Dr Sarah Maddison lectures in the School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of New South Wales. She is co-author of the Gender Audit for the Democratic Audit of Australia (2007) and co-edited the recently published book Silencing Dissent (Allen & Unwin, 2007). Sarah has published widely on subjects including young women in the Australian women’s movement, NGOs and democracy, social movements, and Indigenous issues. She has been a long-time media commentator for Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) and is also a former Policy Officer for the NSW Department for Women.
Interview with Dr Sarah Maddison
In the Report, How well does Australian democracy serve Australian women? it is stated that “achieving gender equality should mean that an individual’s rights or opportunities, including those of democratic participation, do not depend on their gender.” On the surface this statement appears to negate a critical aspect that it purports to raise the importance of ie gender. Could you please explain how can achieving gender equality not depend on a recognition and valuing of gender?
We do not argue in the report that gender equality does not require a recognition and valuing of gender. The quote in your question states that an individual’s rights and opportunities in a gender equal society should not depend on their gender. In other words, gender should not be a barrier for the recognition of rights nor the accessing of opportunities. As we state in the introduction to the report this is a challenging task is requires a recognition of both gender equality and gender differences.
What is the basis for your concern with the role of the state in providing for equality between women and men and in exploring the question, “How well does Australian democracy serve Australian women?”
As Suzanne Franzway et al argued in Staking a Claim, the state is pretty unavoidable in women’s lives. The state has a role to play in innumerable policy areas – child care, maternity leave, equal pay, domestic violence, health etc etc etc. But the state also has a role in facilitating the democratic processes that ensure gender equality. This is true in regard to the four key areas we discuss in the report, namely the legislative framework, the policy machinery, women’s representation and the non-government sector. As we detail in the report, a government hostile to feminist demands – such as our current federal government – has taken Australia backwards in the pursuit of gender equality.
In the Report, you refer to great strides being made by the Women’s Movement in periods when it has been highly visible and mobilized but “that in the inevitable periods of movement abeyance, there have been many missed opportunities.” Can you explain which periods you are referring to and what do you see as having caused the periods of inactivity? What are the missed opportunities that you would have liked the Movement to have achieved?
Since the highs of the 1970s the Australian women’s movement has become increasingly less visible to the broader community. In part this has been because the movement has become more specialized, working in specific areas such as childcare, women’s health etc. In part this is because the movement underwent a period of internal reflection and auto critique, particularly around issues of ‘race’ and representation. In part this is because the institutionalization of the movement through the femocracy led to a decline in women’s organisations outside of the state. How all of these factors operate to create periods of abeyance is poorly understood both in Australia and internationally, and Marian Sawer and I are hoping to do further research on this question over the next few years.
But regardless of the causes, the missed opportunities that result from movement abeyance are manifold! Not least we have seen the almost complete dismantling of the women’s policy machinery. We have seen a mass de-funding of feminist non-government organisations. And in specific policy terms we have not progressed on issues like paid maternity leave, pay equity and so on. There is no doubt Australia needs a vocal women’s movement again but…
How has your view of the Women’s Movement been received by those working and leading the Movement?
I am a part of the women’s movement, and the assessment of its poor health is both hard to make and – I’m sure – hard to receive. We have been criticized for being too hard on the funded women’s secretariats, but we remain convinced that the funding of these organisations under this model is a part of the problem. I think that facing up to the real state of the Australian women’s movement is the only way forward.
What advice do you have for a re-invigoration of the Women’s Movement in Australia?
The Australian women’s movement needs to get beyond its institutional dependency on the state. We do not need funding or other state support to be vocal and active. We need to start in our communities, with our local members and so on. The only way to rebuild the movement is from the bottom up.
Which Australian political party do you consider will develop the women’s policy machinery within government? What observations do you make of our current women leaders in Parliament and their efforts to work towards this aim?
In terms of the two major parties, the ALP has been consistently better for women and for the women’s policy machinery. I think the socially conservative base of the Coalition parties makes them decidedly more hostile to feminist goals. Outside of the two major parties the Greens have far and away the most progressive policies for women, including with regard to rebuilding the policy machinery.
We note in the report that having more women in parliament does not necessarily mean that policy and legislation will be more beneficial for women – women parliamentarians are bound to toe the party line rather than show allegiance to other women. That said, there are instances – such as last year’s RU486 bill and debate – where gender clearly made a difference because women united across party lines. It would be great to see this type of action in relation to rebuilding the policy machinery, but I think it’s very unlikely.
What would be three changes you would like your efforts in writing this Report to have achieved in the next three years? How optimistic are you of this happening?
1. I would like it to be widely known just how far Australia has fallen from being a world leader in the pursuit of gender equality.
2. I would like Australian women to use this knowledge to take action and demand more and better from our politicians.
3. I would like to see governments at all levels re-commit to rebuilding the women’s policy machinery and re-engaging with a wider range of women’s non-government organisations.
I am always optimistic! Change will happen – but not because government decide to do the right thing on their own initiative. Change will happen when women demand it.
In terms of researching and writing this Report, can you explain what was involved in developing it, the methodology you employed and the range of experts you consulted with?
The methodology we used in writing the report was based on the work of the Democratic Audit of Australia team in articulating the core values against which democratic health should be assessed. These are:
- popular control over public decision-making;
- political equality in exercising that control;
- the principle of deliberative democracy; and
- the principle of human rights and civil liberties
We used these principles in our assessment of the four key areas in the report, ie legislation, policy machinery, representation and NGOs. Rather than expert consultation this assessment required a lot of painstaking data collection, mostly through emails and phone calls to government departments, local government, courts etc.