Not the thinking woman's party
By all indications, 1995 is shaping up to be the year in which the ALP relaunches itself as the "thinking woman's party". Not since the ALP's 1972 "It's Time" campaign has the party placed so much emphasis on its pro-women image and rhetoric.
The 35% quota for women's preselection to winnable seats in parliament, adopted by the Labor Party at its national conference last September, for example, and its loudly voiced commitment to 50% representation of women on government boards by the year 2000, have been presented as major blows against the deeply entrenched discrimination against women.
Of course, politicians have pursued women's votes since women won suffrage. In the 1950s, when women were far more isolated in the home, they often fell prey to the anticommunism of the Liberals. In 1969 and 1972, Labor consciously sought to appeal to women whose hopes for an end to oppression were raised by the general fermentation and radicalisation of the time. Today, the ALP is seeking to catch women who are asking why those earlier hopes of equality have not been realised.
The difference for Labor today, however, is that pointing to party policy or ALP governments' records will not do the trick any more.
The reality for the majority of women is that they are worse off after 12 years of Labor in federal office. Despite the greater number of women holding high profile positions in government and its bureaucracy, abortion in still illegal in most states and, where services are available, they are being jeopardised by budget cuts to public health care. The average wage of women workers has declined in relation to that of men, an inequality which will be exacerbated by the ALP's enterprise bargaining strategy, because women are concentrated in those sectors of the work force with the least bargaining power, part-time and casual employment.
By being seen to preselect more women as candidates, the ALP hopes to provide an alternative reason for women to vote Labor rather than finally give up on it. In the face of the growing disillusionment with Labor Party policy and practice, the one remaining path to capturing the political loyalty of women voters is an appeal to the emotional, individual level. So Labor's latest message to the female population is "Vote for a woman rather than a man. She will understand your needs and represent them better." A variation on this particular vote-chasing theme is also evident in ALP decisions such as that to stand well known lesbian Susan Harben in the heavily lesbian- and gay-populated seat of Bligh in the NSW elections later this month.
It is true that increasing the number of women in parliament can be a step forward — but only if this change reflects an increase in the active participation of many more women from all sectors of society in political life generally, and only if those women elected are accountable to, and therefore bound to represent the interests of, those women and men who elect them. The current political system is far from guaranteeing these prerequisites.
Given Labor's abysmal record on women's rights and the thoroughly undemocratic character of both the party and the society it upholds, the latest pro-women rhetoric can only be a cynical exercise in vote chasing.