Ged Kearney's thoughts on the 'female vote'

I've been asked to speak about women, work and this extraordinary election. I say ‘extraordinary’ because, over the course of my life as a working woman, I've watched many self-conscious attempts by conservative governments to appeal to the ‘female vote’, and yet I've noted that very rarely do conservative governments make their pitch to the nation one that pays much attention to the specific needs of women in the national programme; to the reality of our lives in work, our participation in the community, or within the complex intersection of our care relationships. 

It's the historic length of this election that gives the impression that never before have the needs of so many been so comprehensively ignored in policy priorities by so few of the ‘Coalition team’.

There may be a cynical edge to my comments, but forgive me…

Maybe you also saw Malcolm Turnbull's declaration that he is a feminist this month? While I am excited to welcome another member to the broad church of the sisterhood – Malcolm, take a chair – I note that Turnbull's claim on that identity is one that neither his Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop nor his Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash (the two most senior women in his cabinet) have been willing to make.

In the very same week where Malcolm Turnbull whipped out the family photo album – to soften his image before the female electorate, according to Fairfax – he declares in front of a camera that ‘girls can do anything!’ as if this is a great revelation. Malcolm, it isn't, we've known this for some time.

It is the reticence of Bishop and Cash to align themselves with a movement for women's structural equality in society that I think is a more honest representation of what, for women, a re-elected Turnbull Liberal National Coalition Team has in store for us.

Spoiler alert! It's not good…

For all the gains we've made as women; for all that we’ve fought for and gained through an organised trade union movement, we continue to exist in a structurally unequal workplace and society.

In the workplace, the base salary for full-time employees has a gender pay gap of 19.1 per cent in favour of men. Dispelling the myth that this is due to women leaving work to have children, the gender pay gap actually kicks in when young people enter the workforce at the age of fifteen, with an 11% gap in this earliest working cohort of 15-19.

And if you asked what hospitality workers, veterinary nurses, beauty therapists, pharmacy sales assistants, sewing machinists, laundry workers, housekeepers, checkout operators and hairdressers have in common, your answer would not only be that these professions are disproportionately oversubscribed by women, but also that they're Australia's most poorly paid. 

While earning less, women continue to spend 1 to 3 hours more a day on housework than men do. Women devote up to 10 times more time each day to care for children, the elderly, and the sick - these are figures from the United Nations. And to touch on the contributions of women to the voluntary care economy; estimations of cost value given by women to the community are estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars. 

Beyond the workplace and care, in Australia, we are at least finally recognising the profound social and economic threat to women posed by gendered violence; a recent intergovernmental report found one in four Australian women have experienced at least one incident of violence by an intimate partner. ABS data from last decade established that half a million Australian women have experienced physical or sexual violence or sexual assault in the previous 12 months.

Where are women safe?

Some 2005 data found 64 per cent of assaults were committed in a home. 64 per cent of women who experienced physical assault and did not report it to police and 81.1 per cent of female victims of sexual violence did not report to police either. And before the myth-makers come out, there is nothing near gender equivalency for family violence. Monash University recently concluded that of the tiny number of cases where men are homicide victims at the hands of women, around half of those same men subjected their killers to years of physical abuse.

Such problems are intersectional with other systems of disadvantage: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised from family violence and 10 times more likely to die of violent assault than other women.

So, this is where we are. And as the union movement and the inspiring campaigns of feminists and allies fight for equality we have the right to believe that all parties canvassing votes for government should want to be part of that fight too.

But remember, Michaelia Cash, Malcolm Turnbull's Minister for Women, is not a feminist.

She is also the Employment Minister though - and don't we know it? In April, her suggestion for pay equality between men and women wasn't to bring women's wages up, but to try to drive male wages down. She actually said in April: "Why aren't we also encouraging men to go into the non-traditional roles with the lower-paid salaries like nursing and teaching? You've got to have a two-way exchange there." 

It's indicative of the two-tiered, class-system thinking that underpins the entire policy approach of Turnbull and his team that they're taking into the election. A sort of "share the misery at the bottom, revel in the spoils the top" approach. How else can you possibly explain the thinking of government that's continuing the freeze on the Medicare rebate and allowing increased charges for pathology and imaging tests that women rely on  – for mammograms, for Pap smears – while at the same time handing over a $50 billion tax cut to big business? 

Turnbull is claiming that trickle-down economics will, somehow, work this time - but economists from Turnbull's own former employer, merchant bank Goldman Sachs, have said that 60 per cent of that tax cut will just flow out of the country to overseas investors as share dividends. 

So, let's talk about what the freeze on the Medicare rebate means for women on that bottom tier – already underpaid, already burdened with the greater care responsibilities. 

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners estimates that more than one-third of its members will be forced to stop bulk-billing. The President says doctors won't be able to bulk bill kids under sixteen. All those women working those hard minimum wage jobs – our cooks and sewing machinists and beauty therapists – will be faced with a cost choice between seeking medical treatment or buying food for the week.

And let's talk about the Coalition's enthusiasm to cut penalty rates, and who's going to bear the brunt of that? Can you guess? The Productivity Commission's push to reduce Sunday penalty rates to Saturday rates hits women harder than it does men because women are more likely to work in the Sunday industries of retail and hospitality; about one-third of all employees in those industries work on the weekend and the cuts to their pay packets will be crippling.

Let's talk about childcare. While the Liberals try desperately to smear Bill Shorten for acknowledging the fact – and it is a fact – that the disproportional responsibility for childcare falls to women both in the home and in industry, Turnbull's government is making no effort to relieve the cost burden on working families for childcare, or to improve paid parental leave, let alone to approach earlier childhood education within the strategic remit of broader education policy or community development. (Bill Shorten, here's a big policy hint.)

These are anxieties for working women. For women approaching retirement, they increase.

Combined with existing cuts to the part-pension, the Turnbull government's constant backflips on superannuation leave women vulnerable to financial instability and depredation in retirement. Women already retire with 42 per cent less superannuation then men in the same earning brackets – effectively penalised for taking time out from the workforce to have children or combine work with care. If you're in the lowest pay bracket, it's even worse – it's less than 58 per cent of what men in the same bracket save.

It's great that the government has not abandoned the low-income superannuation top-up, but as women often retire earlier in order to fulfil their care responsibilities, the government's reduction of the ‘tax free cap’ on super contributions to $25,000 further penalises women who are trying to make up for the serious gendered difference in their retirement savings towards the end of their careers.

But policy nuance around systemic disadvantage doesn't feature much into the Coalition policy mindset.

We must also make mention of this government's record towards some of the most marginalised women in our community – women who identify as LGBTQIA. Trans women experience some of the most severe economic disadvantage in the community due to prejudice affecting employment and social participation, and yet it's Turnbull's party that has taken an axe to the prejudice-fighting Safe Schools programme. If elected, they will also press ahead with a divisive and damaging plebiscite on marriage equality. There are many disappointed with the member for Wentworth on a personal level in this regard.

And while Turnbull has been very eager to hype his commitment to fighting family violence, his May budget retained a cut of 30 per cent to the community legal centres that are a frontline service for women fleeing abuse. The result is that more women than ever will be turned away from services that help them with the intervention orders, child protection and estate settlement required to get away from a violent partner. The specific needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women did not even rate a Budget mention…but the government did find $30 million for an awareness campaign to encourage women to use these services…that are no longer there.

So what's the good news? I promise you, there is some good news.

The good news is you and I –  our unions and our movement can make a difference for women, and for Australia.

The ACTU conducted polling by ReachTEL in WA and NSW over the month of February - and it showed almost a third of women consider Medicare or education spending as their top priority for the election.

Voters in general expressed concern that ‘Malcolm Turnbull is out of touch with ordinary voters’; that he favours big business and he won't change Tony Abbott's policies. Women were more likely (59 per cent) to nominate one of these three central worries than men (52 per cent).

Women may like Malcolm Turnbull more than they liked Tony Abbott - which is not really very surprising. However, in the Essential polling, just over a third of women prefer Malcolm Turnbull as the Liberal leader compared to 43 per cent of men. The reason why Malcolm Turnbull is so desperate to win women's votes at this phase of the election is because he hasn't won them yet - women remain the single largest group of undecided voters in the electorate.

So as unionists, as well as feminists, this is our opportunity to demonstrate that when it comes to the rights of women, the advance of women, the campaign for a fairer, better society, we have the policy alternative to Malcolm Turnbull and the ideas to build a better future for all of us. We're the ones fighting for domestic violence leave right now. We're the ones making the case that no woman should have to beg for family friendly work hours when she returns from maternity leave. We're the ones standing up for penalty rates, for increasing the minimum wage, for workplace equality and for equal pay. 

Because it's the trade union movement who fought for women's minimum wage. It's the trade union movement who agitated to remove the ban on married women in the public service. Ours was the incredible victory of equal pay legislation, ours was the victory for unpaid maternity leave, for paid maternity leave, for the federal sex discrimination act. So I say this to Malcolm Turnbull, if you want to show us how strong your feminist politics are, walk away from what you're doing. Join a union.


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