Political Power: Does gender matter anymore?

Author: Maxine McKew is Parliamentary Secretary for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. This speech was delivered at the NSW Fabians Forum as part of the ALP National Conference fringe events.

It’s a pleasure to be on the same platform as Julie Owens because we are in adjoining electorates, and I remember during my previous life as anchor for Lateline, the night after the 04 election, I had Julie on as a new Labor member and Malcolm Turnbull as a new Liberal member. It was a joint discussion about ‘the rookies.’

But I remember Julie and I lingered afterwards in the lobby of the ABC, and perhaps I had an ulterior motive and I remember saying, “Come on – how did you really do it?

And I do remember Julie your response then, and you were dead right. You said at the time no seat is unwinnable and you were actually recalling your previous tilt at North Sydney - I never forgot that.

It’s also interesting that my introduction made reference to Jesse Street – one of my heroes. I don’t have many, but Jesse’s one of mine. And I think I’m right... If I’m wrong I know Bob Ellis will correct me. That Jesse actually had to run in Wentworth because the Labor Party denied her pre-selection in Eden-Monaro. It’s an interesting point of history.

First of all I would like to acknowledge that gender studies is a recognised field of academic expertise, and I’ll put in a disclaimer. I am no expert.

I’m also aware that gender roles in Labor politics is a galvanising topic. It has been over the years and many have written and spoken authoritatively on that topic. By contrast, I have my own observations of the last two years from inside the Labor tent, and another 30 from outside. I do feel though that, over the years, I’ve acquired a lot of scar tissue in terms of confronting this topic... as we all have.

So where to start?

I think we can say that during the 20 months of the Rudd Government – Australians appear that much more comfortable than ever with women wielding political power.

We have certainly come a long way since 1975 when, as a young cadet journalist in Queensland, I practically risked a night in the watch house because I aired a couple of stories about the need for anti discrimination legislation.

Those were the days…when a Rockhampton mayor called Rex Pilbeam  became famous for sacking any woman who worked for the council the moment she went to the altar.

Those were also the days when a young University of Queensland law lecturer called Quentin Bryce advocated a heretical troika…affordable childcare, paid maternity leave and fairness in the workplace. How seditious!

Thirty five years on, the Australian Government now requests Quentin’s assent to every piece of legislation that passes through the federal Parliament and the Queensland of the 1970s has now become the first state in Australia to elect a woman as premier. So clearly the landscape we survey today is very different.

The election of Anna Bligh and the appointment of Quentin Bryce as the first female Governor-General were – to me at any rate – unsurprising.  Anna was clearly the best candidate, Quentin an excellent choice. Thankfully preconceptions about gender and gender roles aren’t set in stone. They are constantly changing and evolving.

The biological, social and cultural elements that when combined define what it is to be a man or woman today, won’t necessarily hold true in ten or twenty years from now.

So when I’m asked the question - does gender matter any more in relation to political power – I guess the short answer is yes, it will always matter. But right now I think gender matters a little less.

There’s been widespread acknowledgement of the strong performance in government by the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, of Nicola Roxon, of Jenny Macklin in Labor’s most important portfolios of Education, of Health and Families.

Every time an articulate successful woman stands up to represent the Australian public, another bubble bursts for those remaining ‘gender skeptics’ out there... the people who believe that because a candidate is a woman it might be a negative in some voters’ minds.

It’s a little bit like the issue of race at the last US election – when some American commentators murmured about “the Bradley Effect”– the idea that white voters, no matter how good the candidate and in spite of what they told pollsters, just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a black candidate.

Barack Obama has consigned to “The Bradley Effect” to the dust bin of political science theories.

As the writer Kate Jennings has said, Obama wasn’t elected for the colour of his skin – “he was elected because he offered the hope of a wise, steady and healing leadership to a country bullied and battered in the name of patriotism, plundered and pillaged in the name of free markets, neglected and abandoned in the name of small government.”

I think every time we see off these shibboleths, it seems like everyone blinks, opens their eyes a bit wider and says – “What were we worried about?”

I know that many feminists are disappointed that a woman is still to be elected as Commander in Chief in the United States…. and that 2008 represents for them something of a missed opportunity.

I have a slightly different view. I think the girl won and her name is Obama!

If we look at this in Jungian terms, Barack Obama has an exceptionally well developed anima….that is, his feminine side sits easily alongside his male persona.

Obama prevailed I think because he had a conversation with America. He talked in a different way - and my God, can’t he talk! His campaign was expansive, empathetic, full of promise. Above all, he got the tone just right. People felt that he was on their side, and it wasn’t all about him.

Obama to me is a symbol of how gender roles, both male and female are shifting, and how showing traits that are considered ‘female’ are no longer a negative for a male politician. However, I’m not so sure the reverse works.

The search for gender equality shouldn’t mean that women in politics slavishly adopt traits considered ‘male.’ The aim should be that women are afforded all the same opportunities as men to develop as politicians with whichever voice works for them.

Being a woman is clearly no longer a barrier to holding office or from being a senior Minister in Australia. A woman may not yet hold the top reins of power in Australia yet, but the novelty factor of female political power is all but gone.  

That said, the old stereotypes still rear their heads from time to time.

I don’t see much reporting on what male politicians wear, or what their hair looks like. Nobody wants to take photographs of blokes in their kitchen or comment on their fruit bowls. Not yet.

Mind you we have seen some interesting Vanity Fair style shots of Tony Abbott as part of the free media pre-publication publicity for his new book - we’ve had Tony in body-hugging Lycra on the surfboard fighting the waves off Manly. And we’ve had Tony pouting sullenly a bit like James Dean against the brick wall.

All of this accompanied by Tony’s new-found enthusiasm for paid maternity leave and - perversely - a return to old style divorce laws. Clearly he’s attempting to be the poster boy for something. I’m just not sure what.

On balance though, it’s still women who cop maximum attention for what they’re wearing – consider the forest of literature on Hillary Clinton’s many-hued, ubiquitous trouser suits.

It’s fair to say some other countries are further down the gender equality path in politics than we are. The Spanish cabinet has more women than men.

Spain’s 38 year-old Defence Minister Carme Chacon took over the portfolio last year when she was seven months pregnant. Time Magazine published a great photo of her reviewing the troops while heavy with child.

I hasten to add our current Defence Minister is doing a great job. We’d all like to see him continue in that job. The good Fabian that he is, I think you’ll all agree with me that we can call John Faulkner, from time to time, an ‘honorary woman’.

But I’m still looking forward to the day when Australian women politicians will occupy some of what are still considered to be the blokes’ jobs - Treasury and Defence.

The fact that we are where we are today is the culmination of many years of hard work. It’s the advocacy of groups like the National Foundation for Australian Women, the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Emily’s List and many others who’ve helped to recast gender roles in politics in a more equal and unbiased way. And I know Julie and I will always say we stand on the shoulders of others.

Tomorrow we will be honouring Bob Hawke for his extraordinary service to the Labor movement. Among other things when I think of the Hawke ministry, I think in particular of Susan Ryan, and the extraordinary hard yards that Susan put in to ensure that we have national legislation on affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws.

Susan and the women of her generation dared to imagine a different future and they copped a lot of pain for it. But they were true to their ideal, and they kept those ideas circulating in the public sphere even when it was very difficult to do so. They remain an inspiration for all of us. For that we all owe them and many of you - an unending debt. So thank you.

While we celebrate our victories – I still think there are hurdles for women in politics.

It’s incumbent on all political parties to make themselves more accessible to everyone – and this means to women as well.

As a newcomer to the Labor branch structure in New South Wales I’d have to say that it is not family friendly, it is not conducive to attracting a broad range of membership, and it’s not likely to capture the imagination of the community.

We all know the challenge of raising children and running the household still falls mostly to women.

So why aren’t we changing our party structures to reflect this reality?

The quote attributed to Oscar Wilde about “the trouble with socialism” being that “it takes up too many evenings” would probably still resonate with all Labor Party branch stalwarts as they sit around that Church Hall or sit on little chairs in the pre-school room, especially through these winter months.

New South Wales is having another crack at branch reform, so more power to your ‘Rosie the Riveter’ arms for doing so. But we certainly won’t attract the best and brightest to our party unless we make it easier for women to get involved and stay engaged.

Many women lose touch with the party when they have children, or have other caring responsibilities.

In my former portfolio I worked hard to deliver the Government’s ambitious agenda for early childhood reform, and that included quality childcare. But I haven’t noticed too many ALP branch meetings being held at family friendly times or venues.

Many women do have strong connections to their local community, often through their children, through schools and sporting clubs. Women are often involved in local politics and smaller forms of political organisation. The potential is there for the ALP to tap into this resource of female community leadership.

Not only is it about making branch meetings more accessible it is also about shifting the message to appeal to women and changing the way the party views and treats women.

Gender equality is not about making women fit into men’s roles, it is about recognising the value of women’s roles.

In the area of representation within the ALP, certainly we can see that the commitment to affirmative action has paid off. As you know Labor’s target is to have women representing Labor in 33 per cent of winnable seats and that goal has been achieved.

Although along with Julie I would say there’s something about being in a marginal seats that keeps you honest.

There’s also the question about the party hierarchy.

Back in 2000 in her contribution to the book “Party Girls” Julia Gillard noted that the Party’s National Secretary and state secretaries at the time were all male:

Julia observed how inherently inaccessible such positions were to women:

She said: “The work-till-you-drop ethos which pervades the political class means there has been no real attempt to facilitate part-time work or working patterns which recognise family needs.”

“In addition, these jobs tend to become a lifestyle in which being at the right pub or the right dinner at the right time can be as important as performing professional duties during the day.”

Well, roll on the day when state secretaries can horse trade outside the school playground.

So just summing up - I think we should be happy that we’ve got to a place where gender preconceptions in Australian politics have changed.

Women politicians are more likely to be judged on merit than they ever have been before. But we can’t get complacent.

Getting back to the original question about does gender still matter, I think the short answer is “less than it ever has, but still more than it should.”

We’ve come a long way. Our task now is to consolidate the gains and keep building for the future.

Just before I finish I want to make one final observation.

Recently News Limited journalist Glenn Milne coined a phrase to “do a Maxine McKew.” He was talking about the need to run, as he said, a high profile Labor candidate against Malcolm Turnbull in Wentworth.

A catchy slogan, but I think it misses the point. I want to reassure Glenn that victory in Bennelong had to do with many things.

One of the most important things was that it was a great grassroots disciplined campaign. There are many people here today and over at the larger venue where the conference is being held, whose support was absolutely invaluable to my victory in Bennelong.

It’s worth noting that there was also the incumbent who had outstayed his welcome.

I think my name and whatever recognition factor attached to it was somewhat down the list. In fact I find the whole business of a ‘celebrity candidate’ is laughable. Because there’s nothing glamorous about campaigning - it’s relentless and I knew that when I took on the job.

But having done so I now find my present job about as rewarding as it gets.

As any local member will tell you, the world beats a path to your electorate office with any number of problems. Some of them you can help or at least point in the right direction. Others you can have a cup of tea with and just listen to their story.

Whether it’s to do with the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card or disability care, or immigration difficulties, people want the dignity of their lives recognised. It is a humbling experience that grounds you in the reality of other people’s lives. In many cases they are tired of being dismissed – of feeling lost in the system.

Arthur Miller’s lines in Death of a Salesman come to mind – “Attention must be paid. A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man.”

I’ve had some extraordinary days and some spectacular days since I became the Member for Bennelong. I’ve also had some very, very ordinary days. You have your wins, and you have your retreats.

But I do know this. The politics at the coalface has to do with making connections. It’s about incremental change, and a thousand and one small solutions.

They may never make the front page of any newspaper, but the wheelchair-adapted house that you find for the mother with two disabled children will never be forgotten.

Nor will the small community grants that you find for the scouts hall or the netball team.

Nor will the things that cost you nothing – your attendance at a combined schools concert, or a seniors’ afternoon tea.

That’s what I’m out there doing every day in Bennelong.

If I get any say in the matter that’s what I’d prefer “doing a McKew” to actually mean.