This Election, Women Want Women


For a Party yet to officially register with the Australian Electoral Commission (its application is currently being processed), ‘What Women Want Australia‘ has attracted more than its share of attention.

The Party attracted 100 new members within 24 hours of its launch in Brisbane last month, but has been criticised both by men’s activists for sexism and discrimination, and by younger feminists for its focus on maternity issues.

But founder Justine Caines, 34 a former union official, advisor to the Greens, community advocate and mother of six says that despite its provocative name, it is a ‘misconception’ that What Women Want Australia is ‘women-only’ rather, it is ‘an attractive, soft-entry point’ for women who have never engaged with, and are disillusioned by, Party politics.

Caines spoke with New Matilda‘s Rachel Hills last week.

New Matilda: What motivated you to start your own political Party? Why a women’s Party?

Justine Caines: Working for seven years in the community sector, I found a desperate need for health reform, particularly in the area of maternity care. It’s a gigantic cost that’s not meeting the needs of the women it’s intended to serve.

Three hundred thousand babies are born every year by volume more than any other health procedure and if we’re not talking maternity reform as part of health reform, we’re not serious.

How many members do you have? Is there a particular type of woman who’s attracted to the Party?

We have 700 members from around Australia. Obviously, there’s a particular affinity for women in their childbearing years, but we also have a spread of younger women, women in their 50s and 60s, and a couple of women in their 70s.

The membership is [proportionately]quite even across the States. We’ve had a very good response in Queensland we decided to launch in Brisbane because we have good support there, and we’ll be running at least one House of Reps candidate there. But the Party is national we’ll have Senate candidates in every State and Territory.

How are your candidates selected?

We want to be really inclusive, right down to our constitution. Obviously, in the lead-up to the election people will be sourced for some seats we’re doing this in a pretty short timeframe but candidates will basically be selected via local groups in each State. The South Australian group, for example, is holding meetings to select their candidates.

So, what does What Women Want Australia stand for as a political Party?

We want to put important social issues back on the agenda be they ones that I’m personally involved in, like maternity care, or otherwise. Our Party is not going to form government, clearly, but I would like to bring the balance back to the way we approach these issues.

Despite the rhetoric of the major Parties and [despite]middle-class welfare payments Australia has lost focus on a strong social support system. We focus on WorkChoices, welfare-to-work reform, paid maternity and parental leave entitlements, increased options for both partners to play a part in childrearing basically looking at Government and Opposition policy through a social lens.

What is it about these values that makes them women’s values, rather than values for all people?

The Party’s called ‘What Women Want’ in part to be catchy. On the more serious side, we want to be an attractive, soft-entry point for women that may never have engaged in Party politics. It’s never been a women-only political Party.

There has been a response that has said ‘this is sexist’ or ‘do they really need to get special treatment?’ but bringing issues that affect women to the forefront is a good thing, and involving women in the political process is a good thing.

And these issues aren’t just women’s issues, they’re issues that affect families in the broadest sense same sex couples, traditional families, extended families.

I’ve come across some criticism of the Party on feminist blogs for being too family-focused for equating women’s issues with parents’ issues, and playing into the idea that children are women’s responsibility in the process. How would you respond to that?

Obviously the Party has the flavour of the membership and the passions of that membership to date. When I set this up I was very clear that I could not only represent my passion and that of the community that I immediately associated with.

Following the public launch, a young woman contacted us saying she was interested in looking at candidacy to the Senate so did a 72-year-old woman who’d focused 40 years of her life on feminist issues. The challenge is for all these kinds of women to be involved, and we will work to that.

I also think it’s worth saying that the ultimate misogyny in a woman’s life is how she is treated in childbirth. At the end of the day, how could [feminists]explain how women are treated in that episode of care sharing your most intimate sexual event with an absolute stranger? We absolutely believe that women should be able to control their bodies, but if you do choose to have a child and 300,000 women do every year where’s the feminist policy on that?

How do your policies differ from those of the existing parties?

Compared to the big two [Labor and the Coalition], we don’t have that ultimate male domination, for one. I take my hat off to the women in the major Parties for working as hard as they have to get through and get heard.

We do share some social policies with the Greens, but I think the Greens have a responsibility this election to fight climate change and to make that their election platform. There’s also a group [of voters]out there who may not be able to bring themselves to vote Green but who have strong progressive views on social policy.

I guess a vote for us is going to be an attack on the ALP, to push them to deliver on social policy issues because I don’t have any faith after working with them for seven years that they’ll actually deliver on some of those issues without someone pushing them.

Which of the big five Labor, the Coalition, Greens, Democrats and Family First offer the best deal for women?

Probably the Greens, especially in relation to reproductive rights. The Democrats have good policies too they’ve taken a stance on paid maternity leave.

Why start your own Party instead of trying to get more women involved in the existing Parties? Don’t you risk alienating women further from the political process by implying they need their own niche Party instead of participating in the majors?

I can’t stand the whole ‘bully boy’ mentality of both the major Parties, and given how I feel, I don’t believe I would have had any success in convincing other women to join. It was working with them and understanding where they’re at that led me to do this.

When I say that women need a niche Party, I mean that women need to feel they can engage, that they will be heard, and that the issues that are important to them will be taken seriously. Yes, our name clearly is creating a stir, but we do have male members, and we will talk to anyone.

I’m not saying that in 15 years time it’s going to be around, but I do think it’s a necessary vehicle for where we’re at now. As to how that progresses, who knows?

There have been a number of women in key portfolios
in the Howard Government Immigration, Education, Communications. How do you think their presence has made a difference to the status of women, or to the portfolios themselves?

I don’t know that, for example, Senator [Amanda] Vanstone did a lot. She came across as hard as any man could. Senator [Helen] Coonan is a strong woman but I guess at the end of the day we’re coming from a totally different world view. I’m not saying they didn’t perform, but as far as advancing issues that affect Australian women across the spectrum, I wouldn’t say that had been achieved.

Realistically, our main objective is to raise the profile of these issues and then to get some real political traction on them via preference deals. I’d also like to engage women in the political process and show them how it works there are a lot of women who are engaged in high level community work, but who haven’t made the link to political action.

It’s not necessarily about warming a seat in Canberra I wouldn’t want to be the [Family First Senator Stephen] Fielding of the other side but if that did happen, we would take that up with vigour.

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