Shock — early Saturday afternoon the new list of the Gillard ministry emerged and there was NO Minister for women, nor even a minister assisting … The word women was not there. After nearly 35 years of formal recognition of the need for someone to articulate the needs of women in the ministry, there was no mention! Was it because with a newly elected government, with a female PM,  had decided we were equal? It could well be argued that political needs had changed since Liz Reid became the first women’s adviser to a PM in 1974, but not without discussion. Recent data on equal pay and fewer women in some top positions suggest that progress has maybe stalled and reversed.

Could it just be an error? Is this just a typo omission that would be quickly adjusted? I went back to the ALP media release, which was the only one online, and it was woman-free and still is on Sunday, as I write this.

Could it be possible that they had just forgotten about women in compiling the list? This would seem unthinkable given it is the first ministry of our first woman PM.

The only counter sign came after 6pm on Saturday when Kate Ellis put out a media release, via Tanya Plibersek’s email lists.  Dated September 11, 2010 it said:

Kate Ellis has welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement that she will serve as Minister for Employment Participation and Child Care and as Minister for the Status of Women in the Gillard Labor Government. “I am honoured and excited to be taking on these new roles, as well as having continued responsibility for child care,” Ms Ellis said.

“The important policy work required to get Australians into work as our country continues to recover from the global recession, is a responsibility I take very seriously.”

Interesting language! Did she know about the change before it was apparently announced and why was she selected? Why move Women from Plibersek, who had a long-term connection to feminism to a more junior minister? As Ellis is also Child Care and Employment Participation, could it be that it’s all about more women in the workforce for increased productivity? Or maybe just a stuff up?

The change raises a range of other issues. The current Office for Women is in FaHCSIA as John Howard thought it belonged with families. Women’s groups objected to the shift when it happened because women were usually in the PM’s portfolio, maybe with a minister assisting. The placement of the office in a co-ordinating department (PM&C) was seen as crucial because it could then be consulted on and comment on cabinet and budget issues. The move to a line department was seen as diminishing its influence and it did.

Labor left it there, partly because Plibersek was a junior minister through her Housing portfolio but we were not really pleased. The minister was, however, someone with good relationships with the sector and respected, even when we disagreed. She worked hard on many issues and made some good gains, though losing Jenny Macklin is not such a problem as she put sole parents on income management.

However, as Ellis’ other responsibilities do not fit the FaHCSIA cabinet portfolio, who will be the cabinet representative? Child Care is now the responsibility of Peter Garrett and Employment Participation will be under Chris Evans.

This should be the time for the re-placement of the office into Prime Minister and Cabinet and making this area part of the PM’s portfolio. After all, women are half the voters and regions have many women in them with particular problems.

Good public policies require diverse inputs to ensure that they reflect the widest possible evidence base. Privileging the extra input of the women’s perspectives is still necessary because there are still only four women in a cabinet of 20 and a further two in outer ministry of 10. So no one can claim 20% is gender equality.