In 1972, when she was interviewing for the new and controversial position of women’s advisor to Gough Whitlam, future femocrat Anne Summers was asked to nominate the single most important policy issue for Australian women.
She struggled to identify just one, but finally stated child care was the priority if Australian women were going to be able to balance work and family obligations effectively.
Throughout the Hawke and Keating years of government child care always had a place in Labor’s policy agenda, but the commitment to putting money behind the promise waxed and waned to say the least.
Since 1996 we have seen child care fall off the mainstream agenda for both parties.
This week it made a comeback in relation to the ALP. Time will tell whether it will come back like John Travolta or like Charlie Sheen.
Labor’s childcare funding boost of $1 billion is clearly part of its appeal to middle-income voters. The special incentives for centres to cater to babies under two years reflects the fact that for many women (especially those employed casually or those without maternity leave) going back to work a few months after the birth of a child is an economic imperative, not a lifestyle choice.
Latham has come good on the promise he made to certain women in the Labor caucus that he would give women’s policy a bigger lead up, and greater emphasis, than had previously been the case under Kim Beazley.
But no one could possibly mistake Latham for a born-again feminist.
Just consider Labor’s ‘Male Role Models for Boys’ policy released in Week 2 of the campaign. It reads a little like a ‘men’s rights’ pamphlet, or at best a Susan Faludi bestseller. It talks about how Australian boys are struggling with a crisis of masculinity brought about by the loss of blue collar jobs, problems with literacy levels, and issues around suicide and anti-social behaviour.
There is no doubt that some boys, especially those from rural and regional areas and lower socio-economic brackets, are struggling hard at school compared to girls. But in employment terms most recover from this relative disadvantage later on in life, because – unlike the majority of women – their career paths aren’t seriously interrupted by family duties.
Without a genuine policy commitment to child care, a woman’s career will probably never get back on track after she has her first child.
As much as the moral panic over problems with boys gives me the willies, it may well be smart politics for Labor. Helping boys at school and women after they leave school may go some way towards satisfying women’s groups as well as those groups with a less-than-feminist agenda.
Of course it runs the risk of disappointing both, but then again Latham has never been one to play it safe.
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