" The major parties' grasping for the female vote reveals more than the usual chase for power – it shows how our political parties view women" ... Amy Gray

" The major parties' grasping for the female vote reveals more than the usual chase for power - it shows how our political parties view women" ... Amy Gray

As we roll into 2013 with Australia’s Federal election looming on the horizon, the major parties are already working on refining their strategies to snap up every possible vote – with women currently in the cross-hairs. But are these 'female-friendly' policies spruiked by the major parties really about gender equality, or are they for families in general?

In an effort to get the female vote, we can expect both the Liberal and Labor parties to speak about what are traditionally considered women’s issues, including education, health, and better support for families. In terms of media clichés, we can expect to see women interviewed about ‘family friendly’ policies while performing their stereotypical chores: What does the woman, interviewed by the school gate, think of a party’s education stance? Is this woman, photographed in a home on a new estate, worried about mortgage payments? Then there’s the mum photographed in her kitchen, discussing the cost of groceries, or watching her kids on a backyard trampoline, talking about how healthcare policies will impact her family.

Women are targeted when the baby bonus is offered, when childcare payments are discussed, and, until the recent and welcome inclusion of fathers, when parental leave is in focus. This often implies their assumption that it’s only the mother who gives physical care for the family, that she’s the one who shoulders costs for childcare, or the one who worries about care for older family members.  

These things aren’t uniformly true, but the grasping for the female vote reveals more than the usual chase for power – it actually shows how our political parties, and their attendant strategists, view women. 

When Tony and Margie Abbott launched their lady-killer moves last year, they positioned him as a man who snuggled up on the couch to watch Downtown Abbey and who was happy to unload the dishwasher. No female-friendly policies were offered to redress the economic, professional, social and legal inequalities women face in life; instead, it was an exercise in positioning him as Australia’s dreamboat in order to make him more likeable to women. ‘The Liberal party isn’t offering any new policies,’ the campaign seemed to say, ‘but it does have a nice husband all housewives would love to have take care of them.’

During the 2010 election, Labor didn’t release their policy for women – ‘Equality for Women’, which focused on Australia’s gender pay gap – until the day before the election. The Liberals didn’t release one policy relating to the pay gap, or any area relating to female equality. Meanwhile, the Greens have a page on their website about women, but these take the form of princples and aims, rather than costed policies or plans. 

When parties chase women, they offer policies to benefit her family, not her – they aim to benefit the sick, studying and children who need care in her family.They just target women with families – and certainly not dads, because apparently women care more about childcare, education, mortgage payments, healthcare, the cost of groceries, and the family tax benefit than men ever could. (If you’re a guy, chances are you’ll be justifiably annoyed with this, as there are just as many committed and involved fathers who are concerned with these policy areas.)
Positioning ‘family’ policies as ‘female-friendly’ makes a clear statement that politicians believe women are a niche concerned with the ‘feminine’ areas inside their home. It’s a continuation of the belief that we live in a country where a man who unloads the dishwasher is a dream held more fervently than a country run with equality and reason. 

But what of the women who aren’t swayed by such tactics? What of the women who have other dreams or  don’t have children? Australia’s fertility rate has slumped massively since the ‘60s, thanks to job opportunities, education and contraception. Families without children actually rose by 10 per cent between 2001 and 2006, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that “couple families without children are projected to experience the largest and fastest increases of all family types in Australia”. As a result, couple families without children are projected to outnumber couple families with children in 2014. 

As the election draws close, can the major political parties afford to ignore this group of voters? How do they plan to reach these voters who are inured to the usual ploys? And what of women who what more from their vote than a baby bonus? 

Perhaps they could look at equal pay between the sexes. As of May 2012, the gender pay gap stands at 17.4 per cent. That means that, on average, a man working full time will earn $250.50 per week more than a woman. This is an ongoing issue that needs to be put firmly on the agenda. 

Then there’s superannuation reform. Women often have smaller superannuation savings than men; in fact, a 2001 report titled “Ms…ing out? Women and Retirement Saving” estimates that in 2019, Australian women will have, on average, half the superannuation of men.  

We also need the continuation of initiatives to prevent violence against women. If you think it can’t happen to you, spare a thought for the one in three women who will face domestic violence at some stage of their lives, or the one in five who are sexually attacked. 

Naturally, this doesn’t cover the issue of single parent payments – it seems that no Australian political party wants their vote. Likewise, it’s lucky for the major parties that asylum-seeking families are unable to vote.   

Perhaps, after all, there is a niche to be uncovered by a successful political party. And that successful party will be the one that realises that policies that promote equality across gender – one that gives opportunities to all Australians – will get the vote.