When our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, appointed himself the minister for women there were two obvious explanations. Either he cared about the portfolio so much that he wanted to manage it himself, or, that he cared about it so little that he didn’t want to saddle anyone else with managing it. Based on his first eight weeks’ in the role the latter seems to be the case.
Based on the eight weeks immediately preceding his commencement in the role this is a pretty bitter pill to swallow. Throughout the election campaign a day barely passed where we weren’t told by the Liberal party that Tony Abbott was a man who cared about women. Paid parental leave and childcare were policy priorities the LNP was going to tackle. Abbott was physically flanked by women for the entire election campaign – he barely made an appearance without his daughters, his wife, a female candidate running for office or one of his party’s female MPs by his side. There can be no doubt that winning over women was an important component of Tony Abbott’s strategy to win the 2013 election.
Of course winning any election is a numbers game and given females comprise 50% of voters, it’s hardly surprising, or novel, that a political party would target them. The relevant question, however, is whether the strategy was purely a play for votes or whether there was some – or any – substance to the proclamations that issues affecting women were of some importance to our new government?
A cynic was always going to conclude the former but I’ll admit I held out some hope. After my conversation with the then-Opposition spokesperson for Early Childhood and Childcare Sussan Ley I felt quietly confident that the Liberal party was serious about its commitment to improving access to childcare services. Certainly Ley was smart, sharp and so well-informed on the topic that I finished the discussion feeling somewhat assured. But where is Ley now?
She’s not at the Cabinet table and she’s not responsible for the portfolio. In October Ley confirmed that any proposed reforms from the Productivity Commission inquiry, promised before the election, won’t be made until after the 2015 budget. The terms of reference for the review were yet to be finalised. The urgency with which these matters were meant to be handled seems to have diminished.
Certainly the new government’s silence is not limited to policy issues and election promises that were aimed at women. However, in combination with the rare public statements Abbott has made and the decisions he has so far taken, most visibly his Cabinet, it’s hard not to conclude his commitment to women extended only so far as their votes.
Which is a huge shame because Australian women still face too many obstacles. We have a significant workforce participation issue that other countries don’t and it costs us dearly. For a government committed to bolstering our national economy, ignoring that seems surprising.
And yet weren’t we repeatedly promised no surprises from Abbott? Technically, I suppose some would say, given our Prime Minister’s track record with women, this isn’t a surprise. Unless there is a change of tack, come 2016 it may be time for us to surprise Abbott. Winning over women may work as a viable election campaign strategy when your government has a clean slate and can just make promises but that opportunity won’t arise again. The next time Abbott campaigns for our vote he’s going to have to justify the decisions he’s made during his time in office. At this rate, just how he does that will be the big surprise.