May 18, 2011
The Sydney Morning Herald

Both parties are completely blinkered by family bifocals

I am different…” the new Chief Minister of the ACT, Katy Gallagher

It was the sort of refreshing honesty from a politician that slips under the radar but gives a clue as to how progressive politics might handle the ”women issue” in the future.

This week Katy Gallagher was elected Chief Minister of the ACT, following the surprise resignation of the Labor stalwart Jon Stanhope after 10 years. On the eve of her appointment, Gallagher, who describes herself as ”a mother of three living in the suburbs”, with a fierce commitment to ”social justice and progressive politics”, laid out a new game plan for understanding women in leadership.

”I am different,” she insisted, when asked about her political passions. ”I am not trying to sound silly here but I think women in politics do behave differently from men. That doesn’t make us weak, it just means we work differently.”

Having dispensed with the gender stereotype that women do not wield real power but instead tinker with ”influence”, she cut to the chase. ”People underestimate how tough I really am. But you can be tough and gentle and fair and warm all at the same time. That’s the kind of person I am.”

Such candour comes at a time when mainstream politics appears confounded over how to talk about women and how to place them in the political landscape. For any woman with a nose for the stench of sexist stereotypes, this past budget period has been a real stinker. Forget the beer goggles when it comes to checking out women, both federal Labor and the Coalition are completely blinkered by their family bifocals.

Last week’s women’s budget statement by the Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, seems to assume all women are either mothers or a little bit mad, or both. Its preoccupation with family and mental health played right into hackneyed stereotypes.

The statement was riddled with assumptions that looking after children and caring for the family’s mental health is the sole business of women. Ellis boasted that the $2.2 billion allocated to mental health was fabulous because ”62 per cent of people assisted by mental health services have been women”.

She highlighted the $770 million going to ”women and their families” to help raise older children and keep them in school; the $80 million for ”teenage parents”; and the $71 million for jobless families to get off welfare – again pointing out that most single-parent families are ”headed by women”. But is that it? Are the only women who deserve serious budget attention women who breed?

Coming from a young female minister who is not a ”breeder”, who serves under a PM who is also childless, and alongside a childless, lesbian Finance Minister, this is exceptionally disappointing. Australian women are entitled to expect more diversity in outlook from these elected women.

It is not just a matter of having female legitimacy devalued; it is the assumption that women who are not mothers aren’t the real thing and therefore do not deserve any budget attention. Sure, there were a few pages in the women’s budget statement dedicated to reducing violence against women, and advancing ”equality in leadership” (note, the buzz phrase is no longer ”women in leadership”), but there was no new spending on any of those pre-announced initiatives.

The federal government is not alone in its blinkered family bifocals. Rather it would seem to be in cahoots with the Coalition in championing the family; or, in Tony Abbott’s case, the ”forgotten families”, as the most valued form of female contribution to society. Abbott opened his budget reply speech with immediate reference to the women in his life – his wife, a childcare worker, and his three daughters. It had echoes of his earlier claim about understanding women because his wife was one, as were his daughters, and even his mother.

It is as if this family preoccupation by both major political parties signals some kind of agreed mainstreaming of women – despite the reality. It has all the hallmarks of a conspiracy by both sides to narrow the debate to only those social units they deem legitimate: the family.

If the ACT’s new Chief Minister is serious about pushing her progressive political agenda, then she must encourage her federal colleagues to acknowledge the diversity in women’s roles and gender traits. Not all women are mothers, and not all women’s needs are the same as family needs.

It takes spunk to say I am a woman and I am different. Gallagher has proven she has spunk in spades.

Virginia Haussegger presents ABC TV news in Canberra and is a board member of UN Women Australia. These views are her own.

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