In the first week, it was odd. By the second week, irritating. But by the third week of this uninspiring election campaign, the absence of focus on the single biggest demographic in play — 8.8 million women voters — was downright infuriating.
Initially, the lack of headline-worthy reference to any of the major issues that have been plaguing women across Australia, particularly over recent years, seemed a bit of an aberration. Perhaps just a messy false start?
But it wasn’t. Rather, it defined what has become a formulaic ‘battle of blokes’.
The hard hats, high viz, beers, pubs, games of pool and PM’s back-slapping, handshaking of ‘fishos, boaties and campers’ has kept the blokey bonanza rolling on. With a compliant media bus in tow.
“Women are just not the main game. We’re still not the main game,” said commentator and NSW senate candidate Jane Caro in summing up those opening three weeks on BroadTalk, a podcast in which we place a gender lens over policy, power and leadership.
Journalist Catherine Fox echoed the lament: “I feel like I’ve gone into a time machine and gone back possibly 10 or 15 years, and that we’re watching two middle-aged white men scoring points off each other on the national stage. It’s quite depressing.”
Even downright cringe-worthy: “It’s really hard to watch”, says academic Sally Moyle, “with all the worst tropes and stereotypes playing out from each side.”
From day one, executive director of The Parenthood Georgie Dent found herself scrolling election news feeds to see how the major parties were positioning childcare and early childhood education as pivotal to their campaign platforms — if not the key centrepiece. Why wouldn’t they?
Because it’s all about the economy, right?
And the past few years have seen a plethora of research-based evidence demonstrating how affordable, accessible childcare substantially increases women’s workforce participation: which then has a profound impact on GDP growth.
According to research cited by The Parenthood in numerous policy submissions, by making early childhood education and care radically more affordable Australia could generate 250,000 full-time jobs. Or even better, following the Nordic example of free care for low-income families, combined with three days of free early childhood education up to the age of 6, Australia could unlock the equivalent of 850,000 full-time workers.
But when Dent went looking for the big childcare pitch to voters, it just wasn’t there. “I cannot for the life of me understand why it isn’t being discussed more meaningfully.”
Each week I’m joined on BroadTalk by various women leaders, commentators, activists and policy experts. While disagreement is encouraged, there has been unnerving consensus during our Election 2022 series: women and their concerns have been strategically and deliberately shifted to the margins of this campaign.
Unpacking why this is happening is a fascinating exercise in ripping off the band-aid from a political system so badly wounded by allegations of sexism and misogyny, and the cultural reckoning we have experienced post #MeToo in 2017, particularly since the Morrison government’s ‘women problem’ first hit the headlines in 2018, that the lords of politics appear to be shying away from allowing too much ‘women talk’ onto their campaign’s centre stage.
Now, as we pass the halfway mark, two interesting things have happened.
Firstly, Labor has tepidly leaned into women voters with a pitch to get serious about closing the gender pay gap. Anthony Albanese has pledged to make pay equity an objective in the Fair Work Act. While that’s no doubt widely welcomed, it does little to tackle the multiple and intersecting reasons women are forced to make choices that place them in casual and part-time positions, and predominantly in the worst paid industries. Nor does it do anything to shift our family and workplace cultures that assume women don’t need or want the same liner, unbroken career trajectories and opportunities that men enjoy.
On the childcare front, Albanese has said little to stir real excitement. While the would-be-PM claims he supports the ‘principles of universal childcare’, there’s been no detailed talk of what that looks like. Principles are nice. Hardcore transformative policy action is not. It’s just jolly hard. What’s more, it takes singular vision, guts and confidence that the country will come with you. Labor tried this around women’s policy in 2019. It didn’t work. So, big bold calls have been benched, for now.
Secondly, at this mid-way point, women have finally appeared in media headlines, but as is so often the case — given Australia’s mainstream masculine mindset — for all the wrong reasons. The so-called ‘Teal Independents’, a disconnected group of women political-novices who have chosen to exercise their democratic right to run for parliament have been loudly and rather brutally belted as “fake Independents” who will “run this country into the sewer because of their useless and obsessive attempts to save the planet from Australia”.
According to the Coalition’s media platform of choice, Sky News, these women are nothing more than ‘vapid… elite greenies’. Former PM John Howard dismissed them with an unedifying sexist swipe as ‘anti-Liberal Groupies’. With all the connotations of mindless bimbos inherent in that jibe, current PM Scott Morrison was quick to amplify the insult, suggesting women Independents are deceiving voters.
And on it goes.
On BroadTalk this week, youth advocate and Rhodes Scholar Yasmin Poole mused over the Teal Independents’ platform of ‘lntegrity, climate action and justice for women’, asking: “If that is ‘anti-Liberal’ according to John Howard, what does that say about the Liberals?” Or Australian conservatives in general?
So yes, halfway through the campaign, women as a cohort finally get the election spotlight.
But is it any wonder we are shaking our heads in frustration? Is it any wonder women are angry?
Australian women are exhausted. I hear this repeatedly. Two years of navigating COVID lock-downs, family illness, homeschooling, dramatic workplace disruptions, along with an endless cycle of bad news abroad and sexist, shameful attitudes and behaviour here at home have taken an incredible toll. The effect of which is yet to be fully understood.
But throughout all this, and despite it, women have collectively pushed back.
They have raised their voices, rallied, campaigned, written policy proposals and endless parliamentary submissions. In my 30 years of journalism, I have never witnessed such widespread, public feminist action and activity. Has it made a difference? Absolutely? Has the national conversation around women and gender equity changed, perhaps even matured a little? You bet.
So why hasn’t federal politics caught up? Why are we stuck in a dull, nasty, blokefest style of campaign that is behaving as if the women of Australia never marched for justice?
*BroadTalk is a weekly podcast hosted by journalist Virginia Haussegger AM and produced by Martyn Pearce. It can be downloaded from all podcast platforms.This article was first published in The Mandarin, May 5 2022