Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1612      September 25, 2013


Words and deeds

Following his swearing in as Prime Minister, “trust me” Tony Abbott said he would be judged “more by its deeds than by its mere words”. There was no shortage of deeds on his first day in office by which to judge the Coalition government. The jettisoning of science, housing and homelessness, multicultural affairs, climate change and the Status of Women and other important ministries revealed the priorities of the new government. They said far more than the vague policy statements released during the election campaign.

The appointment of only one woman to the 19-member Cabinet, Julie Bishop, after all Abbott’s claims to be a supporter of women certainly spoke louder than “mere words”. Four women made the outer ministry and only one was anointed as a parliamentary secretary. This is 2013, not 1813 or 1913! Five percent of Cabinet are women. To add insult to injury, Abbott has taken on ministerial responsibility for women!

“I’m sure Julie Bishop is accustomed to being the token woman throughout her career, and here she is being the token woman again,” former Cleo and Women’s Weekly editor Ita Buttrose said. “You can’t have that kind of parliament in 2013. It’s unacceptable.” A number of Liberal MPs were quite rightly shocked and embarrassed by the token appointment. Abbott hasn’t made any friends with his female colleagues who had hoped for a leadership position.

Bishop strongly rejects the notion that she is a token appointment. So does former Howard minister Amanda Vanstone who came to Abbott’s defence: “I’d rather have a good government than have more women in the cabinet for the sake of it,” Vanstone said. The message is that men are simply better at government. Abbott confirmed this by expressing disappointment that there “are not at least two women” in the Cabinet, referring to Sophie Mirabella who lost her seat! “Nevertheless, there are some very good and talented women knocking on the door of the cabinet and there are lots of good and talented women knocking on the door of the ministry.”

Abbott’s advisers knew that his popularity with women voters was low. When Abbott was Health Minister in the Howard government he opposed IVF, the right to abortion and the RU486 (medical termination) pill. He tried hard in the election campaign to overcome his well-deserved reputation as a social conservative, with 18th century values and attitudes towards women based on his Catholicism. Abbott paraded his wife and daughters on the campaign trail to prove his ability to relate to women. It appears this does not extend much beyond their role as wife or daughter.

Unfortunately, the totally unacceptable backward, sexist attitudes that underlie Abbott’s appointments are still rife throughout society and accepted by the daily tabloids. Women still suffer considerable discrimination in seeking employment, in wages, promotion at work, superannuation, working conditions and they are more likely to be in casual or other forms of insecure employment. They still bear the brunt of child rearing and domestic responsibilities. Instead of enlightened leadership and promotion of gender equality, the government’s message is that a woman’s place is still in the home not the House. Abbott’s Christian fundamentalist views look set to prevail. Meanwhile, the “very good and talented women” will have to keep knocking on the door hoping to be let in towards the next election if they are good girls.

The appointment of a few more women would not have resulted in radical policy changes. Gender does not determine politics. There is a similar range of views amongst the male and female members of Parliament, and within Liberal Party ranks there are the ultra conservatives and a few with a more enlightened liberal outlook on social and economic issues.

One of the most alarming aspects of Abbott’s cabinet appointments is its reflection of his ideology and intentions, that women face a bleak future under an Abbott government. Abbott did not even see the need for opportunistic reasons to appoint two or three women. Policy wise, the only prospect of defending women’s rights in the workplace, supporting single parents (majority are women) or women’s reproductive rights will be through united struggle by women and men outside of Parliament.

Next article – Qld’s yellowcake roadmap

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