Those of you who follow along at home will know that I am rather pre-occupied with the so-called “women’s vote”. I write about it with a fair amount of frequency.
The reason is simple. Since moving to Australia six years ago, I have been puzzled by the fact that the women’s vote, and the desire of politicians in this part of the world to sway this decisive demographic with policies focused on issues that one would think are of importance to women, like equal pay, affordable childcare, economic security, etc., hasn’t packed more of a hefty political punch compared to other parts of the world of which I have personal experience.
Many of you know that though I am originally from the United States, I most recently lived in the UK for seven years where I ran press and communications campaigns at the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC), focused on gender equality. And l later took up a similar role at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) when the latter merged with other commissions and expanded its brief to include not only gender equality, but human rights, race, sexual orientation, disability, and religion and belief.
What I learned about multi-tasking! But that is a story for another day.
Back to today’s topic: what I have learned about the mighty political heft of the gender gap in politics and how I think that can and should be more effectively harnessed here in Australia, particularly this year, when it is well and truly game on for the women’s vote.
It’s women wot won it
First let’s take a little trip in my feminist time machine.
Way back in 2006 when I was working at the EOC, we published a report, Sex Equality and the Modern Family: The New Political Battleground. The report highlighted that contrary to the popular expression that it was “The Sun Wot Won It”, in reference to the Murdoch tabloid’s reputed influence on swinging the 1992 general election in favour of the Conservatives, at the 2005 general election, it was women voters wot won it for Labour.
As the report noted, there was a growing gender gap in UK politics and, “women’s votes won it for Labour in 2005”. If only women had voted in that general election, the Government’s majority would have been over 90, and if only men had voted, it would have been reduced to a narrow 23. Yes, that might seem quaint in light of the very fine numbers now in Australia, but it was another time.
The report went on to explain that a “new political battleground” was opening up because women tended to be more responsive to parties that addressed the daily struggle of balancing work and home, the challenges faced by parents and carers and the presence or lack thereof of women candidates.
Since moving to Australia, I have been a bit puzzled by the fact that the trend didn’t replicate itself to quite the same degree here. I was intrigued to read research indicating that until relatively recently, Australian women bucked the international trend, which saw women with increased education and workforce participation rates move towards Labor and Social Democratic parties in other parts of the world, including the US and UK.
In Australia, women remained relatively loyal to the Liberals longer and helped keep them in power. And as a result, I believe the party took them for granted.
But all that’s now changing and changing fast – hence the Liberal Party’s so called “woman problem” runs far deeper than the lack of women candidates, it’s also the growing lack of woman’s votes.
This year will be decisive
Fast forward to 2019, and it is game on for the women’s vote.
In a recent piece for the Guardian, Peter Lewis, the Executive Director of Essential, wrote about the gender gap in Australian politics and said, “the female vote is proving decisive in Labor’s persistent lead in the poles. In fact, if it weren’t for these votes, the contest would be line-ball”.
He went on to write that, “the impact of the gender gap is real and it is a huge advantage to the ALP, which, has diligently begun releasing policies to entrench that advantage”.
Last Friday saw the launch of the Women Vote lobby group in Sydney, a kind of sign of the times.
“We’re going to get a bus”, said Sera Mirzabegian, one of the founders, in reference to their intention to get a fuchsia bus and drive around to key electorates raising issues like the representation of women in the senior ranks of politics and business, women’s workforce participation, financial security (including the pay and super gap), violence against women and health and reproductive rights up the agenda.
They also promised that they would “identify and evaluate the various policies of Australia’s political parties and key independents in terms of their impact on women”.
I think I could do without the bus being fuchsia (is it just me?), but yes to everything else.
How to whistle at this this particular woman
This turn of events has prompted me to ponder how politicians could whistle at this particular woman, and please do pardon the political vernacular pun.
Inspiration was not far off.
Also last week, the Economist released its’ latest glass ceiling index, which indicated that overall progress towards gender equality in Australia had stalled, and the report placed the blame for that squarely at the feet of this country’s paid maternity and paternity leave policies that lag far behind other OECD countries, as well as the cost of childcare.
The Economist report also suggested that the further embrace of quotas to expedite the increased representation of women in the senior ranks of the public and private sector would not go amiss.
So given that this report is a fairly forensic diagnosis of Australia’s progress relative to other OECD countries and its particular ailments, I’ll take it as a pretty good prescription for what’s necessary and the key issues we, as women voters, should call on all political parties to go big on or go home.
When it comes to moving gender equality up the political agenda with notable success, it’s time Australian politicians took their medicine.