It wasn’t true then, and it still isn’t now. In fact, it’s a big, fat porky pie. I’m talking about women’s rights and the scary potential that, however flaccidly they are enshrined in law now, things are about to get worse.

Remember the salad days? When multiculturalism, terrorism and the so-called clash of civilizations were front page news? I do. I remember in particular because of the astonishing conga line of fair, fat and fiftyish politicians who paraded themselves before the cameras to declare that at the heart of the difference between the progressive, Christian west and the backwards civilizations of the east, was the different value we placed on equality between the sexes.

Ha! Gender sympathy, little less equity, remains a pipe dream in contemporary Australia. Despite the premature rush of celebrations among women when the long-awaited ass-end of Howard and Tony Abbott pulled into view, so far the Rudd government has fared little better.

Take maternity leave. Now you almost have it, now you don’t. After promising it to working parents for years, and despite bucketloads of cash being splashed around town, the provision of a small but vital payment to working parents appears to be the one promise the Government is willing to break.

But the paid parental leave fiasco pales in comparison to the slap women are likely to get from the consultation currently taking place on a national Bill of Rights. Rudd showed his hand early on this, appointing a Catholic Priest, Father Frank Brennan, as chair. Since then, Brennan has been scratching his head over how to produce a secular charter enumerating the freedoms and responsibilities of all Australian citizens that fits with his Church’s view that in the Kingdom of God, some are more equal than others.

Predictably, the lunar religious right has been out in force as the Human Rights caravan tours the country, proffering advice to the Priest about how the unreasonable entitlement religious organizations currently enjoy to discriminate against women and gays with impunity can be further entrenched in law. Just imagine a university or corporation citing gender or sexual orientation as justification for denying some of their employees’ senior roles, or any job at all. It would never happen, yet in Australia, religious institutions and the schools they run do it everyday.

Stay tuned for a charter that waxes lyrical about the value of religious and cultural freedoms (read, the rights of men at the helm of ecclesiastical and ethnic communities to discriminate against gays and women), but is more reticent about the importance of bodily security and control, and of not being discriminated against in the exercise of one’s conscience or faith (read, the rights of gays and women to the same basic freedoms as everyone else).

Where are the female fiddlers in Rudd’s cabinet while women’s rights and opportunities burn? Absent without leave, as near as I can tell. Apparently, just seeing them in there, playing ball with the big boys, is meant to reassure us that feminism is not dead. That any of them might use their power to serve their convictions is clearly beyond the brief. Indeed, it was Gillard who was left to explain why a modest, well-considered entitlement for working parents that could be funded for a fraction of the stimulus package that was announced at Christmas was not a government “priority.”

Gender equity a core Australian value. Please, don’t make me laugh.

Publication history

Women's Rights? Don't Make Me Laugh  Sun-Herald (Sydney)
2009-02-22