major parties show their limits on women’s issues

At Parliament House Sydney last night — when the New South Wales government officially entered caretaker mode —   a theatrette had an almost totally female audience. There were three candidates on the stage, two of whom were ex-journalists — long-term Liberal feminist Pru Goward and the member for Newcastle, the ALP’s Jodi McKay — with Greens activist Cate Faehrmann. The organiser of the night was WEL NSW, but other women’s groups were there to ask questions and see what was on offer.

It was civilised and friendly and the questions failed to show very clear differences in what the major political parties had on offer.   The questioners were quite pushy and most obviously hoped to get firm commitments to some quite tricky issues, but the experienced ex-journalists and party loyal representatives were careful not to say too much.

Abortion, discrimination against burkha wearers, the commercialisation of state TAFE services, possible new state-based controls of s-x workers, equal pay and possible discrimination against migrant women all presented them with some difficulties in answers.

The obvious question on abortion was interesting as all those there declared they were pro-choice and were ready to state their conscience support.  The Greens went further to state that they would introduce a private members bill to bring on the vote. Then things became less unified as Faehrmann asked the other two to join her in the lobbying that would be needed to convince more members to support a bill for the decriminalisation. Her criticism of some members of both major parties as conservative Christians, started the other two in defending both the conscience vote and the right to strong anti views of their colleagues. This suggested they were not convinced they could enlist the necessary support. They also raised the possibilities of worsening the present situation, leaving the implied threat of more conservative laws.

The various questions on discrimination were interesting as Faehrmann raised the Greens draft  human rights bill as a possible solution to the question of religious discrimination i.e. burkha wearers and other discrimination examples.  Interestingly, both the major party reps suggested that a separate human rights bill could be an option. However, the question on equal pay, a major current issue for women’s groups, was somewhat avoided by the ALP and Coalition. Only the Greens stated they would support better funding for community groups to allow their workers’ pay to be raised if the ASU current case was won, and suggested higher pay should be offered anyhow.

The other two ducked the issues and diverted the debate. Goward avoided the question of gender-based award pay differentials and claimed the gap was due to types of jobs and industries. She started by pointing out the gaps were actually larger in higher-paid workers and then moved into getting more women into high-paying industries such as mining and highly paid tradies jobs such as electricians. She moved the pay differences into another issue entirely by suggesting the problem was that there were too many women in low-paid jobs and we needed more women in the male-type highly pay areas. McKay picked up this tack too and later they both used the same argument for a question on migrant women in precarious jobs.

This approach suggests a lack of understanding of the basic principles of comparable worth in equal-pay cases, which tries to change the gender biases in wage determination. The principle is that women majority-type jobs are undervalued vis a vis men-majority jobs, because they actually require similar skills bases and knowledge. Trying to blame women for not taking up mining jobs ignores the need to recognise the value of the feminised skills and the needs of funded services to offer wage rises to maintain and extend the quality of community and other services.

Hopefully, the s-x workers got some reassurance for their pleas to keep the future state government and bureaucracy out of their business. However, there was little more in actual commitments by the more likely future Minister in the next government. Goward and McKay showed the limits facing any Minister for Women, however sympathetic in shifting the views of their colleagues. They were very careful to make sure their views were not read as any commitments, apart from what was already on the record.  The chair, another TV journalist, but current, asked why neither of the major parties had put their women’s policy on their website, both stated, with some regret I suspect, that these were part of the election policies and were not to be released by them at this stage.

This unified view suggests neither major party leader put a sufficient priority on the event to give them something new to announce.  The gap in itself casts doubts on how seriously the political parties actually take the questions raised by women’s groups. It is good to know we have competent, sympathetic representatives such as the ones last night in the major parties but does this mean influence? I wonder whether these viewpoints are seen as serious and mainstream, or just fringe special-interest ones.