How has a world leader fallen so far behind?

Sydney Morning Herald
8 March, 2007
By Dr Sarah Maddison

Australia once led the world in efforts to improve equality between women and men. We once set benchmarks in increasing women's influence over public decision-making; in promoting gendered analysis of public policies; in enshrining the principle of participatory democracy through a well-funded and consulted women's groups sector; and in a national commitment to legislative and policy innovations to enhance women's human rights and civil liberties.

Yet Australia's standing as a leader in the global struggle for gender equality is much diminished.

The Gender Report for the Democratic Audit of Australia paints a worrying picture of Australia's progress towards gender equality. Many achievements of an earlier period have been undone.

First, Australia's legislative framework for protecting women's rights has proven inadequate for ensuring lasting gender equality in areas such as equal participation in the labour market. Australian legislation is not as comprehensive, co-ordinated or effective as it might be and has recently been undermined.

Second, women make up only 28.3 per cent of the members of the Federal Parliament. There is evidence that greater parliamentary representation of women would do little to improve gender equality. While women's presence in parliaments has symbolic importance, it does not mean that governments are more likely to introduce policies to remove barriers to gender equality.

The recent alliance of women in Federal Parliament over RU486, the morning after pill, was the exception rather than the rule. In general, women in both major parties are bound to toe the party line.

Third, optimism over the role of women's policy units within government has not been fulfilled. Australia's unique and innovative model - once described by the United Nations as among the world's best - made gender analysis central to government business. However, much of the machinery itself has been dismantled.

Finally, women's advocacy organisations have been effectively marginalised in policy debates over the past decade. A commitment to funding a range of organisations to provide policy advice from a diversity of perspectives has been replaced with a narrower and more constrained funding model with the number of organisations receiving funding, and their capacity to act independently of government, restricted.

In NSW we have also seen the virtual eradication of women's policy advisory roles. In its heyday the NSW Department for Women achieved a great deal, most notably its lead role in the groundbreaking NSW pay equity inquiry that established the principle of "gendered pay inequity" in traditional women's occupations, such as librarians and nursing, that were poorly paid, and allowed cases to be brought before the NSW Industrial Relations Commission on these grounds - a first in Australia.

But in 2004 a NSW government "mini-budget" announced that the department was to be "elevated" to an office in the Premier's Department.

What this actually meant was that the Department for Women was effectively abolished and its budget cut by more than 50 per cent. The office has no grants program and a skeleton staff of 14. In effect, this has meant the end of strategic policy advice in NSW and the sidelining of any commitment to gender analysis of public policy in this state.

Australia did not suddenly decide to embrace gender equality because it seemed like a good idea. Successive Australian governments have been persuaded of the importance of equality between women and men by activists inside and outside government highlighting the unequal pay and areas of discrimination faced by women.

It is important to future generations of Australian women that concerns raised in the report are addressed. Rebuilding the policy machinery and revitalising the role played by women's advocacy organisations should be priorities. However, for this to be achieved in the face of political neglect and apathy, renewed pressure is required. Neither major party in the state election has had much to say about gender equality.

Reinstating gender equality at the heart of Australian democracy is our continuing challenge.

Dr Sarah Maddison is a lecturer with the school of social sciences and international studies postgraduate research co-ordinator at the University of NSW.

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