OPINION

Women marched in the streets, and have now marched away from the Coalition

Then Liberal leader Tony Abbott tries his hand at ironing a shirt during a visit to a dry cleaner's in Queanbeyan in 2010. Picture: AAP
Then Liberal leader Tony Abbott tries his hand at ironing a shirt during a visit to a dry cleaner's in Queanbeyan in 2010. Picture: AAP

Scott Morrison's considerable woes with women did not manifest overnight.

For years, the Liberal Party (along with the Nationals) has fiercely resisted binding targets or quotas for representation, even as its percentage of female candidates languished at or below 25 per cent.

The "women problem" was clearly signposted years ago. It is a problem of its own making. Remember Tony Abbott as opposition leader talking about the price of electricity? "What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it's going to go up in price, and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up," he said in 2010. Cringe.

Julia Gillard's misogyny speech resonated strongly, and yet a decade later we saw clear evidence of a Coalition government that was not just gender-insensitive, but actually gender-inept.

There was the resistance to same-sex marriage, a plebiscite that stirred division and was entirely unnecessary. Australia Post boss Christine Holgate was thrown under the bus in spectacular fashion. Scott Morrison as prime minister needed to be prodded by his wife into action regarding an allegation of rape at Parliament House, the workplace in which he was the leader.

The sheer numbers of women at the March 4 Justice meant that no one in the government could simply ignore the problem any more. Morrison did announce a flurry of new committees, new ministerial appointments and promises to fix everything, while not actually engaging the protesters.

The cabinet taskforce on women's economic security did little. The next National Plan on Violence Against Women, due next month, did not materialise. The much vaunted childcare measures in the 2021 budget failed to improve either affordability or accessibility. The celebrated changes to paid parental leave in the most recent budget entrenched gender norms. Funding for the Human Rights Commission that seeks to help deliver safer workplaces was cut.

Liberal modertaes Fiona Martin, left, and Katie Allen lost their seats at the federal election. Picture: AAP

Liberal modertaes Fiona Martin, left, and Katie Allen lost their seats at the federal election. Picture: AAP

Half the Liberal women in the House of Representatives have now lost their seats, including Katie Allen and Fiona Martin. Can the party claim ignorance about the concerns of women? No. It actively resisted the cultural change necessary for real gender equality. Now, with its support crashed, it risks lurching further to the right, a mistake if it wants to win women back.

Simon Birmingham, appealing to his colleagues to learn the lessons of the defeat, has acknowledged that the shift leading to the independent tsunami began yonks ago when his party denied climate change. There was a void in federal leadership, hiding from big reforms and beholden to special interests. Wages stagnated. Integrity was intentionally ignored. The Liberals alienated women in our cities and major towns. A number, chosen by their communities, stood in key Liberal seats and won.

As for the new parliament, there is a huge amount of work to do. The independent movement shows that there's demand in the electorate for parliamentarians to act, not play act.

Labor went into the election with less courage than in 2019, but is prepared to commit to systemic change across the board - from childcare to aged care to social housing, understanding that when we care for women and girls, we care for everyone. It's just fundamental that economic security and wellbeing flows from decent incomes and social protection.

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The ALP intends to implement gender-responsive budgeting, bringing Australia in line with much of the OECD, and equipping and expecting more of the public service at various points in the budget cycle.

A widened crossbench should be able to monitor Labor's promises. Dare we hope it could even strengthen them? And could it question the stage 3 tax cuts that will almost exclusively benefit wealthy men? Josh Frydenberg cast no gender lens on that one.

The Greens, which have long been strong on gender, will bring expertise, broadening the conversation about all women, regardless of their background, ability or income.

What should be at the top of Labor's women's agenda as it moves to an October mini budget? The National Plan on Violence Against Women has to get into shape. Moving to support a wage case for the lowest paid, with many women in feminised sectors, is also important. The deadline for a submission is early June.

We, like National Shelter, would like to see a national housing summit with experts and the states and territories, to deliver affordable, accessible and appropriate housing. Single women over 55 are especially at risk of homelessness. Taking concrete steps to address the woeful culture of sexual harassment and sexism in Federal Parliament is another priority.

But for the moment, we can enjoy the sense that we might finally have a Federal Parliament which is up to the task of thinking beyond a three-year term.

  • Helen Dalley-Fisher is convenor of the Equality Rights Alliance based in Canberra.
This story Women marched in the streets, and have now marched away from the Coalition first appeared on The Canberra Times.