Recently, the subject of the Malcolm Turnbull’s “woman problem” came up. Andrew Bolt bemoaned the lack of ‘hype’ for Turnbull’s woman problem, while Peta Credlin taunted, ‘Who’s got a woman problem now, it’s you Malcolm”. Both refer to recent Newspoll findings showing women voters are leaving the Coalition in droves.
As two proxies for Team Abbott, this could be viewed as nothing more than an attempt to score political points for their captain by suggesting the Coalition’s standing with women voters is largely down to the current prime minister. And then implying things might be different if Tony were still running the show — he of “the best thing I did as Women’s Minister was repeal the carbon tax” fame.
Firstly, no one can seriously believe that Tony Abbott would do better with women voters after last week’s embarrassing uncle at the political BBQ moment when he falsely claimed Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, was calling for mandatory quotas – a move he described as ‘anti-men’ before urging her to ‘pull your head in’. (That is, incidentally, not what Ms. Jenkins suggested, and you can read her full statement here.)
But moving right along. The point is that the Liberal Party, not just Malcolm Turnbull or Tony Abbott, have a ‘woman problem’. And they have done for some time. And that’s an opportunity for the women of Australia.
They should thank Ms. Credlin and Mr. Bolt for drawing their attention to this significant electoral Achilles heel and reminding them of the extent to which they might play political rainmakers.
And they should thank the Liberal Party for – helpfully — mapping out the full extent of this ‘woman problem’ in a recently launched report compiled by the Menzies Research Centre: Gender and politics: 2017 update.
To quote the report, “Since 2001, the Liberal’s support among women relative to men has waned”. The 2001 election was a turning point for women voters in federal politics. For the first time in the history of the Australian Electoral Survey female voters favoured Labor over Liberal. Fewer women than men have voted Liberal in four of the five elections since 2001.
According to the Menzies Research Centre’s report, the Liberal party is facing a Waterloo with women voters at the next election, which has prompted a fair bit of naval-gazing within the party (detailed within the report) about what they can do about it.
Reading this report prompted me to dig a bit deeper into the history of the so called ‘gender gap’ in Australian politics. I was intrigued to learn that until 2001, Australian women bucked the international trend, which saw women with increased education and workforce participation rates move towards Labour or Social Democratic parties in other parts of the world, including the US and the UK.
Here in Australia, women remained loyal to the Liberals longer and helped keep them in power. And as a result, I believe, the party may have taken them for granted. They weren’t worth courting with good policies that benefit them.
But now all that has changed and women’s votes are incredibly valuable, particularly in these days of finely balanced Parliaments.
But reading this report, I was gobsmacked to find that significant reflection on the party’s ‘woman problem’ had produced the Eureka realisation that it could be solved by window dressing. Simply getting more ‘good liberal women’ in Parliament.
Well, they didn’t quite put it this way. The report talks about the importance of ‘retail’ politics, and notes the role of politicians as ‘media performers’ and ‘retail appeal’ requires a diverse team. Well, yes. That’s true. A more diverse team is a good thing. But Australian women, I believe are smart enough to see through that and ask for more.
It doesn’t matter if it is a woman or a man espousing bad policy that hurts woman. Or if it’s a woman or a man in a position of influence who fails to recognize and address the issues facing women.
As the academic literature on the ‘gender gap’ in politics points out, women are not a homogenous group. And just because you’re a woman, doesn’t mean you necessarily place so called ‘women’s issues’ amongst your highest political priorities.
But imagine the political clout women as voters could yield if they, in increasingly large numbers, demanded action on these fronts from their political leaders — not just Liberal, but Labor, National and Green.
Ahead of the next election, women voters might ask why Australia has fallen from number 15 to 46 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report and what their political leaders plan to do about it.
For the answer to that question, they might forensically examine the current government’s Office for Women’s website for clues, an office now run by a woman, Senator Michaelia Cash.
They might deny the Coalition a victory lap, spruiking the recently passed childcare reforms in the omnibus savings bill that, as Van Badham pointed out, are a non solution.
They might ask why the Coalition government professes a commitment to end violence against women, while maintaining for over a year that cuts to community legal centres weren’t really cuts.
A double whammy (the Liberals also have a problem with older voters) they might ask for a plan to address women’s pensions gap, which sees them with 40 percent the pensions saving of men.
And they might get the ball rolling on future Budgets, looking at how budget allocations are affecting women’s rights. In fact, ActionAid Australia, the National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW), the Women’s Electoral Lobby and Fair Agenda are doing just that, launching a campaign to bring back the Women’s Budget Statement. (Extra points if you can guess which Liberal Prime Minister dropped the statement in 2014).
In a wonderful piece for the Guardian, Katherine Murphy hoped ‘nasty women and the others of the national morality play might develop the collective courage to fight their corner’.
The recent debate about the Liberal’s ‘woman problem’ should serve as a reminder to the women of Australia that should they decide they’re up for the fight, they could pack a mighty political punch. If that happens, we might see a bit more political dog whistling aimed women’s way – and that’s no bad thing.