National Labor Women's Conference

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THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP

DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY


SPEECH

 

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NATIONAL LABOR WOMEN’S CONFERENCE – SATURDAY, 2 AUGUST 2014

 

I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respect to elders past and present. Thank you to Aunty Agnes Shea for the welcome to country.

I also want to acknowledge:

  • Katy Gallagher, Chief Minister of the ACT, for her address this morning.
  • ALP National President, Jenny McAllister
  • ACTU President Ged Kearney
  • National Co-Convenors of Emily’s List Tanja Kovac and Senator Anne McEwen
  • President of the ACT ALP Branch Louise Crossman
  • National Secretary CPSU Nadine Flood
  • My Federal and State Parliamentary Labor Colleagues

The next two days will be a chance for you to spend time with old and new friends, develop fresh ideas and shape Labor’s direction over the next three years. It’s an opportunity to better get to know women you know in passing, and some of my best Labor memories are conference memories.

For me, it is also a return to the people within the party that inspired me to be involved in politics and then supported me to stand for preselection – Labor women.

The last time this conference met was in May 2011. Four days earlier Julia Gillard had delivered her first Budget as Prime Minister. Not only were we celebrating our first female Prime Minister, but a budget which showed true Labor values: investment in schools, historic mental health reform and much-needed pension increases.

Paul Keating famously said ‘When the government changes, the country changes,’ and unfortunately this year we have seen just how true that is.

Months after it was first handed down by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, we are still seeing the slow burn of the most unpopular budget in Australia’s memory. More than the broken promises, Australians are most concerned about the budget’s values, where the heaviest burden is placed on those people least able to shoulder it.

So as this conference gathers again in a very different political moment we need to ask: what does Australian political life need from the women’s movement today?

The women’s movement

Our movement has always drawn its purpose from the basic principle of equality.

Jessie Street was a great Australian, and, as the song says “she’ll always be a heroine of mine”. Born in the 19th century, Jessie was a suffragette, an activist in many progressive causes, and a Labor Party member. She said in 1944:

‘I believe that in a democratic, free society women should be at liberty to choose whether they will take up home life or work outside the home; that men and women should receive equal pay and equal opportunity; that home life should be made less of a tie and the burden of raising a family be lightened.’

Jessie spoke these words seventy years ago, and yet the aspirations and challenges she laid out have a timeless ring.

They give meaning to some of the wins in the decades in between:

  • The landmark 1969 and 1972 decisions affirming ‘equal pay for equal work’;
  • The passage of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984.

For six years after Labor took government in 2007, I was proud to be part of a team carrying forward Jessie’s vision of a more equal society for women:

  • Taking equal pay that one step further – equal pay for work of equal value;
  • introducing our first national paid parental leave scheme;
  • increasing the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent, and introducing the National Quality Framework;
  • listing abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol (RU486) on the PBS to give women more choices and more options;
  • passing the Workplace Gender Equality Act, with new reporting requirements around women’s participation for employers;
  • drafting and implementing the first National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.

And of course this vision is still very much unfinished business in a country where the gender pay gap is over 17%, and now only one woman sits at the federal Cabinet table.

The challenge of rising inequality

Gender inequality has been a driver of the women’s movement for many years; and economic inequality is inextricable linked with gender inequality. The equity principle at the heart of the women’s movement has a particular relevance today, in a world characterised by rising economic inequality.

Earlier this year, as the World Economic Forum met in Davos, Oxfam released a report showing that the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest.

In our own country, the richest 1% are as rich as the poorest 60 per cent of Australians.

In 2014, Thomas Piketty’s book of economic research hit the top of the bestseller lists, Joseph Stiglitz toured Australia to sell-out crowds, and ACT Labor’s own rockstar economist Andrew Leigh addressed the National Press Club on rising inequality in Australia.

Importantly for all of us here today, we know that economic inequality hits women even harder.

Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, has argued that addressing inequality matters not just for women themselves – who are often more excluded from employment and financial access – but that lifting women’s participation in the economy is crucial to building strong and sustainable economic growth.

I wonder whether Joe Hockey or Tony Abbott will be putting that on the agenda at the G20?

Women and economic inequality

Economic inequality is not abstract numbers, graphs and pie-charts.

Around ten years ago I met a single mum with two boys living in public housing in my electorate, in Woolloomooloo. She didn’t have much money, but that didn’t stop her from enrolling at university, going on to receive the university medal and working as a judge’s associate.

Imagine how this budget would affect her life.

More pressure on our public housing system from the lack of long-term commitment to National Partnership agreements would make it less likely she would ever get that safe roof over her head. University would be placed further out of reach with higher fees, climbing debt levels and punitive interest rates. Supporting her two boys would be that much harder thanks to cuts to Family Tax Benefit and the Schoolkids Bonus.

With a little help and a lot of determination, this woman changed both her own life story and those of her boys.

Why on earth would we want to turn that uphill battle into a brick wall?

When I was Housing Minister, I met a woman in the electorate of Bennelong who baked a cake for Maxine McKew to say ‘thank you’ for the new public housing unit she had just moved into. She hadn’t expected to need public housing. She had always lived comfortably on the north shore with her husband – a wealthy banker. When their relationship ended she found out that he had structured their finances to leave her with nothing, and so she went from a life of privilege to being homeless and penniless.

We helped house her through our Social Housing Stimulus package – just one of the 20 000 new units we built around the country. Imagine this budget from her perspective: her pension cuts are permanent, losing her $4000 each year from an already-stretched household budget; her husband’s ‘deficit levy’ is temporary. She loses her low income super contribution; he keeps his high-income super tax breaks.

I used to work across the road from the Oasis homelessness service, where I met a teenage mother to a little girl with a beautiful singing voice, trying to break out of the cycle of temporary accommodation and joblessness.

Imagine how this budget would have made every path out of unemployment more challenging for her: homelessness services stretched from $44 million in cuts, possibly catering to more young people who faced being cut off from Newstart for six months of the year. Cuts to the Youth Connections program, designed to help young people transition to education, training or employment.

The great privilege of our work as Labor representatives is the people like these we meet every day. And that great privilege brings great responsibility too – to build a society and an economy where these women have a place.

The Abbott Government’s values

This was a budget that not only ignored the global discussion on inequality – it seemed designed to make things worse.

I am reminded of Joe Biden’s well-used quote: ‘Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value’.

The biggest single spending cut in the Budget was foreign aid: $7.6 billion, in addition to the further $8.4 billion the Prime Minister will cut in comings years by breaking the promise made by John Howard to lift aid to 0.5 per cent of GNI. By Joe Biden’s standard, what the Abbott Government values least is helping those facing the most disadvantage.

Our foreign aid program doesn’t just save women’s lives, although it certainly does that. The funding cut by the Abbott Government could have trained 3 million midwives, for example.

Our aid program helps unlock the capacity of women just like us – who have ingenuity, pride and determination but who have been born into difficult circumstances.

I am not a religious person, but that old saying captures it best: ‘there but for the grace of god go I.’

There is nothing that separates us from these women but the fate of birth.

When I visited Vanuatu, for example, I met a woman at the Vanuatu Women’s Centre, a recipient of Australian aid which helps survivors of family violence with counselling, legal assistance and accommodation. This woman had been cleaning tourist huts for a living, but with the help of Australian aid was able to start her own business and by the time I met her she was employing her own staff and running a collection of accommodation huts. The Vanuatu Women’s Centre has helped more than 10 000 women just like her since 2007, using Australian aid dollars.

In Papua New Guinea, small-scale women farmers travelling to a local marketplace were being raped and beaten as they tried to support themselves. Australian aid money built toilets so they didn’t have to use unsafe bushes, enabled mobile banking so they didn’t have to carry their money home, and helped train police to take seriously the unsafe conditions the women were facing. Not only were the women safer and better to earn a living, but their income meant their daughters could go to school.

The funding cuts from Australia’s aid represents the loss of programs just like this – lost support for vulnerable nations in our region, and lost opportunities for women just like us to fully use their skills and intellect to contribute to the economic development of their communities.

Forming Labor’s response

In the face of rising global inequality and the Abbott Government’s extreme agenda, Australian Labor’s purpose is more relevant than ever.

We believe that you can have both a strong economy and a fair society.

We understand that government’s job is to spread the opportunities of a growing economy to every Australian, no matter their sex or their postcode.

These values guided our actions when we were in government, and now from Opposition they must be the starting point in renewing our agenda.

I know that party reform is a key focus of your conference this weekend, and I am glad you could hear from Jenny this morning to start that conversation.

Rules matter.

Jessie Street might have been a Labor MP, but in 1943 she failed to be pre-selected for the winnable seat of Eden-Monaro and was instead endorsed for the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Wentworth.

That experience may have shaped her in campaigning for the specific recognition of women in the Charter of the United Nations, saying: ‘Where the rules are silent, women are not usually considered.’

But Jessie is a hero of mine because the unfair rules which characterised the political world she inhabited were fuel and not a constraint for her activism.

She spent her life campaigning for equality for women, for fair treatment for our First Peoples, for peace and nuclear disarmament.

That kind of values-driven activism is the natural complement to rules reform in renewing our party.

Our connection to the principle of equality, at the heart of the women’s movement, is what gives meaning to our party structures in the first place.

Finding new ways to translate those values into activism in a world of growing inequality is no small feat, but I’m confident the women in this room are up to the task.

ENDS


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