A long way to go

Veteran pollster Rod Cameron recently claimed that he hadn’t heard of ‘women’s policies’ or ‘women’s issues’ for years. It’s irrelevant now. Cameron contends that there is such a convergence going on that there are no ‘women’s issues’. Anne Summers takes a less sanguine view. For 30 years she has made women’s issues her issues and shows no signs of flagging. She first came to prominence in 1975 with her history of women in Australia, Damned Whores and God’s Police. In the preface to the 2002 edition she wrote that the collective story of women was still not sufficiently integrated into the national story to be assured of being automatically passed on. The issues are becoming submerged rather than converged. In her recent work End of Equality she outlines unequivocally how women are still battling for recognition, for equal pay, for promotion in the workplace and for the right to return to work after they have children. Her study is an extraordinary synthesis, bringing together a critical analysis of the impact of legislation and funding on the quality of women’s lives over the last two decades.

A reading of her 1975 autobiography Ducks on the Pond underscores Summers’ disturbingly honest approach and her readiness to confront personal issues. Almost 30 years later her responses, although gentle, are no less biting. Helen Garner’s novel The First Stone and the controversy surrounding it revealed that all was not well for women’s rights during the mid 90s. Summers observes that few are prepared to write in a similar vein. Although formal discrimination is a thing of the past (the Sex Discrimination Act is now 20 years old) and it is taken for granted that women can do anything—enter the armed forces, work in stevedoring or become motor mechanics—complacency has crept in. Politically, women’s claims are treated as another interest group; funding is piecemeal and sectional. 

Women make up 52 per cent of the population, yet are underrepresented in senior management, are clustered in the caring professions and frequently work in the lower paid or casual industries. There no longer exists a federal women’s office to oversee all Cabinet papers—only those which are gender specific. Yet Summers argues that every Cabinet paper should have a woman’s perspective. But the malaise is deeper than this. For the last three elections women’s issues have not been highlighted by either party. Beazley released a paper on women’s policy just two days before the last election. He promised, inter alia, to remove the GST on tampons. The resulting discussion belittled rather than enhanced the debate.

Summers says she is pleasantly surprised and heartened at the recent announcement by Mark Latham of a new women’s policy. Choice and Opportunity: Labor’s better deal for Australian women represents a landmark in ALP policy. Latham’s five pillars addressed women’s disadvantages but brought men into the solutions. Summers considers the inclusion of men in this policy as unprecedented in an Australian political leader. Here is a genuine political will to effect change for women. But she feels that there are still a great many ‘ifs’. Launching a policy before the election campaign is a risky strategy unless it is revisited often and the message communicated to those women in marginal seats. And then, of course, there are the speculative aspects; ‘if’ Labor wins and ‘if’ they follow through on their promises.

The vital issues for women remain unresolved for Anne Summers. At the top of her list are the statutory provision of paid maternity leave, the availability of affordable childcare and the prevalence of violence against women. She cites Australia as one of the only countries in the world where women in the paid workforce do not automatically receive paid maternity leave. Why has this issue fallen from the agendas of both political parties? Those in government positions already receive paid leave and about a third of those in permanent employment in larger corporations are similarly benefited. But the casual, part-time, lower-income earners—the most vulnerable group—do not. Summers considers that paid leave would reinforce a woman’s attachment to the workforce as well as economically enhance her position. The setting of a target date to re-enter the workforce would lower the attrition rate of women in the workforce and ensure that their vital skills are not lost.

But for Summers the question of the provision of adequate childcare is more complex. She is attracted to the idea of tax cuts for those paying for nannies, currently being trialled in Great Britain. Yet Summers admits that those of her acquaintance who employ nannies are in the higher income bracket. Howard’s Work and Family Taskforce came up with the ‘baby bonus’, a lump sum to help defray the cost of childbirth, and Labor has upped the ante. Presumably these payments are to enable women to cover the costs of extra vaccines not on the free list, such as chicken pox, or just being able to keep up with the nappies. Since the inception of the ‘baby bonus’ Harvey Norman has reported an increase in sales of flat screen televisions. Perhaps these lump sums could be converted into coupons for play groups or crèche places?

The paucity of crèche places and their prohibitive cost has made a mockery of the reality of women’s ability to return to work. Yet economic pressures for women often make that return a necessity, not a luxury. Childcarers, predominantly females, have become the new underclass. I suggested that families are passing childcare down to another poorly-paid group of women in home care and crèches. One in five pre-schoolers is looked after by grandparents, mostly unpaid. These are older women who often have less investment in superannuation due to their own interrupted working lives. Should this group be eligible for tax relief? Summers replied that while travel, uniforms, sunscreen and conferences are tax deductible childcare is not. Childcare should be seen as a direct provision of services rather than a welfare issue.

In The End of Equality Summers wrote ‘Women’s refuges have now become an accepted part of the social landscape. This is something of a mixed blessing. It is obviously necessary and desirable that women have somewhere to go to escape violence but this should only ever be a short-term, emergency response’. For Summers the recent Federal Government campaign against domestic violence has missed the mark. The tag line ‘Violence against women: Australia says no’ is hollow. Where are the preventative measures? The campaign appears to focus on a female’s crisis response to physical and sexual violence, areas that the community already understands. This is a narrow view of violence against women. Abuse can manifest itself in emotional, psychological, financial and spiritual terms and these can be equally damaging. Television and magazine advertising, a booklet and a helpline are not enough. Welfare agencies need to be resourced to help those who come forward. The campaign is heavy on glossy images and light on actual help. Without additional funding for service providers, sadly, in many cases, saying ‘no’ might be a women’s only response.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. Summers has long been an admirer of Victoria’s Chief Police Commissioner, Christine Nixon, for her courage in making workplace reforms. Nixon first became involved with violence against women as a young constable in Sydney where, like most police, she attended far too many reports of violence. Some of the policewomen with whom she worked were themselves victims of violence and that realisation had a major impact on her. During Nixon’s first year in the Victoria police force there were over 20,000 cases of violence against women reported in the Melbourne metropolitan area alone. She perceived that her staff needed to become ‘social leaders’ by joining into partnerships with welfare agencies and local practitioners so that victims could be confident that their reports would be acted upon. 

Christine Nixon appointed a task force to review all matters relating to violence against women and to suggest future directions in policing. Their report Violence Against Women, A Way Forward defined the issues and provided a base from which tasks could be tackled, mechanisms established and relationships built to improve the attitudes and policies of the police. Summers recognises there is still much work to be done but feels that the additional training, improved data collection and increased accountability of the Victorian police working in this area is a model that other states could emulate. That there are only a handful of women in comparable positions to Christine Nixon does not indicate that only a few are capable, rather that the achievements and capabilities of so many others in this field are not widely known or properly considered.
Jane Mayo Carolan is a Melbourne historian.



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Mentoring Australia

  • Fatima Measham
  • 11 May 2006

Fatima Measham interviews David White, founder of Big Brothers Big Sisters Australia.


Affordable for whom?

  • Don Gazzard
  • 11 May 2006

Don Gazzard wonders about the state of Australian real-estate pricing



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up