A Difficult Path Forward: Life Under the Coalition for Women
Last weekend, many of us watched in horror as Australia signed up for three more years under a Liberal Coalition government. The groups of people who will be negatively impacted by the continuation of this government's policies are numerous. They include refugees, people of colour, those who depend on a healthy environment (which would be most of us), and not least of all, women and other gender minorities.
On a micro scale, Liberal governance is poor for women's representation. The past three years have seen women’s representation in parliament take a major backslide, particularly within the Liberal government itself. The Liberals have recently seen a wave of high-profile women abandoning the party for greener pastures. In a shock resignation, Kelly O’Dwyer stepped down just prior to the election, citing the workplace was not conducive to life as a mother. Former foreign minister Julie Bishop also stepped down, ostensibly after being passed over during the Liberal leadership spill in favour of Scott Morrison. Finally, Julia Banks left the party to become an independent, after dealing with bullying from other (male) members of the Liberal Party, who she refused to directly name. What she did say, was even more damning. On an episode of Q&A, Ms. Banks said “it was an entrenched culture of anti-women within the Liberal Party which I had experienced since my preselection in 2015.”
Of the male MPs rumoured to be the source of the bullying during the leadership spill (Greg Hunt, Tony Abbott, and Peter Dutton), only Abbott faced any serious repercussions before, during or after the election. He lost his long-held seat of Warringah to Independent Zali Steggall. Dutton and Hunt retained their seats.
This treatment of women is not a good look for the coalition, in which there are more male MPs named Andrew than female MPs, full stop. Conversely, Labor campaigned on the promise that a Shorten-elected government would be gender-balanced with an equal number of male and female MPs. Now, with the coalition back in place, it seems we’ll be waiting on that statistic for some time.
Adding to what had already been a disappointing election was the coalition’s choice of a new leader in the face of Bill Shorten’s departure. The title went not to his Deputy Leader, Tanya Plibersek, as many had assumed it would, but instead to Anthony Albanese. The popular and well-respected Plibersek gave no official reason for bowing out of the race, save for the rather cryptic declaration “now is not my time.”
Plidersek’s statement brings to mind the familiar question: “if not me, who? If not now, when?” Australia has been facing this problem for twenty years now. The rest of the world is quickly outpacing us. For some perspective, in 1999, Australia ranked 15th globally in terms of female representation in parliament. In 2018, we ranked 50th. 2019 shows no sign of that downward trend improving anytime soon, with only a negligible rise in representation across the board.
On a macro scale, the election was bad news for Australian women in a myriad of ways. Inequality among the rich and poor continues to be a major issue in Australia, with single women over 55 now the fastest growing group of homeless and disadvantaged people in the country. Homeless women are forced to rely on the Newstart system largely due to the breakdown of relationships, domestic violence situations, unemployment, and underemployment in regional areas.
This system remains woefully underfunded, with those on the allowance made to survive on just $40 a day. The Australian Council of Social Service has advised a minimum additional allowance of just $10 a day. However, this pay hike has been flatly rejected by the Coalition, who insist the Newstart payment of $280 per week is adequate. This figure, which has barely budged for more than 25 years, has a variety of knock-on effects. They include a higher number of single mothers with children in poverty and more women staying in domestic violence situations, particularly in regional communities with lack of access to additional services.
Meanwhile, working mothers have little to look forward to under the Coalition, with childcare costs prohibiting many from returning to the workplace. Figures from this year suggest a woman typically faces a loss of 90% of her wage for each extra day she uses childcare. In many cases, women can wind up actually paying more to go to work than they would to stay home as primary carers. As a result, many women wind up staying out of work until their children are in school, resulting in a net loss in career advancement opportunities and increased financial dependence on their partners. It’s little wonder, then, that these women find themselves with no other option than the Newstart allowance if their relationships happen to break down.
Those who do manage to stay in work don’t get off easy either. The cuts to penalty rates disproportionately affect women, with the sectors impacted the most (retail and hospitality) staffed mainly by women. Women are also more likely to work part-time, often due to primary carer commitments. So, they will face a “double-barrelled effect”, according to economist Dr. Jim Stanford at The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work. Dr. Stanford suggests, “Both of those factors contribute to the gap in earnings between men and women in the sector, and they confirm that the cut in penalty rates would have a focused impact on women's earnings.”
So, whether you’re an aspiring female politician, a woman in the workforce, a mother, or just a woman who cares about equal representation, life under the Coalition is set to become more difficult for the next three years. A reality which many, particularly the most disadvantaged among us, will struggle to endure.
By: Siri Williams
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