The Guardian 8 March, 2006
Liberal Party policy on women
Back in 1976 when the Liberal Party was enjoying a two-term stint in power at Old Parliament House, and John Howard was soon-to-be Treasurer, an Age journalist wrote of the then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser: "he has done more for the ordinary Australian woman, the average stay-at-home child-bearing housewife than any other person in the country’s history".
Openly morally conservative, the Fraser Government was anathema to the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. From its inauguration in 1975 the government began the curtailment of achievements newly won by women. It decentralised child care facilities, thereby making the entrance of mothers into the workforce more difficult, ruthlessly cut funding to women’s health centres and refuges, and shelved policies of the Whitlam Government promoting income redistribution. The International Year of Women in 1975 came to an abrupt end with the advent of the conservative government.
As unemployment soared during the 1970s, the Liberals blamed working women as having stolen their husbands’ and sons’ jobs, and argued that the provision of social services for women, such as child care and unemployment benefits, was an unnecessary burden on the public purse. The government played the moral card to explain away problems in the economy instead of acknowledging the inevitability of economic decline within the cycles of capitalism. It set up a convenient rationale of restoring the integrity of the traditional nuclear family — a family in which there exists a "stay-at-home mum" and a paternal provider of income — as a means of minimising the role of government and leading Australia towards an increasingly user-pays style of society.
But while discouraging middle-class women from entering the workforce, they were more than comfortable having less advantaged women, especially those imported from post-war Europe by the Menzies Government, fill production lines in factories. Working-class female labour was integral to building the backbone of the Australian economy in this period, but seldom publicly acknowledged.
Beneath the Liberals’ veneer of advocacy of traditional values of the patriarchal family existed a contradictory policy on women, due to their recognition of the utility of women in industrial production and the drive to keep their in the home. Such contradictions continue today, in no less extreme form.
The Liberal Party of the new millennium is far from outspoken on the plight of women. Their current political platform lacks explicit policy objectives in this area.
Interestingly, what does garner considerable attention is the role of family. The Liberals believe "in the family as the primary institution for fostering the values on which a cohesive society is built", and that the "interests of families should be at the centre of national policy making". While "individual people matter most" in society, it is family which "is the most fundamental institution for the development of the individual" (Liberal Party web-site).
Consider this in conjunction with the Liberals’ opposition to the abortion pill, its flirtation with the anti-abortion debate, its precarious funding of IVF facilities, its reduction of public spending on childcare services and benefits, and inducements offered to mothers with young children to withdraw from paid work — and it is clear that the Liberals are not just referring to any family. Their attention is fixed on the Christian ideal of family in which the reproductive role of women is sanctified and venerated, epitomised by Catholicism. Followed by the majority of religious Australians, Catholicism holds the figure Mary in the highest esteem.
But importantly, as "individual people", particularly those who accumulate capital, "matter most" to the Liberals, individual interests will accordingly reign superior in circumstances in which they may conflict with the concept of the traditional family.
This is well illustrated in relation to female labour, which serves the interests of capitalists very effectively. Options are created by the availability of women for the workforce. Primarily, employers see that increased competition for jobs from female workers can have the outcome of stymieing wage growth and therefore raising profits.
It is commonly known that throughout labour history, and to this day, women and children constituted an excellent source of cheap labour. Even with "equal pay for equal work" legislation, introduced in Australia in 1972, women continue to earn significantly less than their male counterparts, and take home substandard wages in certain industries such as manufacturing and call centres. As a consequence of these and other factors, women receive just over half the superannuation of men, they are more reliant on the aged pension, and are more likely to live in poverty.
Karl Marx aptly pointed out that the further labour power is spread over a family, the less the capitalist system is obliged to pay each wage earner in order for the family to live. Exploitation increases with every member who shifts from solely performing free labour in the household or community to toiling in the labour market. And, the sharper the contradiction between the tenets of traditional morality and the reality of their working lives becomes.
In Australia, high exploitation of women relative to men is not likely to end soon. Just passed by the Senate last December is the Liberals’ "Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2005", abbreviated to "WorkChoices". The bill will invariably see many problems experienced by female workers become exacerbated when it commences this month.
One of the major changes heralded by the Bill is the replacement of the independent Australian Industrial Relations Commission with a new body called the Fair Pay Commission which will be open to ministerial intervention. This body is responsible for setting the minimum wage. Unfortunately for women, they are the sex who overwhelmingly receive this wage. Though they make up 45 per cent of the workforce, women constitute 60 per cent of casual workers and 71 per cent of part-time workers, whose rates of pay and conditions pale in comparison with those of full-time workers.
The Fair Pay Commission has the objectives of "promoting economic prosperity and job creation". To the Liberals, these objectives are achieved by lowering wages, as they argue that this allows capitalists to make more wealth which can be reinvested in the economy, thereby stimulating economic growth and employment. However, what the Liberals may not admit is that lowering wages also decreases spending power, which leads to reduced economic activity and recession, as well as high unemployment particularly among the casualised workforce.
WorkChoices promotes individual contracts and the disenfranchisement of people’s right to collectively bargain. Individual contracts are another means through which wages and conditions are pushed back. Through their use, capitalists seek to gain a further advantage over workers, undermining their job security, and, significantly, the strength of their unions. A low level of collective organisation of female workers, as with any other section of the working class, will diminish their effectiveness in challenging injustices in the workplace.
Another bill passed in December, commonly known as "Welfare to Work", includes an extension of the Liberals’ "Work for the Dole" program to unemployed parents on allowances and people with disabilities. When it comes into effect this July, these groups will be required to work in employment not necessarily of their choosing for as little as $3 an hour, or else forgo unemployment payments (Newstart Allowance) for several months. The package has been regarded by the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children as a "disaster for single parents", most of whom are women.
In point of fact, the Welfare to Work legislation, which effectively minimises welfare granted to the unemployed, satisfies both the Liberals’ economically conservative and morally conservative ideologies, as the two are united in their opposition to state support. The former views the state as encumbering competitiveness of individuals in the marketplace which is used to drive down wage rates, and the latter as an encroachment upon the family.
The so-called "New Right" in the US is characterised as a political force which draws strength from combining the policy frameworks of economic and moral conservatism. To an even greater extent than the Liberals, it is in a position to take advantage of new Christian religions which have adapted to current circumstances by adhering to an individualistic rather than exclusively family oriented outlook, while retaining a strict ethical code. Some modern movements, for example, put unprecedented emphasis on the concept of "self" to the detriment of all else.
However, Western conservative governments continue to receive mass support for their use of rhetoric which sings the praises of the traditional nuclear family and small community. This rhetoric may be referred to as an opiate, as it pacifies people longing for a sense of belonging and mutual support where an individualistic ethic fails to meet this need.
It has been said in academic circles that opposition parties are yet to "have developed an effective response, nor even a convincing alternative rhetoric". The key, it appears, is in elaborating an individual, family, and social morality which has common, as opposed to conflicting, aims. This eschews the situation in which one set of interests takes precedence over another. The task is to win the rights of women as individuals, workers and family members, within the context of the struggle by women and men for the rights of the working class as a whole.
For now, capitalism will interchange individualism every so often with other values for political and economic gain. The only values which can perform this function without presenting a serious threat to capitalism are those of a parochial kind, such as the Western traditionalism of the nuclear family. Unfortunately for women, this means being stuck between a rock and a hard place.