The Guardian 16 February, 2005

TAKING ISSUE with Julie Messenger

Pru Goward and housework

I let out a groan last week when I opened The Weekend Australian Magazine to a feature article on Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward.

Ms Goward is just one of a coterie of women who have sprung to prominence as "spokesmodels" for the "modern Australian woman" during the past decade of Howard government.

Ms Goward's government-mandated and highly-paid position makes her pre-eminent in the field. And certainly, being a personal friend of Mr Howard's as well as his official biographer can't have hurt during the job interview for the Commissioner's position.

But along with Ms Goward's personal friendship there is also the ideological bond with Mr Howard. We find this articulated in her motivations for launching her new project Striking the Balance: Women, Men, Work and Family.

She launched this just days after the Australian feature, bringing into the spotlight a very pressing social issue: the imbalance in household work performed by men and women. When unpaid housework is brought into the equation women work on average 12.58 hours per day against men's 10.7 (statistics from Ms Goward's department).

Ms Goward's project is aimed at redressing that imbalance. Significant amongst her reasons for wanting men to do more housework: "So long as this [imbalance] remains the case, there has to be a limit on how many children a woman is prepared to have".

So, out of the mouth of Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner: The less housework women have to perform the more likely they will want to stay home and have babies!

Yet Ms Goward has always asserted that she is independent of the Howard government. One piece of evidence she puts forward to back that statement is her outspoken support for paid maternity leave, which has attracted the ire of Cabinet Ministers, in particular Tony Abbott who declared that such legislation would be introduced "over this government's dead body".

Achieving social and economic justice for women in Australia goes way beyond paid maternity leave and equality in housework.

Even on the housework issue, Ms Goward has made very good points but her solution falls far short and is simplistic in the extreme: "Men must do more".

There are the real changes that could be implemented by both state and federal governments to achieve the goal of social and economic justice, let me offer Ms Goward a few:

  • Reduce hours worked in employment. Australian men spend more time in the workplace than anyone else in the developed world, with a significant and ever-growing component of that being unpaid overtime. Implement a mandatory 35-hour working week with an annual cap on paid overtime. This will bring men back into their homes allowing more opportunity to participate in household work and child-rearing.

  • Bring an end to the casual labour epidemic in Australia. Ms Goward trumpets the availability of part-time work as a boon for Australian women. What she neglects to mention is that there are millions of Australians working in casual jobs that offer no benefits such as Maternity or Paternity Leave, or Carer's Leave. They do not even offer any certainty of working hours.

    How many more men would be encouraged to participate in child-rearing if they felt they had government-sanctioned employment security that allowed them to do so?

    Ms Goward decries the "triple shifts" women work: paid employment, care of children and care of the elderly. She also correctly points that out the disparity in women's participation in the workforce between Sweden and Australia 82 per cent against 43 per cent.

    Taxation system

    Why is that, Ms Goward? Put two and two together! Sweden has a strongly progressive taxation regime which allows the government the funds to provide:

  • Access to high-quality government-provided and accommodation and care facilities for the elderly. The reality in Australia is that a vast segment of the aged-care facilities most certainly the "cheap" ones which are in financial reach of the working class are not fit for human habitation. Thus "putting your parents in a home" often brings a great burden of guilt and shame on working families who do not have the time nor resources to care for two sets of elderly parents.

    The situation would be very different if you knew your parents were going to quality accommodation, with adequate nutrition, world-best nursing care and even government-funded vacations as they do in Sweden.

    Not only would this benefit women by alleviating work in the home, but also would have the added benefit of providing them with dignity and comfort during the on-average five years they will live longer than their male companions.

  • Childcare! This is a no-brainer. Australia has a deficit of childcare places in the tens of thousands. The ability to place their children in affordable and quality childcare would alleviate women's work in the home, along with allowing them greater access to employment and the education system.

    Childcare places will only increase when two major conditions are met: Massive injection of government funding; and significant boost in the wages and conditions of childcare workers to attract more workers into this field.

    If Ms Goward is truly independent, if Ms Goward is truly working toward ending discrimination against women in Australia, let her publicly state her support for those policies.

    And then just watch how quickly she falls from grace!

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