Lisa Wilkinson wrote an eloquent open letter to Tony Abbott last Friday, respectfully asking him to stand down as Minister for Women. She was careful to say that it was not a reflection on Abbott himself, but rather a request for a greater government focus on women’s issues. 62 women (at the time of writing) have been murdered this year and Abbott’s role as the Prime Minister doesn’t allow him to give this national tragedy the focus it deserves.
She makes a very good argument, but she made one technical mistake; no fault to her, it’s a misconception Abbott has never been willing to correct, but it’s one that is very telling in the way he thinks about women’s issues.
There is no Minister for Women. Abbott didn’t take over the position of Minister for Women when he was elected, he abolished it.
Under the previous Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government the position of Minister for Women was held at various times by Tanya Plibersek, Kate Ellis and Julie Collins. While it was a ministerial position, only Julie Collins, the last incumbent, was in Cabinet during her tenure as Minister for Women. They were all, however, given the title and the seniority and responsibilities that go with it.
When Abbott was elected and he appointed various Coalition members to ministerial positions, he abolished the Minster for Women position, moved its decision making powers into the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and made Michaelia Cash the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women.
So what’s the difference between having a Minister For, and a Minister Assisting? Well, it’s mostly in the title, and a little bit in the powers they are given. A minister would typically be given a budget, staff and some power to make decisions and recommendations to Cabinet. The Minster Assisting would be likely to have a smaller budget, less staff and would have to have policy and decisions approved by the Prime Minister’s Office, rather than their own. There’s no hard rules or formal requirements here, so there are exceptions to all these generalisations, but mostly it’s an indication that Abbott didn’t think the portfolio was important enough to warrant having its own minister.
Every government makes changes to the title and responsibilities of its senior ministers, but there is no constitutional requirement for ministerial specialties, each Prime Minister determines the make-up of the cabinet and outer ministries as they (or in the case of a Labor government, as the caucus) see fit.
Without getting too bogged down by minutia (more details here for those of you who enjoy minutia), Cabinet is made up of senior ministers who are supposed to advise the government and act on its behalf; Cabinet Ministers are usually given responsibility for the areas of government seen as important to the nation.
The outer ministry, Ministers Assisting etc, are junior ministers, and they rarely have responsibility for a full department. They are the ones who act as assistants to senior ministers whose portfolios are so large or prominent that more than one person is required to run them effectively, or they take care of the government’s lowest priorities.
This is where Michaelia Cash, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, currently sits – in the Outer Ministry. It’s difficult to know how effective she would be if she were given the powers and responsibilities of a senior ministry position, because in her current role she is subject to Abbott’s refusal to take any real action, give any real attention or commit any real funds to the Office for Women.
While this may not be entirely unexpected stance from Abbott, it is a reversal of a slow trend in Federal Government to take women’s issues more seriously.
Fraser was the first PM to appoint a Minister Assisting the Prime Minister in Women’s Affairs (Tony Street in 1976), Keating was the first PM to put a Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women in Cabinet (Carmen Lawrence in 1994) and Howard was the first PM to make the portfolio a Ministerial position rather than an assisting minister (Judy Moylan in 1997– albeit only for one year).
The Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government always had a Minister for the Status of Women, usually tied to the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs portfolio. The last Labor government was the only one to maintain the position of Minister for Women throughout its entire duration in government.
Then Abbott was elected and the title of Minister for Women disappeared, despite his unwillingness to correct the misapprehension that he had taken it himself. It’s difficult to know if that’s because he thinks women are so easily fooled that the illusion of interest is all that’s required, or if he just didn’t notice the growing anger his presumption of that title engendered.
When Lisa Wilkinson asked Abbott to step down as Minister for Women, she was asking him to take the issues of that portfolio seriously, give them prominence in his government and do something to address the appalling level of male violence against women that never seems to stop, despite all the mammoth efforts of people outside the federal government.
As much as I applaud her request, and despite the support it will no doubt get in the community, I think it’s highly unlikely Abbott will take any action on this. His track record, starting with downgrading the position in his first ministry, and continuing for two miserable years of defunding women’s shelters, giving so few women a voice in government, ignoring calls for action, and focussing obsessively on the perceived threats of boats and Labor, holds out little hope. That he ignores the hundreds of men, women and children killed by family violence and the hundreds of thousands more who are damaged by it, in favour of the perceived political benefits of divisive anti-immigration rhetoric is not surprising. But it is yet another example of a Prime Minister unwilling or unable to see past his own immediate political ends and consider the well-being of the nation he is supposed to be leading.