One of my children went back to school today, and they are both back full-time next week. I think I can safely say that I fell of the back of the lockdown 6.0 wagon here in Melbourne about six weeks ago, and it’s amazing how much more time and energy I have now with just one child back at school part-time.
I, therefore, had the time to watch the Office for Women and the Minister for Women, Senator Marise Payne, at Senate Estimates yesterday. And it was very revealing.
For those wondering what became of all those big promises Prime Minister Scott Morrison made at the height of his so-called “woman problem” Waterloo earlier this year — which culminated in the historic Women’s March— yesterday we got a few answers thanks to sustained questioning from Labor Senator Jenny McAllister and Greens Senator Dorinda Cox.
The short answer is: not much.
It’s hard to know where to begin. It was a feast of plenty… or a staggering buffet of disappointment, depending on how you view these things.
There was the revelation that the “national plan” to tackle women’s economic security, which Morrison announced would be on the agenda at a National Cabinet meeting in July, was quietly downgraded to a “framework” that may or may not be made public and may or may not have targets.
And even then, though Morrison issued a media statement after that National Cabinet meeting claiming that the women’s economic security “framework” had been “agreed”, it turns out that there was no such agreement, only the establishment of a working group to have a little think about maybe setting up a reporting framework at some undetermined time in the future.
Then there was the rather direct question put to Senator Payne by Senator McAllister about the gender pay gap, which increased by 0.8 percentage points over the last six months and now sits at 14.2 percent, according to new figures from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) released in August. Did Senator Payne concede that the increase in the gender pay gap was a direct result of the Morrison government’s decision to focus COVID economic stimulus on male dominated industries, such as construction, asked Senator McAllister?
For context, at the time many credible women (remember that hashtag furore?) warned that this would have precisely that negative effect, as opposed to an investment in female dominated sectors, particularly caring sectors. They also made the, coughs, very “credible” argument that given the disproportionate impact the pandemic was having on women’s ability to earn and save, maybe the Morrison government could rethink its’ approach in the context of its’ wider efforts to shore up women’s economic security, lest the pandemic prompt a significant backwards slide.
So now, according to WGEA, the recent, worrying increase in the gender pay gap was, in fact, driven by a rapid rise in men’s pay, at 1.8 per cent, while women’s pay increased just 0.9 per cent. The construction industry alone, according to WGEA, had a 4 percent increase “on the back of the significant government investment in that sector”.
I did sense a slight, “I told you so” implied in McAllister’s question about the gender pay gap. Or maybe that was just my internal monolog.
But even though the Government’s own statutory agency for gender equality conceded this point, it doesn’t follow that the Morrison government’s Minister for Women would do the same. Instead, Payne prosecuted the half-truth that the gender pay gap in Australia was at a “historic low” prior to the pandemic and not to worry, Morrison government policies would get us back to this supposed Nirvana.
But here’s the important bit: the gender pay gap wasn’t at a “historic low” because of any Coalition policy in regard to women’s economic security.
The previous director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Libby Lyons, called bullshit on that claim when it was made last year. The gender pay gap in Australia closed to a “historic low” because men were earning less money, not because women were earning more. In February of last year, when those figures were released, Lyons was at pains to point that they did not “reflect any underlying structural changes to women’s overall position in the workforce.”
Had the Office for Women conducted any analysis as to why the gender pay gap widened, pressed McAllister? “No,” was Payne’s answer.
Lastly, there were a series of questions about the funding of National Women’s Alliances (or more aptly put, the defunding of National Women’s Alliances like the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance and the Security4Women alliance, both of which were defunded earlier this year) and questions about who received an invitation to the National Women’s Safety Summit in September – and who didn’t.
As was widely reported, Brittany Higgins was notably left of the guest list. What’s more, at estimates Senator Cox asked about the consultation process to develop the next National Plan to Reduce Violence Against women and why Antoinette Braybrook, Chair of the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, which is comprised of fourteen family violence prevention legal service member organisations that provide holistic, specialist, culturally safe legal and non-legal supports to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, was excluded.
Also in the news this week, it emerged that Grace Tame was excluded from the drafting of the National Plan to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, which was announced earlier this week. She learned about live on TV.
Marise Payne did not view Higgins “as a stakeholder” was the response. Very telling.
.@BrittHiggins_ wasn’t invited to the Women’s Safety Summit by @MarisePayne because she was, “focused on inviting stakeholders.”— David Sharaz (@SharazDavid) October 25, 2021
The Morrison Government continues to disrespect and undermine both Brittany and @TamePunk hoping its “women problem” will just go away. pic.twitter.com/rk3w8yz6Fl
During all the argy bargy about who was offered a seat at the table, a very interesting picture of the Morrison government’s approach to these things emerged, one that stunk of the power and control dynamics that characterise the very issue they were all talking about, violence against women.
The Morrison government and its ministers clearly have a view as to what constitutes “non-partisanship” in relation to women’s issues, including their safety and economic security. And that means colouring well within the lines the Morrison government establishes.
Those who take a different view, and those who do not believe maintaining the posture of “non-partisanship” means uncritically accepting or simply greenlighting whatever Morrison and his government cook up can, it seems, remain on the outside looking in. Or they can see their funding end and be denied the privilege of the formal title of a “National Women’s Alliance”.
The price of entry is giving power what power pleases.
If the Morrison government thinks the women of Australia aren’t keeping track of all this, they may well be in for a very unpleasant surprise at the next election.
Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica