In 1973 I went to work for the late Clyde Cameron, then the minister for labour and immigration. There was no odder couple. I was a single mother, he was an ex-shearer, a committed unionist who had taken on both the right wing of the Australian Workers’ Union and the left of the Victorian ALP. His support for the federal intervention in the Victorian executive had resulted in the Whitlam government’s election. Cameron was a hero, a man’s man, a fighter. I was a women’s libber.
It was only a four-month secondment, but it affected me deeply. The reason for my being on his staff was one of those quirks of the time. After heavy lobbying, Labor women got three new planks on the party platform, all concerning his portfolio. They committed the government to introducing equal pay, part-time employment and child-care in the federal public service and to promoting them elsewhere. Cameron needed someone to develop the policy and write speeches for him; I was recommended for the job.
I was given an office in the centre of Canberra and there, a kilometre or so from Parliament House, I began wolfing down every history, every government paper, every ILO projection on the subject of employment that his department and the parliamentary library could supply.
Maybe it was because my reading was so concentrated, maybe because it was more than academic, but the place of work in a person’s life never had such an impact on me as it had then. More than any crummy job I’d had, anything I’d learnt at school or university, anything I’d heard at the weekly women’s lib meetings or found in any feminist text, the crash course I took in that lonely whitewashed room radicalised me.
There is always a risk in extrapolating from the particular. On the other hand, as the women’s movement argued at the time, it is a person’s lived experience that determines her politics. But though personal experience can be a good place to begin, it’s not necessarily the best place to end.
Anne Manne begins with the election of Kevin Rudd and the new family paradigm that he and his wife Therese Rein projected during the campaign. It’s not for another few pages that she writes of her early work experience, but the example she offers is telling. Before starting university she worked on an outback station, ostensibly as a jillaroo, but more “a domestic slave.” Long hours cooking, cleaning and child-minding were the rule. Only before daybreak was she allowed to get on a horse and do the things jillaroos are supposed to do, like rounding up cattle for the market. All in all, it was hot, dirty, gruelling, utterly unappreciated, low-paid work and, not surprisingly, she loathed it.
But what conclusions does she draw from this? The recounting of her first paid labour experience follows a section depicting the hollow victories of women on the corporate ladder, and is meant to show, by contrast, what work for far too many of us is like. And, of course, she’s right. But work need not be like that, and I still can’t help wincing whenever she implies that feminism is to blame for the long hours and increasingly casualised, segmented labour market that characterises our recent economic boom.
Manne is highly critical of what she calls “Get to Work” feminism. And while it’s certainly true that the feminist resurgence at the end of last century overlapped with the return of laissez-faire capitalism, it’s too big a leap to say that by demanding equality in the workforce feminists have been concerned only for their careers. Nor is it helpful to suggest that the new market ideology, with its emphasis on individual wealth and recognition, has been a matter of choice for feminists.
Though Manne doesn’t explicitly say this, she comes awfully close. Drawing parallels with Max Weber’s analysis of Protestantism as a driving force for capitalism, she writes: “Upon what tracks have feminist ideas run? The answer is: market tracks!” Her mistake is to equate the power of feminism, which is considerable, with that of the dominant force in our society. Capitalism finds uses for everything – even, it must be noted, for parenthood and love. Nor have feminists been totally naive about the risks of co-option.
At the core of Love & Money lies this basic question: is unfulfilling, exploitative work better than no work at all? It’s not a simple question and has no simple answer. Manne herself draws attention to a fundamental division of labour, one that goes beyond the differences between paid and unpaid, yet addresses the phenomenon of what has become known as the “caring” economy. It’s an interesting analytical tool that points, however, to a truly intractable problem. The unpaid work that people (mostly women) do forms the caring economy, but there are also paid professions, such as nursing and teaching, which are, essentially, “caring.” Medicine, too, is a caring profession, with the significant difference that most of its practitioners have been men. And there’s the rub. Practically anything men do has been better remunerated, better rewarded in terms of status, than occupations where women have predominated.
We ’70s feminists called this “the sexual division of labour.” Honoured since by more sophisticated labels, it was what stared us in the face when we were fashioning our policies. Even in those more socially conscious days, it couldn’t be undone just by saying it was unfair. We could have shouted from the rooftops that the most important work anyone could do is to nurture children, but it never would be rewarded commensurately so long as it was mostly women who did it. Arguably, this is no less the case today.
Many of Manne’s contentions rest on the assumption that money is equitably transferred within families. The work of economist Meredith Edwards showed that this is far from true. There is no reason to suppose that the unpaid work of looking after children and maintaining a household is any more compensated for within the home than it is outside it. This is because, again, for the most part it is women who undertake it.
The key factor in all this is that women give birth to children and, almost everywhere, have been primarily responsible for their care. But this responsibility hasn’t always been organised as it has been in modern Western societies, nor were women, by dint of it, excluded from significant economic activity. For most of human history the care of children has been a communal endeavour, not the responsibility of an isolated mother in a suburban home. The challenge has been to find a way through this conundrum, and the solution, as we saw it back in the 1970s, was universally available, community-based, educationally integrated, quality child-care. The aim of this was not only to assist individual women in juggling motherhood and employment but to enable, yes even encourage, the growth of a critical mass of working women whose very numbers, ipso facto, would change the nature of paid labour; to make it, in other words, more “caring.” It was a policy designed to help women, men and their children, but it was not a magic wand and, as Noam Chomsky once wrote, “There is no such thing as a riskless policy.”
By now we all know how Australia’s children’s services program, once the best in the developed world, was systematically dismantled by the small-government, private-enterprise ethos through which successive federal governments extended their subsidy to commercial operators. The resulting cost of child-care today, the high staff-to-infant ratios and generally lowered service are a disgrace. Moreover, Manne adduces considerable evidence to show that children attending child-care centres have higher stress hormone levels than children of comparable age being cared for at home. I’m not quite sure how to read the statistics, but for the time being they’re worrying. I still believe that the provision of accessible, affordable, quality child-care must be a central component of any thrust towards women’s advancement and a more caring society. But it’s back to the drawing board; we have to do much better than we have.
Manne ends her essay with a wishlist of measures to help parents and children – those “working families” of the Labor Party mantra. Many of her ideas come from Scandinavian countries, long the models for progressive employment and family policies. The social-democratic, Scandinavian solutions are as attractive now as they were last century, and Scandinavian parents of very young children today can choose between high quality child-care and a home-care allowance. This, Manne contends, is the kind of “neutral policy” the Rudd government should adopt. But how neutral is it? A lot of money will be needed to revamp the child-care system, to establish the 260 child-care centres Rudd promised during the campaign, let alone the “one-stop centre” idea he put forward for the 2020 Summit. Will the choice Manne proposes mean, in the long term, no choice at all? The Scandinavian example relies on a network of child-care centres already established; in Australia that network, despite huge outlays in subsidies, has been effectively allowed to run down.
Her proposals for extended paid parental leave, part-time and flexible work, community centres for parents and children, improved quality of child-care, a decent wage for carers, higher accreditation standards and universal pre-school education all formed part of an earlier agenda, along with, most importantly, a shortened working week. All were swept away with the triumph of the market. Now some are gaining public acceptance again, and governments have even been taking up some of them. But, here too, the funding will have to come from somewhere, unless we are to rely too heavily yet again on private operators providing what should be, above all, a community service.
Which brings me full circle to my awakening in that Canberra office where I wrote the minister’s speeches, and Anne Manne’s grim serfdom on that outback station – experiences that took us to slightly different positions in what is virtually the same space. People at work have always needed a strong, enlightened union movement and truly responsive governments to protect them against ruthless employers and the ideologies that support them. The resounding rejection of WorkChoices is evidence enough of that. We also have to consider whether annual tax cuts and chest-thumping surpluses are the way to go. We have come to a point in our nationhood where it is imperative that collective solutions are given at least equal weight to individual ones, and that more and more women will take part in them. My differences with Manne are mere quibbles beside our common hope that the Rudd government will modify its fiscal conservatism and lead us back to the future.
Sara Dowse was the inaugural head of the prime minister’s women’s affairs section in the Whitlam and Fraser governments and drafted the ALP women’s policy for the 1983 federal election. She is the author of West Block, set in the prime minister’s department, and four other novels.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 30, Last Drinks.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY