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The f-word enters the campaign and trips up both major parties

Bill Shorten, launching Labor’s childcare policy, inadvertently set off a debate about the major party leaders’ respective feminist credentials. AAP/Joel Carrett

The “f” word has made an unexpected entrance into the election campaign – and that “f” word is of course “feminist”.

The launch of Labor’s childcare policy in turn raised questions of who could call themselves a feminist, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull readily claiming the moniker on Monday.

The debate started when Labor offered to bring on new subsidies plus some eligibility changes 18 months earlier than those offered by the government.

Bill Shorten unintentionally fired the feminism debate by saying the changes were targeted at women, both as the major users and household organisers of childcare. Nationals deputy Fiona Nash and Today show host Lisa Wilkinson branded this statement “prehistoric”, so Shorten then had to defend his stance by saying men rely on women to handle childcare arrangements.

Nash and Wilkinson’s comments suggested they were taking a much more radical view of the correct allocation of family responsibilities than they believed Shorten to be espousing. Nash went on to say:

I’m extremely surprised that (deputy Labor leader) Tanya Plibersek and other Labor women haven’t come out and condemned Bill Shorten for making those comments.

This raises questions about whether these policies assume childcare is a “women’s issue”, or a feminist one. That is, one that is committed to raising the status of women to equality, however defined, rather than simply being directed at women.

For the purpose of this analysis, I am offering my definition of equality, which may be much more stringent that those popularly accepted. It is expressed in a 1970s slogan that stated “women who want equality with men lack ambition”. I believe feminist policies need to be about changing gender inequities and values, not just about women making it on male terms.

The use of the term “women’s issues” illustrates this difference, and probably underpins the concerns raised above about the Shorten approach. To some degree, it both accepts the lesser importance of these issues compared with, say, economic issues, and assumes that these have no universal value. Therefore, explicitly excluding men from childcare responsibilities lowers its status.

I understand that argument and agree with it. But it should also be noted that Nash ignores the flaws in her own Coalition’s policies that undermine its feminist credentials.

Maybe Nash’s term “prehistoric” is a useful starting point. In the early days of 1970s feminism, childcare was seen as an essential part of the liberation of women from the confines of the household, but not just to find jobs. We wanted more collective or communal ways of sharing the care of children as a means of changing gender-based family roles, allowing tasks and responsibilities to be more broadly shared by both sexes and beyond the parents.

We managed to get the first ever daycare funding and subsidies for community-based services. To do so we used arguments about the needs of both children and parents, and included the increased need for childcare because more women were choosing to take on paid work. But our ambitions remained broader.

The neoliberal shift in the 1980s saw our arguments becoming more economic, but we still hoped that changing female roles, and more women assuming positions of power, would continue feminist dreams of redrawing the roles of both men and women to remove gender inequality.

Instead, this change meant women’s groups too often assumed that adopting male roles was the best option on offer. So now we have children’s services that commodify, commercialise and marketise their services.

Fast forward to the current campaign and we have the government and opposition proposing some major changes to childcare policy, with questions being raised about the leaders’ feminist credentials.

This in turn created a wider debate. The Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declared himself a feminist – something Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Minister for Women Michaelia Cash have previously refused to do … “I am a feminist, yes,” Mr Turnbull proclaimed twice on Monday afternoon, saying his father ingrained in him a deep respect for women and he believes they are “taking the world by storm”, even in traditionally male-dominated fields. “Girls can do anything and in particular they can do engineering,” he told a Melbourne event celebrating women in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing.

However, Turnbull has apparently failed to recognise that his party policy has serious feminist flaws built in, which are even lauded by his minister, Simon Birmingham. The flaw is the so-called activity test that excludes from any subsidy those families who have no work-related need for care, or defined disadvantaged.

Childcare is redefined as funded to increase women’s workforce participation. These changes therefore exclude the children of stay-at-home mothers, once the core constituency of the conservative parties and used to criticise “working mothers”.

Now the Coalition’s activity policy may exclude an estimated 149,000 families and leave them worse off, says the Australian National University’s Ben Phillips, compared to the government’s estimate of just 37,000. Either way, the message is that these services are only for women who have paid jobs or do approved volunteering.

Yet Birmingham sees this as a valuable money-saving policy. On ABC AM he said:

We want to make sure that the families who are in the workforce, studying or volunteering, are the ones who are getting first priority in terms of government support for childcare places. Not people who are staying-at-home families.

Labor has done the right thing by clearly saying it will not impose the activity test, so Shorten deserves a feminist thank you for that. Labor also receives credit for the decision to retain and extend the budget-based funding model, the last vestige of the old community-based direct-funded service that serves many Indigenous and remote communities.

The Coalition policy loses more feminist points by cutting this program, as it is non-market program funding that allows for the social role changes that market models don’t.

So Turnbull’s idea of feminism seems out of step with that of his colleagues, who are happy to stick with “women’s issues” and equality defined as success in male terms. Was Nash really showing a commitment to more serious gender equity, or just looking for a cheap shot at Labor?

What is clear is that acceptance of feminist goals – or at least ease with the term – is not widespread in the Coalition. Mathias Cormann’s failure to follow Turnbull’s acceptance of the feminist tag suggests caution, as did the earlier rejections of the term by Bishop and Cash.

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