The best bit about the launch of Annabel Crabb’s new book, The Wife Drought, was not the celebrity-studded audience, the excellent speeches or even the delicious canapes. It was the enlightened decision by the author, one of Australia’s best writers and broadcasters, to include her three small children. For any parents looking on, there is nothing funnier than the sight of someone desperately trying to corral their offspring by shooting them Julie Bishop-death stares, gesturing at them to sit down and then, at the point of shouting “all your Christmas presents will be burnt!”, giving up and admitting defeat. “At least they are more obedient than Kevin Rudd’s dog,” Crabb muttered as she carried on with her speech, surrounded by tiny cartwheelers.

Federal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife, Lucy, writer and editor Anne Summers and a host of ABC presenters, including Leigh Sales and Emma Alberici, were there to hear Crabb say that she decided to write the book after writing a column about Tony Abbott’s decision to appoint one woman to cabinet. In the column she pointed out that “if women MPs were blessed with wives in the same way that male MPs frequently are, you might get a participatory uptick, because that way women wouldn’t have to choose between having a career in politics and having a family”. After the column, she was deluged with mail from women in all walks of life saying it wasn’t just politicians who needed wives — everyone should have one.

Crabb has unearthed hitherto-unknown statistics that confirm Australia’s status as one of the world’s most gender-stereotypical workforces. Here, 76% of full-time working fathers have a “wife” — defined as a partner who doesn’t work outside the home or works part time. But among the full-time working mothers, only 15% have a male partner who works part time or stays home.

In the book she quotes figures from the Australian Institute of Family Studies showing that of Australian couple-families with children under 15, some 60% have a father who works full time and a mother who stays home or works part time. Conversely, only 3% of families have a full-time working mother with a male partner who stays at home or works part time.

Any employee with a “wife” (a definition elastic enough to include men and a same-sex partner) “has an immediate and distinct economic advantage so significant as to be positively anti-competitive. Being able to go to your job and concentrate on your work to the absolute exclusion of all else is something that our system assumes men and women are able to do equally. But that assumption is far from the truth,” Crabb wrote.

Crabb is an excellent writer, and the book is neither a polemical rant nor a statement of the bleeding obvious. She has presented the facts — the Australian economy is being held back by the rigid gender roles of its employees — in a new and interesting way, penned with the wry wit for which she is famous.

One of the best chapters in the book involves the effect gender equalisation would have men, who would ultimately benefit from a realignment of their employment priorities. If you assume that there is more to life than work and that having a good relationship with your children is valuable, she writes, taking time off from work to have a family is a good investment. “Yet we live in a system that consistently, in one way or other, discourages men from even attempting to make that investment.”

In her speech, the ABC broadcaster related stories of her youngest child, who was only 10 weeks old when Crabb started filming the latest series of her popular television program Kitchen Cabinet. During the course of filming, the baby was changed on Jenny Macklin’s floor, put to sleep on Craig Emerson’s bed and even, on one particularly busy day, placed in the rather bony arms of Bill Heffernan. The rosy-cheeked subject of this anecdote, now lying across her mother’s feet, appeared to be unscathed by this ad hoc childcare arrangement. At least Heffernan didn’t hiss “I’m the devil” at the baby, as he did down the phone to Rob Oakeshott’s wife in 2007 thinking it was a great joke. At least, we hope he didn’t.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey