Monday, May 1, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly


How to ignore an equality problem
Abbott: “We absolutely have to give women a fair go, but ...”

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This morning, Tony Abbott told Ray Hadley, “If we want to do the right thing by women we need to get more conservative women in parliament.”

As a friend of mine commented, “Maybe he could make way for one in Warringah.”

It’s funny, but it’s also sharp, because it highlights a very common problem when it comes to unjust situations: we all agree we want change, we just don’t want that change to have any impact on us, thank you very much. Abbott is happy to support the principle of there being more women, as long as it doesn’t change his life in any way. Reminds me of when he announced his first cabinet, with precisely one woman in it.

Abbott was quite consciously tapping into the many men who feel this way when he talked with Hadley this morning. The 2GB host was commenting on a suggestion by the Human Rights Commission that companies awarded contracts for government work be required to show that they are making efforts to improve gender balance in their hiring, with the aim of reaching at least 40% women. (Initial reports had suggested the commission wanted to impose legal quotas, which the sex discrimination commissioner says is not true.)

Abbott said this was “politically correct rubbish”, that the commission shouldn’t be “dictating to business how they should do their job” and that “we absolutely have to give women a fair go but some of this stuff just sounds like it’s anti-men”.

Have a good look at that last sentence, because it’s a very common formula.

  1. Start with a statement of general principle we’d all find difficult to dispute: “We absolutely have to give women a fair go.”
  2. Insert a “but”, to signal the coming disagreement.
  3. Disagree with the specific proposal.

It’s an excellent tactic, because it allows you to sound like a good bloke for supporting a principle, while standing in the way of any practical proposals that might actually achieve the principle you say you agree with. It’s utterly cynical.

Here’s where I get to the delicate bit where I suggest Abbott’s not entirely wrong. It’s tricky, but stay with me.

Of course, he’s mostly wrong. Firstly, governments tell businesses how to do their jobs all the time. Just a few weeks ago the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, told Qantas CEO Alan Joyce not to comment on marriage reform. Governments regulate businesses in all sorts of ways, because it’s widely recognised that if they don’t many businesses will act without scruples. We have employment regulations, minimum rates of pay, child labour laws, environmental regulations, and a fortnight ago the prime minister, with the wholehearted support of his party, told Australian businesses they had to employ Australian workers first. So Abbott’s implication that government agencies shouldn’t tell businesses what to do ignores the current reality.

He’s also wrong that the commission’s proposal is “anti-men”. It’s directed towards supporting women, yes, who regularly get the raw end of the deal – lower pay, fewer promotions, less employment. But pro-women doesn’t have to equal anti-men, unless you’re caught in some 1950s gender-war mentality. Even if you focus only on the male end of the equation, increasing amounts of research suggests that employing more women, in more senior positions, is good for both companies and shareholders, both of which involve a lot of men. (For me the most important argument in favour of change is equality, but I’m examining the “anti-men” case right now.)

Where Abbott is right, in a sense, is that some individual men will be losers. In at least some instances employing more women will mean employing fewer men. That’s common sense, and it’s a fear Abbott is playing to.

What Abbott is ignoring, of course, is that there are losers as a result of the current situation, too. It’s just that they’re women and we’re used to that.

A whole class of people have fewer jobs, less pay and less seniority. Abbott doesn’t like this in principle, but he doesn’t want anyone to take any practical steps that might change it. In other words, he’s basically fine with the current situation. Pretending otherwise is dishonest.

This is important to remember for politics in general. Whenever you can use the phrase “as a result of this policy change, there will be some losers” – which is pretty much always – then you can also say “there are losers under the status quo, and that’s what we’re trying to fix”. The fact that there will be losers from change doesn’t mean there aren’t losers now. They’re just less visible because the status quo is less visible. There are always, already, losers right now, who have become accustomed to the situation and whose complaints are given less attention.

But take something away from someone and hear the cries of rage! For example, the insane amounts of noise made by the very well off about the tiny amounts of extra tax they’ll now be paying on their super.

On the bright side, it’s possible to start from the opposite rhetorical direction as Abbott: declare you disagree with practical change, BUT if the principle isn’t being delivered, then perhaps the change needs to be considered after all.

Almost two years ago, Christopher Pyne, to his credit, did exactly that: “I don’t believe in quotas and I don’t believe in targets but I do believe in people being elected on the basis of merit. But of course, if merit isn’t achieving the outcome that you want, then other measures need to be looked at to ensure we are attracting women to parliament.”

And yet it seems likely that the number of women in Coalition ranks will go backwards at the next election, as men continue to win preselections for safe seats.

Two years ago, in a column touching on similar themes, I ended with the recent words of then Liberal MP Sharman Stone. Given very little has changed, and some, like Abbott, seem determined to stop any change at all, I think it’s a good place to leave today, as well:

We’ve tried the old “women just breaking through the glass ceiling by some miracle”. We’ve tried that for generations in the Liberal party. Now we’ve got to join most of the developed world. I get sad whenever a woman comes to me and says “Oh, but we don’t want to be there because we’re part of a quota”. Well, I’m sorry, I want women to be there in the first instance. If that’s the only way they’re going to get there, by quota, let them then prove they are not only as good as but can be better than some of the blokes who are there.

In other news


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“If political impact is measured by how hard your opponents go after you, McManus made one of the bigger entrances to public life. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull christened her ‘Sally McManarchist’ in Question Time, and Christopher Pyne labelled her 7.30 comments ‘anarcho-Marxist claptrap’. Columnists solemnly declared the interview to be a disastrous start to her tenure.”    READ ON


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

 

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