Lack of women's economic security policy the 'real news' in the PM's baby pic

Lack of women’s economic security policy the ‘real news’ in the PM’s baby pic

It’s been over a week since Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull posted a photo of himself entitled “multitasking”, in which he was cradling his granddaughter at the footy, while “controversially” holding a cup of beer.

I do not want to drag us all back to the heady heights of this controversy, henceforth to be referred to as “beer and babygate”, when the situation was so dire it fell to Pauline Hanson to defend the PM on Sunrise. A national crisis of this caliber does make for strange bed fellows. Thankfully, as a nation we seem to have healed wounds and moved on.

But in the intervening time, I have realised that in all the initial storm in a teacup outrage (and then outrage at the outrage, which Sydney Morning Herald columnist Jacqueline Maley rightly referred to as “fake news at its finest”), we didn’t see the policy opportunity forest for the baby kissing politician trees.

There was, actually, a bit of real news buried in the PM’s decision to publish this photograph.

The thing is, politicians don’t just go around kissing babies. Well they do, but they do it for very specific reasons.

That brings me to the reason I would like us a to revisit this divisive baby kissing episode more than a week on. Bear with me, I will now step you through an argument, in which I will attempt to persuade you that the PM tweeting a pic of himself kissing his granddaughter signifies an opportunity to raise the issue of women’s economic security, particularly their poverty in old age, up the political agenda.

What’s behind the PM’s latest foray into this clichéd territory?

Firstly, there is a long tradition of politicians kissing babies.

The definitive history of this was published in Mother Jones two years ago — a very interesting read. The dinner party synopsis: Did you know Andrew Jackson was the first politician credited with using a baby as a political prop in 1833. By 1886, the practice was so widespread the magazine Babyhood ran an item on the trend. And in the 1890’s, feminist activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton expressed her disapproval of the practice, both as a matter of children’s rights and poor hygiene.

So now that we’ve established baby kissing pics are never without political calculation, what’s behind the PM’s latest foray into this well-trodden political territory? In the Weekend Australian, Dennis Shanahan deconstructed the “beer babygate” incident and cast it as part of a broader media strategy to curry favor with female voters (noting the PM was also out in force on FM radio and breakfast TV), who his advisors are alarmed are abandoning the Liberal party in large numbers.

Indeed, the figures are alarming. Between the 2013 and 2016 election, support among women aged 18-24 fell 10 percentage points to 26 percent; for women aged 25 to 34 it fell 16 points to 24 percent; and for women aged 55-64 it fell 15 points to 34 percent.

Shanahan also noted that the Coalition has a problem with millennials and boomers. He cites as yet unreleased research from the Menzies Research Centre (MRC), which he claims supports the need for the Coalition to shore up support with its base of boomers. Shanahan’s article seemed to suggest there is strategic rift between the Turnbull camp who are chasing after millennials and women and others in the Coalition and their wider circle (including the MRC) who want to focus on the boomers.

I am inclined to agree with Shanahan’s analysis of the strategic intent of the now infamous baby kissing photo. If you take it as a given it was a calculated effort to win favor with female voters, that begs the question: Can you really win us round with an “aw cute” photo of yourself kissing a baby, demonstrating your softer “human side”.

But there is another more specific opportunity here, which brings me to sorting out women’s economic security.

Chasing women voters and boomers needn’t be mutually exclusive. If the Coalition wants to take my unsolicited advice – and I am admittedly not a highly paid political strategist, nor am I fielding multiple offers to work as one – why not focus on an issue likely to be of great concern to boomer women? Might I suggest women’s economic security and the retirement gap?

There’s no coordinated, well thought out strategy in the works

Women retire with less than half the superannuation of men. And the fastest growing group of homeless in Australia are women over 55, as a recent SBS Insight program Women on the Edge so vividly portrayed.

The reasons for this are complex. Women shoulder a disproportionate portion of the caring responsibilities, they take time off work to have children, they are more likely to work part time, they are less likely to be in senior roles, and they often work in female dominated professions that pay less. And the solutions are correspondingly complex — action is required from government, business and individuals. There is no silver bullet.

But with that in mind, and given my view the Coalition Government might stand to gain from demonstrating leadership and action in this area, I spent the earlier part of this week attempting to ascertain the extent to which rubber is hitting the road on this important issue.

Memo to Coalition HQ: you’ve got some work to do.

In recent years, there has been no shortage of research or policy proposals. In 2016, Labor Senator Jenny McAllister chaired a Senate inquiry which travelled the country hearing from experts. The resulting report “A Husband is not a retirement plan”  was published in April of that year. It made 19 recommendations, including increasing paid parental leave with a super guarantee for those on leave, more rights to flexible work, and dropping plans to make people wait until they are 70 to access the age pension.

A year later in April 2017, the Financial Services Council and the Self Managed Super Fund Association hosted the Women, Super & Wealth Summit, which brought together thought leaders from the superannuation and wealth management industries to debate “real world solutions”.

In her speech at the event, Sally Loane, the CEO of the FSC, stressed the importance of improving girls and women’s financial literacy and access to financial advice, and she praised businesses leading change by paying super contributions for women on parental leave. In a subsequent editorial for the Age, she suggested the removal of barriers in the Sex Discrimination Act to allow employers to legally pay women higher superannuation to help narrow the gap.

So how is the Turnbull Government responding? 

Against this backdrop, I wanted to find out from the Turnbull government when we could expect a response to the Senate inquiry, a year after it was published. I was also curious to find out what policies they were developing and the extent to which they were engaging with the various proposals and research on offer. What followed did not inspire me with confidence a well thought out coordinated government strategy would materialise anytime soon, and that is a missed opportunity.

First I contacted Minister Michaelia Cash’s office, as she is the Employment Minister and the Minister for Women. I was then asked to contact the Office for Women, who told me the Senate inquiry report is “still under consideration and will be responded to in due course”.

And even though the Office for Women’s website says they “work across government to deliver policies and programs to advance gender equality” and “strengthening women’s economic security” is listed as one of their current priorities, I was asked to contact the Department of Social Services for more information on policies being developed in relation to women’s pensions and questions in relation to superannuation should be directed to the Treasury.

The Office for Women didn’t even direct me to a page on their own website, in which the Turnbull Government points to measures in the 16/17 budget aimed at helping women accumulate greater super and reducing their dependence on the aged pension. This included a change to support women to make catch up contributions upon returning to work by allowing them to carry forward concessional super contributions on a rolling basis for up to five years for super balances of $500,000 or less.

My deep sense of ennui that there were no grown-ups in Canberra taking this issue seriously was only alleviated when I put in a call to Labor Senator McAllister’s office and had a wide-ranging conversation with one of her aids, who was across this issue in impressive detail.

He pointed out that the Coalition Government had failed to do a gender analysis on any of the proposals announced in the 16/17 Budget, including the catch up policy,  and they were, therefore, like throwing darts in the dark – there’s no way of knowing they will actually hit the target. On the issue of catch up contributions, he pointed to modelling later undertaken by Industry Super Australia, which showed it would help less than 2 percent of women who have super accounts.

“The Government’s claims that its super package would help women don’t stand up to closer scrutiny”, Senator McAllister later told me. “One of the reasons the Coalition’s super package missed the mark is because they failed to do any gender analysis. Their decision not to do any specific modelling is astounding – you couldn’t imagine it happening in any other context.”

I can’t help but conclude that there’s not only a strange unwillingness on the part of the Turnbull Government and its Office for Women to spruik what they are doing in relation to the retirement gap, there are also serious questions about the policy development process and the efficacy of their proposals.

I would also add that all the proposals I have seen thus far err on the side of ‘fixing women’ – encouraging them to get back to work, save more and become more financially literate. Nothing seems to address the structural inequalities that lead to women earning less over a lifetime and, thus, having less to put in their super and less savings.

Will the boomer women of Australia stand for this? That remains to be seen. They could deliver a damning verdict at the next election, and then it will be too late for Turnbull and company.

At the end of the day, I don’t believe the women of Australia and our savvy women boomers will be distracted or wooed by a cute pic of the PM kissing his granddaughter, even if he is holding a beer in his hand.

The photo has indeed highlighted vulnerability – an election vulnerability, not the PM’s softer side.

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