Prime Minister Scott Morrison earns a six-figure income and lives in high-end, non-means-tested public housing with a stay-at-home spouse who cares for the family’s two school-aged children. He will never have experienced the childcare-related anxiety most parents of school-aged children do.
Morrison’s extraordinary singling out of child care for a big punitive hit as he winds back the government’s coronavirus pandemic program suggests he wants more families to look like his. Except, that is, in relation to public housing – an area on which, along with higher education, the government pointedly refuses to spend any stimulus dollars.
If you want to understand what a government is about, look at where it puts its money rather than listening to what it says. The government’s pandemic spending decisions show it wants women back in the kitchen, weak universities and wondrous home renovations for the already well-off, rather than Australia’s threadbare public housing in better repair.
It is neither kind nor smart public policy, and may turn out to be dumb politics too. The Liberal and National parties will likely pay little political price for failing to support universities or improve social housing during the pandemic, but the government’s blunt child-care policy moves are another matter. Early polling for the July 4 Eden-Monaro byelection starts on Monday, giving these southern New South Wales voters a chance to express an early opinion of Morrison’s starkly masculinist, welfare-for-the-well-off turn this week.
Making child care free at the pandemic’s outset gave stretched and stressed families several weeks’ reprieve from that most elemental anxiety: being able to undertake paid work consistent with their children being secure.
The deep relief many parents experienced was a taste of a different possible world, one not saturated with the fear of being unable to properly fulfil either their responsibilities as workers or parents – and not driven by the finely balanced maths of whether their earnings would even cover the cost of child care necessary for them to work in the first place.
Given the gendered pattern of parenting in Australia, it is women who overwhelmingly pay the price. Women are less likely to be available for paid work, and less able to do paid work for as many hours as they would like, because of problems accessing and affording child care.
The consequences of the child-care trap compound over time into clear labour market disadvantage. Women have lower participation rates, lower earnings and a decreasing share of seats at the executive table the further up the ladder you go.
This is nowhere truer than at the top of the Morrison government. The 23-person Morrison cabinet includes six women (26%) – just enough for the prime minister to tick the “inclusion” box, but not enough for those women and their potential male allies to challenge the unrelentingly blokey agenda being rolled out.
Defence Minister Senator Linda Reynolds, for example, saw the light through participation in the Broderick Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Forces. She said in February:
I saw that women could help Defence do things differently, and better. I started questioning my own leadership style. Along the way, I’d unknowingly adopted behaviours that didn’t really reflect who I was or who I wanted to be - and my voice had been stifled. Through this challenging process of self-assessment, I began to find my own voice and confidence as a female leader, which over time I found to be enormously liberating. I am a better senator and a better minister because of it.
Had someone like Reynolds wanted to lead a charge over the barricades against Morrison’s child-care hit this week, who could she have turned to in cabinet for help? Potential allies in making Morrison government policy less toxic for women are not obvious. There are so few women and they are massively outnumbered by ambitious men.
Morrison not only ending free child care but also singling out the overwhelmingly female child-care workforce for the early ending of JobKeeper payments – explicitly breaking a promise to continue JobKeeper across the workforce until September – should have women storming for preselection across Australia’s political spectrum.
This should be especially so in the Liberal and National parties where the low number of women preselected for winnable seats, even when multiple quality female candidates contest them, depresses the number of female coalition MPs. It makes bad policy like that announced by Morrison this week easier to get away with. The farcical 30-minute hairdresser carve-out at the beginning of the lockdown could only have come from a womanless kitchen cabinet. Morrison’s hit on child care and the child-care workforce escalates the dysfunction from farce to tragedy.
Half of Australia’s voters are women. The government says it wants to encourage labour force participation in the interest of national productivity, but at every turn discourages women’s participation in the paid workforce. Child-care policy, the single biggest barrier to women’s full participation in the paid workforce, is a mess. When there’s a mess, it is usually the women who have to clean it up.
Liberal and National party women need to person up, get organised and get into parliament at the same rate as their male peers, ensure women’s proper representation in leadership positions, in cabinet, in the ministry and in the parliamentary committees where those aspiring to the ministry and cabinet build their policy and political skills.
They need to stop allowing themselves to be divided and ruled. They should speak up in unison, in public and in private, and get policies affecting women in the paid workforce back on track. Otherwise the Gilead-lite policies being propagated from that high-end, non-means-tested public housing known as The Lodge is going to go from bad to worse.
Authors: Chris Wallace, Associate Professor, 50/50 By 2030 Foundation, Faculty of Business Law & Government, University of Canberra