The Buck Stops With Abbott On Sexism

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Should Tony Abbott be the Minister for Women? Currently he is officially designated as such, with Michaelia Cash as his assisting minister.

There are emails and petitions demanding he stand down and appoint someone else as minister. The objections are based on his suitability, given his various demonstrated sexist views, and are similar to questions also being raised by those who object to his being the Minister for Indigenous issues.

Both viewpoints fail to address the alternate case, that is the possible benefits of locating these “minority” portfolios at the centre of government. The history of the influence of women on policy suggests that this location is preferable to having junior female ministers, however sympathetic, who are excluded from the core decision making Cabinet processes. The outer ministerial circle have little influence on cabinet decisions or even agendas. 

If Tony Abbott is formally the minister responsible for women or Indigenous issues, the buck stops with him. In cabinet he is the decision maker, and it’s not something he can avoid. If he fails to take up appropriate issues, like equal pay for mainly female aged care workers, we can ensure he cops the flak. Offloading these portfolios to a junior minister allows the government to ignore the issues that are not cabinet responsibilities.

The objectors fail to understand the benefits of being part of a cabinet minister’s direct responsibilities: bureaucrats being located in the same department as the cabinet office, access to cabinet agendas, briefings and documents, and informal contact with those who work on co-ordinating the input to briefings and meetings. Yes, there is evidence of Abbott’s sexist views but that make the puzzle of his having to manage “women’s issues” more interesting. He will be closely watched and constantly monitored for sexist decision-making. This could mean that issues like equal pay are not so easily ignored.

The history of women’s units illustrates these issues.

When Gough Whitlam made history by appointing a women’s advisor, Elizabeth Reid, in 1973, it was in his office. The PM was clearly the minister for women. In 1974, before his dismissal, an office was established in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. This location meant those of us lobbying then knew the unit to be as close as possible to the centre of power and influence.

In those days we optimistically believed advising government of women’s views on a broad range of mainstream issues would improve the quality of decision-making and governance.  There were few women in any senior positions, political or bureaucratic, so the office could fill the gaps.

Malcolm Fraser put the responsibility for women’s policies into other ministers’ portfolios. This we objected to because it moved the decision-making and access to information from the PM’s responsibilities initially to a portfolio ominously called home affairs.  We had lost access to the centre of policy co-ordination where advocacy input should belong.

So we lobbied for change and when the Hawke government arrived in power in 1983, we were pleased to see the unit dealing with women was returned to the PM and an assisting minister was also included. The next few years saw some serious changes such as the Sex Discrimination Act and an engaged Office for the Status of Women.

This model survived till Howard shifted the Office for the Status of Women out into a portfolio of a service deliverer for families, which confirmed his view on women’s roles. By this time, the role of the Office had shifted, so it had less input into general policy issues and more time was spent on public relations type activities. The changes suggest that most mainstream issues were no longer seen as needing female perspectives. The Office, which had once spawned a range of other women’s units in other portfolios, was now the last survivor,  a relic that spent much of its efforts  promoting government programs to women rather than women’s views to government.

The ALP government failed to make appropriate changes and left the unit in the family portfolio. It also appointed fairly junior non-cabinet ministers  to be the Minister for Women. The view was that the office was not so necessary in policy terms as there were some overtly  feminist ministers in cabinet. And there were some good policies brought in such as supporting the ASU equal pay case, and a version of paid parental leave.  However the role of the unit was fairly limited. The formal mechanisms for ensuring women’s views were included in the decision-making areas of cabinet were not clearly there, and errors were made. The sole parent cuts are a clear example of this.

Given there is only one woman in cabinet, and very few in the wider ministry, a centrally located, more visible women’s unit is really important. If it goes back to families with its junior minister having no cabinet input, nothing will happen. I think we are better off with Abbott in the hot seat, under very visible scrutiny — including from some cross Liberal women.

Note: Eva Cox was a candidate for the Whitlam adviser’s job and for the head of the Office for the Status for Women under Hawke. She briefly worked in the Office for the Status of Women under Hawke, as well as being an inveterate advocate for more feminist policies.

New Matilda

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