Mums the only women for Coalition

Sydney Morning Herald
March 04, 2006

By Adele Horin

IT WAS a throwaway line from the chameleon Peter Costello, and who knows if he meant it. Having assumed the posture last week of a right-wing anti-Muslim bigot, he shifted to moderate mode this week to champion the cause of women. "We must look at how to improve opportunities for women to create the most female-friendly environment in the world," the Treasurer told the National Press Club.

It is ironic Costello's remarks coincided with the release of a new report that showed Australia had slipped to its lowest-ever ranking in an international league table of women's representation in national parliaments.

Female representation in the House of Representatives is going backwards because the Coalition parties have failed to put forward women candidates. The Treasurer's concern about being "women-friendly" might start with his own party.

For all the indignation at Labor's preselection bunfights, for all the carry-on about its domination by the trade unions, the ALP still has a much better record than the Coalition in promoting women in its ranks. Women make up more than one-third of Labor's members in the House, compared with 20 per cent of the Liberal's. Similar maths apply to female representation in state parliaments. Labor does much better. The National do even worse than the Liberals.

Under the Howard/Costello Government, Australia has slid to 29th on the league table published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union to show the proportion of women MPs in lower houses of parliament. New Zealand is in 15th place, the place Australia occupied in 1999.

The number of women in the House fell in the 2004 election for the first time since 1980, and is now 24.7 per cent. We do better than Canada, Britain and the US but our track record is poorer than the Nordic countries (more than 45 per cent of MPs in Sweden are women), Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, as well as countries such as Afghanistan, Rwanda and Burundi.

The carelessness shown by the Coalition in this matter is symptomatic of its carelessness towards women in general. Women have featured in the Government's thinking primarily as mothers. Through generous family payments, the Government has rewarded mothers, especially mothers who stayed at home, or worked just a little.

But the Government has disparaged as out-of-touch elites and "special interest" groups those who sought to promote women's equality and opportunities on a broader front. There has been a strong belief in the Government that the pendulum swung too far in favour of women in the Labor years, particularly in favour of a certain kind of woman.

So bit by bit it has dismantled the government machinery that from the 1970s had made Australia a world leader in developing policies and services for women.

In a forensic analysis, to be published by Cambridge University Press next year, the ANU political scientist Marian Sawer shows the Government's decision on "governing for the mainstream" led it to root out feminist influence within government departments, and to downgrade or eliminate any office with expertise on gender issues.

In his first budget, the Treasurer cut funding for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (including the Sex Discrimination Commissioner) by

40 per cent, and the Office of the Status of Women by a similar amount, greatly weakening their ability to do research and exert influence on policy and public debate.

The venerable Women's Bureau in the employment portfolio, in existence since 1963, disappeared in 1997, as did other units, such as the Migrant Women's Adviser, and the Equal Pay Unit. In-house policy expertise on women's issues disappeared as the Prime Minister looked to conservative outsiders, such as the British sociologist Catherine Hakim, for advice.

In 2004, the Office of the Status of Women, in existence since 1974, was demoted from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, renamed, and relocated to the Department of Family and Community Services. Women were officially subsumed under family policy.

As Dr Sawer points out, the Government also attempted to weaken the Sex Discrimination Act to allow the advertising of men-only teachers' scholarships but was knocked back in the Senate. Now it has control of the Senate, renewed amendments to the act are foreshadowed.

Though hostile to "special interest" groups that represented women, the Government paid heed to men's groups, once regarded as extremists, and acted on many of their demands. Only after an outcry did it return funding it cut to the National Council for Single Mothers.

No progress has been made on bridging the pay gap between men and women, and, based on Bureau of Statistics surveys in 1990 and 2003, the workforce participation rate of mothers aged 25-34 and 35-44 has gone backwards. Australia still lacks mandatory paid maternity leave. And the Government refuses to back the last decision of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission that gave women returning from maternity leave a legal right to request part-time work, and for the request to be considered seriously by their bosses. British women have won the right, and the sky has not fallen in over there. Under the Government's new industrial relations regime, Australian women will have to negotiate with their bosses for such flexible policies.

If Costello is serious, he would ensure research is undertaken into the impact of the industrial relations and welfare regimes on women's lives, income, training and promotion, and on the gender gap. The Government should subject its ideology to the test of empirical research to see if it really is female-friendly.


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