Recently, debates about policies have disappeared under an avalanche of sexist, misogynist nonsense and the commentary on it. Please note, I continue to oppose the abhorrent gender-based attacks on the Prime Minister, but see these as separate from the policy stuff. So let’s shift the focus back on what is done or on offer.
Yes, Julia Gillard, your policies and party do earn more brownie points on a feminist scorecard than the Coalition based on what is on offer, but not because the ALP is the clear champion of women’s progress. There are deficits on the ALP side. No, Tony Abbott, your lot don’t make much impact, despite your conversion on parental leave, as there are too many other negatives. In sum, neither of you have really scored well enough to lock in loyalty from women. Both of you could try harder. Here’s why …
Retirement income: Abbott, your promise to remove the low-income super rebate is a very unkind cut to low-income earners, who have been overtaxed for years at the flat 15%. Gillard, you score a point for putting this in place, but it will make only a little difference to existing gross gender inequities, as the current super tax concessions go to high-income earners — mostly men. The rise in compulsory contributions to 12% will not fix the inequities for those low-income earners.
Equal pay: Gillard, the win by the poorly paid workers covered by the Australian Services Union was good news because the gender pay gap continues to be too high, but the problem continues. The extra cash on offer for childcare and aged-care workers is short term and doesn’t solve the basic problem of undervalued feminised skills. Abbott, you haven’t been supportive on this issue, which is about both fair pay and improving services for vulnerable people.
Paid parental leave: Abbott, you actually get the point that this is a workplace payment so must relate to individual pay rates, but it needs to be delivered — but not funded — by employers to reinforce the connection. Gillard, this is not a welfare payment, so your single, flat rate undermines the workplace entitlement connection. The rate can be pro rata or capped but should be adjusted to cover most women’s pay.
Women in Parliament: The ALP scores better on this, but the PM loses a mark for backing Senator David Feeney over Mary-Anne Thomas, for preselection in the very safe federal seat of Batman. There is also the clumsy dumping of NT Senator Trish Crossin, which doesn’t encourage new female members of the Labor Party. The Coalition is losing a good feminist in Judi Moylan and needs to work much harder on increasing the number of women MPs.
Single parents: Single parents were dumped onto a lower payment and coerced into often-futile job seeking. The prestigious HILDA survey last week showed clearly the 2006 Howard Welfare to Work reductions of eligibility for the Parenting Payment had made sole parents poorer by 2010. If they have jobs, they are often low paid and casual; if not, parents are often left long-term on a payment too low to live on. The ALP has added to single parents’ misery by its decision to retain the cuts and now put another 63,000+ exempted sole parents into this poverty trap. This policy change is inexcusable as there is no evidence that it increases income or access to paid work.
The above change is particularly damaging as it ignores the time and demands of these people’s primary parenting role. The similar policies of the major parties suggest that neither understands or respects non-economic contributions, mostly made by women via unpaid care. Both parties claim feminism as the basis for their focus on increasing women’s participation in paid work but do not understand that coercing mothers into jobs undermines the process of re-valuing social as well as economic contributions.
So far, the verdict is for both parties: could do better, so we need to keep up the pressure for more good gender-fair policies. The Coalition has only one point of better policy, so Abbott much more ground to make up.
An earlier version of this article said Mary-Anne Thomas is an “EMILY’s List candidate” for Batman. Thomas is not currently a member of EMILY’s List and EMILY’s List does not participate in preselections.