The Julia Gillard’s “focus and firepower to pursue the government’s priorities” do not offer much hope of a political agenda that focuses more on social rather than economic goals. The priorities she has stated clearly are economic growth and jobs. A useful indicator of the way she sees priorities can be gendered reallocated portfolios.

Gillard has learnt to use the gender card, even if she sounded a bit tense in raising it during her media conference. Appointing Nicola Roxon as our first female attorney-general was a good announcement, as was an extra woman in cabinet: Tanya Plibersek getting the deserved promotion that was interrupted by a new baby. A new woman, Julie Collins, who needed to be Tasmanian, was appointed to outer ministry and it is her new portfolio that acts like the canary in the mine to challenge the feminist advances story.

The new junior minister was allocated community services and women’s portfolios. These are soft areas and allocating them to the newest minister means our female Prime Minister does not see them as a high priority. Not only is this bias a problem for a Labor government, it is one of the core issues for earlier feminists. We wanted to change  macho priorities on public and political agendas by upgrading the topics most often assumed to be women’s responsibility. Recognising the value of our social connections was seen as basic to social well-being and improving our quality of life. The priority areas include community services as core to our social, rather than economic, well-being. Making it very junior portfolio and adding women to the mix would therefore seem logical if both areas were seen to be fairly irrelevant.

We saw having more women in top positions as good for individuals but as socially valuable only if their rise into positions of power was a means of making society fair in its distribution of power and resources. There is little public benefit in just having more women in power if their actions fail to ensure our social connections are seen as at least as important as our individual economic status. Women cannot do it on their own and five out of 22 cabinet ministers is still under 25%!

But we need to make a start and it is not assuming that community is a low priority, and can be grouped with the low status for women. Last time Gillard failed to put in a women’s minister on her first list; this time her low ranking and another new minister suggests the government can ignore all the social connections that maker life good.

The PM made it quite clear that her priorities were entirely economic. There was emphasis on growing the economy and making sure that it provided more jobs as this is the only “opportunity” on offer to those on the outside. There was even the odd statement from the PM that most workers’ ultimate aim was probably starting their own business. There were some statements on the need for fairness and decency in workplaces in making sure that the ALP had some credibility with unions and could reinforce its traditional industrial relations.

So the only distributive suggestion embedded in her priorities was giving people more opportunities to find and/or improve their employment. There is no sign of fairness for those who do not have the possibilities of earning their own keep unless they were future  superannuants. The emphasis on education, even at the preschool level, is primarily for  improving the recipients’ long-term job prospects. Learning for pleasure, for responsible citizenship, for cultural sharing or social purposes seem not be valued. The difficulties facing many social groups because of social barriers and prejudice apparently do not exist.

The one possibility for raising social priorities is that Mark Butler gets social inclusion and goes into cabinet. This is one of the few mentions of the term social but the history of this area does not suggest any serious attention to the needs of those who are excluded. The recent report, under Tanya Plibersek as minister, did not indicate much concern for those who do not fit in. There is no recognition of the needs of people in the NT for alternate forms of development that value collective cultures, not individual self-interest. There is little recognition that the main problem is not those who are not employed (labour supply) but the demand side as employers don’t want the older, those with disabilities or those who have not been in recent jobs.

My feminist push at present is to put the goal of making society fairer and more civil, and to change the emphasis on economic growth as the only good. Mending the social fabric is the task of good governments if we want to retain the trust and goodwill of the bulk of our citizenry. Expecting this of the few women in cabinet is too hard but please can they make a start?

Peter Fray

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