The Politics    Friday, July 22, 2022

Culture cowards

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaking to the media, July 16, 2022. Image © Paul Braven / AAP Images

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks to the media, July 16, 2022. Image © Paul Braven / AAP Images

From fudging over abortion access to “birthing parent” backdowns, who is Labor afraid of?

Women’s ministers from across the country met today for the first time under the new government to discuss gender equality policies and priorities. Top of the agenda was the new national plan to end violence against women and children, and the need to establish a separate plan for First Nations women. Speaking to RN Breakfast, Minister for Women Katy Gallagher said the aim was to have the new plan ready by the third quarter of the year, confirming that she was in favour of it containing targets. She did not, however, make commitments on further social housing for women fleeing violence, which advocates say is sorely lacking from the plan. Abortion access also found its way onto today’s agenda, with the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US having brought attention to the “postcode lottery” here at home. Abortion providers are calling for Medicare items for abortion counselling, as others lobby the Commonwealth to require public hospitals to make abortion available as part of their funding agreement – a 2019 election policy that Labor has now distanced itself from. Asked why, Gallagher continued Anthony Albanese’s line that it was a matter for the states. What has changed, and why is Labor so afraid to touch this, especially at such a critical juncture for women’s rights?

Women’s groups are deeply frustrated with Labor for walking away from the 2019 policy, even as it condemns the overturning of Roe v Wade. Asked on 3AW on Wednesday about calls from regional Labor MP Brittany Lauga for the policy to be reconsidered, the PM said that what hospitals provided was a “state matter”. (This, as News.com.au political editor Sam Maiden pointed out on RN this morning, is ironically the same position that was taken by the US Supreme Court.) “We don’t control the health system, the states control the health system,” Albanese said, adding that we were fortunate that abortion wasn’t a “divisive” issue here, like it is in the US. On the contrary, Albanese does seem to think this may be divisive, in some corners at least. What else could explain his cowardly refusal to address an inequity that Labor once campaigned against? The fact that many low-income people are being forced to pay private providers because hospitals refuse to offer the health service should be an issue for Labor, and there’s no doubt the majority of Australia’s increasingly non-religious population would be supportive of the fix, especially in the current climate. But it seems the government is scared to piss off the few who care (or to rock the boat at News Corp) by increasing access to a service that, let’s remember, is already government funded for those lucky enough to live in the right place.

It’s not the only progressive issue in which Labor has been cowed this week. Many are still fuming at Government Services Minister Bill Shorten for almost immediately caving to News Corp’s criticism of a new gender-inclusive government form, in which the term “mother” was replaced with “birthing parent”, as a way to include transgender men and non-binary people who give birth. Shorten’s call has been welcomed by former Liberal candidate Katherine Deves, but condemned by many others who are disgusted by the government’s cowardly refusal to stand up for transgender rights. It’s hardly surprising, of course. Albanese telegraphed his unwillingness to do so in a Daily Telegraph profile back in March, in which he said men cannot have babies. Nevertheless, as trans advocate Sally Goldner told Guardian Australia, LGBTQIA+ people had been “hoping for positive change under a federal Labor government”. “We haven’t seen anything two months after their election,” she said.

It’s disheartening to watch the Albanese government roll over on social issues so soon after winning an election. It was easy enough to understand why Albanese was trying to distance himself from “wokeness” back in March, even if it didn’t excuse his throwing transgender people under the bus. There was an election to win, and a Murdoch media not to piss off. But if Labor can’t stand up for women’s and trans rights now, so soon after an election win that was a clear repudiation of sexism and transphobia (among other things), when can it? Labor felt the need to abandon so many of its progressive credentials, so many of its big-target policies, in its bid to get back into power. Now it has the power – including the ability to change the wording on government forms and compel hospitals to provide services – but it is opting to continue raising the white flag on the culture wars.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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