart, and may lose more, if the Coalition continues with its proposed Family Tax Benefit cuts.

At least Labor is opposing most of these cuts, but is not looking to fix long-term unmet needs.

This lack of attention to people on already inadequate payments from both major parties is pathetic and leaves many women in severe poverty. These payments support those people, mostly women, who provide unpaid care for others and often take time out from paid jobs. It in turn affects their retirement income, despite the rebating of low-income contributors’ tax.

Sole parents have had their incomes reduced by Coalition and Labor policies over the past decade. Neither party has fixed those unfair cuts that ignore both children’s needs and the lack of jobs that allow paid and unpaid roles to be combined.

The only remedies to gender income differences on offer are related to getting a job or a better job. These include funding for more women to take on STEM subjects, so they can more effectively compete in the growing areas of technology. There is no real mention of revaluing feminised skills and roles, even though they are essential to well-being.

Continued failure to tackle gender biased low pay rates sets up long-term problems for quality affordable services to replace unpaid care.

The following examples of policies for funding children’s services and paid parental leave show clearly the limits in two major policy areas that disproportionately affect women.

Children’s services

Children’s services are central to gender equity – not just for workforce needs, but because they free parents to take on other roles. The Coalition won some brownie points when Malcolm Turnbull unequivocally stated he was a feminist, but his party’s policies suggest a narrow definition of the term.

This is clearly shown in the Coalition’s shift from funding child care as a community service to a paid-job-related entitlement. The erosion of universal access for all parents suggests the Coalition now only values women as paid workers, and does not support the contributions they make that are unpaid. This is a long way from the Howard era’s vigorous defence of “choices” for “stay-at-home mothers”.

Labor does much better in children’s services, but primarily by retaining the status quo. That is, universal access to 24 hours a week of child care, as well as raising the fee subsidies 18 months earlier.

Labor is also proposing to retain a limited number of direct community-based subsidies for services that cater for remote and Indigenous children. This is a small move to tackle much wider problems, caused by a dependence on the market-based capacities to meet community needs and functions.

Paid parental leave

Tony Abbott’s original paid parental leave proposal was for a longer, better-paid leave than the 18-week current policy; this was later dumped and replaced by the slashed current entitlements.

Instead of encouraging employers to add to the limited weeks on offer so parents can get closer to the recommended World Health Organisation standard of 26 weeks, the Coalition proposal offers a total entitlement of 18 weeks, with the government only topping up any employer leave weeks. Around half of parents currently have some employer top-ups, so they will lose out and go backwards.

This reduction fails to meet parental needs for time with babies and prioritises saving money. It also again allows Labor to look good just by retaining its status-quo policy, but neither tackles gaps in the system such as the ineligible workers and superannuation contributions.

Where to from here?

While both major parties fail to address many of the above issues, the Greens offer some serious attention to inadequate income payments and promise to reinstate parenting payments. They also offer extra pay to others on inadequate welfare payments, recognising both unpaid work contributions.

Finally, the Greens offer better paid parental leave and support universal access to 24 hours of childcare subsidy and other childcare needs. However, their influence in these areas may be limited by a lack of major party support.

These examples show that neither major party has any serious interest in changing the status of women. Rather, they are offering to fund the short-term needs of some disadvantaged groups.

There is little evidence that either major party understands the need to tackle the basic inequity of expecting women to achieve equality by competing individually on male-defined criteria. So while Labor has scored more highly, it is mainly because it is retaining better current options.

So, women voters are unlikely to find major parties exciting – instead it is a case of the least-worst option. Broader antagonisms between the sexes persist, as recently demonstrated by Collingwood president Eddie McGuire quipping about the prospect of “drowning” sports journalist Caroline Wilson. Against such sharp reminders of broader gender inequalities, the offerings from the major parties offer little hope of improvement.


Eva will be online for an Author Q&A from 4 to 5pm AEST on Tuesday July 28, 2016. Post any questions you have in the comments below.