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Gender and public policy making in Australia: The Howard government's big fat lie: refereed paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference.

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Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia: The

Howard Government’s Big Fat Lie1

Dr Tahnya Barnett Donaghy

Hawke Research Institute

University of South Australia

Refereed paper presented to the

Australasian Political Studies Association Conference University of Tasmania, Hobart

29 September - 1 October 2003

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

Introduction Gender inequalities remain a consistent and prevalent problem throughout all societies. The latest thinking on how gender inequality should be addressed is described by the United Nations:

…men and women need to equally participate and be represented in the economy, in decision-making, and in social, cultural and civil life. Gender mainstreaming is the strategy that has been identified as holding the potential to deliver this (UN Habitat 2002).

The commitment to consider and integrate women and men's diverse roles, responsibilities and opportunities in all forms of policy development and political processes has been labelled ‘gender mainstreaming’ and is today the agreed overall strategy internationally to achieve the goal of gender equality (UN Habitat 2002).

Gender mainstreaming advocates the promotion of gender equality considerations throughout all mainstream policy processes. As a mechanism, mainstreaming has been used to address gender inequalities in various public policy capacities since the early 1970s. 2 Its full ‘conceptual birth’, however, did not come about until the Beijing Platform for Action at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. While Australia has developed, led and undertaken a number of mainstreaming tools prior to this, it was not until Beijing that it made international commitments to implement a gender mainstreaming strategy. Included in these commitments was specified actions to be undertaken by government to ensure that before policy decisions are taken an analysis of their impact on women and men is considered, with the responsibility for implementing and monitoring this to be at the highest possible level (United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women 1995: H.2.204).

This paper explores Australia’s mainstreaming strategy and how it has met its international requirements in this area. It outlines Australia’s intent and record of achievements, and measures these goals and claims against seven measurements identified in an international comparative analysis as successful elements of a mainstreaming strategy (Mackay and Bilton 2000). The paper shows that, while Australia has boasted on the international stage to have implemented its Beijing obligations, the evidence suggests these claims are overstated, unsubstantiated and misleading. Three policy areas were analysed, drawning from Australian government websites, policy documents, fifteen in-depth interviews and fifteen informal discussions with senior bureaucrats, ex-public servants, and gender analysts based outside of government.3


Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

Mainstreaming is an equity strategy that traditionally has been implemented as a single equality approach focusing on gender. In recent years gender mainstreaming has sometimes developed into equality mainstreaming, whereby gender along with other factors, such race, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation and so on are considered in public policy making.

This appears to have emerged where there is a relatively short history of mainstreaming mechanisms, such as the newly devolved regions of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In Australia the strategy adopted has remained a single, gender mainstreamed approach. In both equality mainstreaming and gender mainstreaming, the concept of mainstreaming remains central, while who and how many groups’ equality is considered differs.

Scholarship has identified that there are two main approaches to implementing a gender mainstreaming strategy. Nott (2000) describes these as the expert-bureaucratic model and the participative-democratic model. The expert-bureaucratic model relies heavily on a gender/equality expert(s) being located within the bureaucracy, such as a women’s policy unit. This is the model which most closely represents the Australian approach, developed as part of a longstanding institutionalised commitment to the promotion of gender equality. The participative-democratic model relies on a relationship between government and civic society, whereby government acknowledges civic groups as having key equality perspectives and expertise which can inform the policy process, predominantly via consultation. Although to a lesser extent, the Australian model has also displayed elements of this approach, as the two models key characteristics are not mutually exclusive. However, in recent years, particularly under the Howard government, only basic elements of the expert-bureaucratic model have been sustained in Australia.

An Applied Case Study: Australia


Australia was one of the countries at the forefront of implementation of ‘high impact’ gender mainstreaming models and methods (True and Mintrom 2001; Sawer 1996). This status, however, can be seen to have faltered in recent years through the dominance of a conservative (right-wing) philosophy of government. Subsequently, Australian experiences have remained conspicuously absent from the literature in this area. 4

Originally Australia was a world leader in gender mainstreaming developments. Australian women, particularly femocrats,5 played a key role in the development of the mainstreaming elements of the Beijing and earlier Nairobi UN conferences on women. Australia’s understanding of mainstreaming, and experience in this area, has been shaped by a long

For example, in Australia under the guise of gender mainstreaming rhetoric there has been a severe cut in funding for specialist gender equality units, with the argument being that the responsibility for gender equality lies not with one unit, but with all units. The rhetorical arguments for this can be considered as falling within some gender mainstreaming discourse, however, the practical outcomes were manipulated to be contrary to the

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

history of experience with the expert-bureaucratic model. From the early 1960s there have been women’s policy units (women’s bureaus) located in government departments. In 1972 Elizabeth Reid was appointed as a women’s advisor to a Prime Minster, Gough Whitlam. Her position led to the establishment of a women’s policy machinery within this government in 1974, the Office for the Status of Women (OSW), which has continued to exist, if under different remits, since this time. Key mainstreaming tools were argued for and developed by OSW many years before they emerged in the international arena. This included the concept of a women’s policy impact statement being promoted since the early 1970s (led by Reid); and the development of the gender budget or, as it was known in Australia, Women’s Budget Statements (WBS) since 1984 (Sawer and Groves 1994). This history positions Australia as one of the pioneering nations of gender mainstreaming.

Australia’s Current Mainstreaming Strategy

Australia is a signatory to the Beijing Platform for Action, and in its reporting on how Australia is meeting its gender mainstreaming obligations it claims that:

In line with international best practice, the Australian Government has pursued a strategy of integrating women’s issues into mainstream policy making and practice across all government departments. Ministers and departments consider women in all mainstream programs, policy development, evaluation and reporting, and work closely with the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women. This approach has been endorsed at the highest level by the Prime Minister, the Hon John Howard MP (Office for the Status of Women 2000: 186).

The current OSW website states that:

The Commonwealth Office of the Status of Women is a policy advisory unit. All of our work is founded on the goal of mainstreaming women's issues. This means working to ensure that a focus on women's experiences, issues or perspectives becomes everyone's business (

Following from this statement URL links are listed, with the invitation to see how ‘OSW is working towards gender mainstreaming and ensuring that government policies, services and initiatives are evaluated for the benefits they will provide to women, their impact on women and their accessibility by women’.

According to these reports, in practice, Australia is considering the policy impact on men and women in all policy developments, and this is supported and undertaken at the highest possible level. Consequently, federal public servants responsible for policy development, evaluation and/or reporting should be familiar with the government’s gender mainstreaming strategy, understand the importance of its implementation, and be aware that the OSW is a key resource in this process. This research finds this is not the case.

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia


In order to measure the claims of the mainstreaming strategy against evidence, seven areas have been identified for analysis. These are: policy making structures; consultation; political will; resources; capacity building; monitoring and gender-disaggregated statistics. This analysis will provide insight into how the current government provides, or rails to provide, structural, financial and political support to the mainstreaming strategy it claims is in line with international best practice.

Policy Making Structures

Australia currently reflects the expert-bureaucratic model of mainstreaming, whereby the majority of responsibility for promoting gender equality and considering adverse and discriminatory impacts of policy lies with the bureaucracy. Therefore, a bureaucratic culture which is able to provide ‘frank and fair advice’ is required to support this process, while a structure restricted by politicisation would undermine the value of the expert-bureaucratic approach.

This research suggests Australia has undergone changes in its policy making processes in recent years. 6 While many western democracies have moved towards governance approaches which encourage transparency, accountability and civic participation in policy making (Magnette 2003; Meehan 2003), Australia’s policy structure has become increasingly entrenched in what could be described as a statist model of government (Kohler-Koch and Eising 1999 cited in Meehan 2003). Government mandates direct the policy process.

Specifically, the Prime Minister, John Howard (1996-present), and his Ministers dominate the formulation of policy direction, while the public service’s role increasingly is restricted to the implementation of policy:

A lot of proposals that we put forward, or that the government’s put forward that the departments support the minister in developing, have been flowing pretty directly from electoral mandates that are controversial from the outset… So, government doesn’t approach most of its proposals with exactly an open mind, more with a commitment and a mandate...

2 Therefore, for the purpose of this article, scholarship which has been developed around gender mainstreaming will be referenced as relevant to the Northern Ireland mainstreaming equality approach. 3

For an overview of these developments see McCrudden (1999). 4

5 According to True and Mintrom (2001) this second set of circumstances is a common way by which many national governments have developed a gender mainstreaming approach. 6

For example, the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights undertook a formal review of the operation of legislation and government policy in the area of fair employment. This investigation found that PAFT was largely ignored within government policy making (Osborne et al 1996 in McCrudden 1999: 1716-17). In addition, they also responded to other reports produced on PAFT’s ineffectiveness (produced by CAJ-Committee on the Administration of Justice); supported specific guidelines setting out new mainstreaming processes; and gave serious consideration to the outcomes of consultation submissions in the drawing up of Section 75 of the Act (McCrudden 1999). 7

See McCrudden’s description of the “parallel peace process” (1999:1725)

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

In the time that I was in the public service, that was 1996 to 2002, although I’d moved up the ranks, I observed that less and less policy making was actually happening by departments and less and less was coming up in the traditional way that policy had, so public servants with expertise and research time would present things to ministers, ten options or five options and that sort of policy making was, in the time I was there, almost completely reversed. People get an idea of what the minister would hate and like to see and now don’t actually present [all the] options… So, that censoring permeated down and down and down the level, so it wasn’t someone at a very senior level who was maybe conversing with the minister on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, who was making that censoring decision… I think that self-censoring has become a really damaging and dangerous part of the public service and it impacts directly on gender mainstreaming.

The implications of this for Australia’s gender mainstreaming strategy are considerable. By restricting the role of the bureaucracy in the formulation of policy directions, the capacity of gender analysis at key, early stages of policy development remains limited. As a result, OSW and other units’ role in providing gender analysis or expertise to a policy is also limited. 7

In addition to an increasingly top down approach to policy formation, the other significant structural development in policy making processes has been the abolition of women’s bureaus (women’s policy units located within departments). Previously, women’s bureaus played a key role in the promotion of gender considerations in policy making within mainstream departments. Under the Howard government there have been massive cut backs in the areas of women’s policy expertise, and women’s bureaus within mainstream departments have been abolished.8 The implications of this have been significant, particularly for effective implementation of a gender mainstreaming strategy. The immediate effect of the abolition is that the gender mainstreaming strategy becomes limited to the efforts of OSW. As will be shown, OSW is severely under-resourced in this area, and there is currently inadequate support to allow to small OSW team to ensure that women are considered ‘in all mainstream programs, policy development, evaluation and reporting’. An additional impact is that there is now limited sectoral gender expertise within the government, and there is no longer a fostering or development of gender analysis skills within individual departments. This has a direct and serious impact on the expertise and analysis resources within the public service.

The result of the abolition of women’s bureaus is that key mainstreaming structures have been dismantled. This indicates that, while the government may boast support for implementing gender mainstreaming, restructuring of the public service, and in particular the abolition of women’s policy units, has directly undermined its capacity to implement a gender mainstreaming strategy.


Drawing on international best practice examples and analysis, Mackay and Bilton (2000) highlight the importance of participation and consultation in a mainstreaming strategy. In particular women’s groups are highlighted as playing a key role in the promotion of

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

consultation, arguing this element of the process holds value in learning and understanding policy needs and impacts. These arguments were articulated in Australia in the 1970s when the role of the first OSW was discussed:

While policy advice and co-ordination are the major functions of the Office, consultation with women in the community is also important so that the experience of women in the community can be fed into the policy development process (Sawer and Groves 1994: 37).

In terms of mainstreaming processes specifically, there are clear benefits from broad community based consultation,9 such as having access to greater resources via a broader range of gender expertise outside of government. In the current policy making process in Australia consultation with community based groups is limited. Two different senior bureaucrats explain:

A lot of what we do in policy development is obviously very closely determined by the preferences of the minister of the day for the manner of advancing the agenda, what kind of speed, what kind of directness…we don’t go out and consult but we observe the reactions that are made to government announcements. There would be a concern that a lot of the advocacy on behalf of women is coming from a perspective that is fundamentally opposed to the government’s policy framework and therefore it’s discounted. So, for some organisational avenues that would take an interest in the policy and might have something to contribute there’s not a very good engagement with.

What we have seen since ’96 is much less in terms of consultation mechanisms, the round tables were maintained for a period… between representatives of national women’s organisations and government ministers and officials, but very soon, representatives of national women’s organisations were displaced by individual experts chosen by government… so they no longer became a real forum for interchange between government and women’s organisations and agendas became even more tightly controlled by government...

The lack of value attributed to consultation under the Howard government can be seen to have impacted not only on policy making practices, but also on the sustainability of civic groups which have a gendered focus and feminist perspective on policy initiatives. Specifically many women’s groups who traditionally would have previously provided critical analysis of government policy have had their funding cut under the Howard government. It appears this has been in direct response to the government’s desire to control criticisms of their policy initiatives (see Sawer 2002b; Summers 2003). 10

The implications of an approach whereby consultation with key civic actors is not pursued and organisations which have provided critical gender analysis of government policy are de-funded, are considerable for an effective gender mainstream strategy. The sustainability of these groups, and their expertise, is severely undermined. This impacts on the availability of these gender resources, and the work they do within the community. There are also democratic participation issues at stake, whereby those who provide an alternative view or critical analysis of government have been silenced and ostracised from policy debates This

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

skews gender discourse within government, whereby only those groups who are considered in line with government policy are listened to. One senior bureaucrat explained:

The funding of the women’s sector has changed quite dramatically... the funding of all those non-government sectors [have been] skewed to parts of the sector that are more ideologically aligned with the government.…women’s role in the Salvation Army is quite positive and quite strong and they have a large influence over government policy, and the same for Mission [Australia]. Mission comes from that Wesley Mission background and they had women deacons 25 years ago. They’re two of the major influences on social welfare policy at the moment and I don’t think you can say that they do not include a strong component of women’s views and women’s voices… [while] traditional women’s groups like the YWCA and Women’s Electoral Lobby and probably the National Council of Women have got less of a say...

This is an unacceptable arrangement for an effective gender mainstreaming strategy. While these Christian-based groups may have valuable contributions to make to the consultation process, the lack of consultation with specific women’s organisations, particularly those with a history of policy expertise, slaps of the government picking and choosing who it engages with, seeking more self-confirmation than insightful analysis. As a result, the richness of discourse, access to gender expertise, and benefit from critical analysis is undermined, and the consultative element of gender mainstreaming in Australia can only be judged as having limited impact.

Political Will

Mainstreaming is depended upon consistent and high profile political commitment. There is a consensus in the literature, reinforced in this current review, that explicit, high profile and sustained political support is perhaps the single most important variable in the success or failure of mainstreaming. (Mackay and Bilton 2000:7).

In the Australian case, political will was the area in which the government’s statement to the United Nations was most at odds with the evidence of this research.

I don’t think they [Howard government] approve of international conventions that require gender mainstreaming with an equality objective. They don’t support it. They remain reluctantly signed up to those conventions actually and they’ve done a lot to dismantle the machinery. And the OSW has been gutted in terms of its funding and resourcing and you just can’t operate effectively on a shoestring.

The key indicators of the lack of political will was found the facts that in gender mainstreaming has no presence as a departmental priority in any area other than OSW, and the overwhelming majority of senior bureaucrats interviewed did not know what gender mainstreaming was- or even whether the government had a strategy in this area. The lack of knowledge surrounding gender mainstreaming was displayed by one very senior bureaucrat:

I think our department would be a good example of a Department that considers women’s issues in policy… I personally lead by example, as did my predecessor. Saying that I have only been in my post around two years and in that time there haven’t been any policy issues which have had any specific impact on women.

In addition to this, there was a lack of understanding of what their mainstreaming responsibilities were or how they should be implementing the mainstreaming strategy. As

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

I don’t know of any [gender mainstreaming] structures. The Office for the Status of Women has probably put out some guidelines but I don’t know of us having to tick off guidelines or do a checklist or anything like that…

Overwhelmingly, the most explicit evidence of the lack of political will behind gender mainstreaming was the co-option of the term mainstreaming to describe the integration of specific units or initiatives into the ‘mainstream’ business of a department. Specifically it was this terminology that was used to justify the abolition of women’s units or initiatives which provided specific gender policy focus, such as the women’s bureaus discussed. This was undertaken despite all of the mainstreaming discourse emphasising the importance of a dual approach: whereby a mainstreaming strategy should be undertaken concurrently with gender specific initiatives. The importance of this dual approach was never acknowledged by the Howard government. As a result, many Australian feminists felt there was a danger in endorsing a strategy which appeared to support the government’s agenda for dismantling key gender developments (see Bacchi 2001), and a hostility towards ‘mainstreaming’ terminology emerged:

In 1997 the Australian government came in for considerable criticism at the United Nations (UN) for its retreat on issues of gender equity and the erosion of its women’s policy structures, previously a source of international best practice. In the same year the women’s bureau in the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Australia’s oldest women’s unit, was ‘mainstreamed’ out of existence (Russell and Sawer 1999: 362).

The implications of this have been far reaching. The concept of gender mainstreaming has been manipulated to deliver outcomes patently at odds with gender equality developments, while scrutiny of the government’s delivery of its international obligations to gender mainstreaming have slipped somewhat under the radar of feminist analysts. This has occurred because current focus has needed to be dominated by the more direct problems associated with the defunding and dismantling of key gender initiatives. As a result, the government has gone unchallenged in its false claims of rigorous implementation and international best practice in this area.

Along with a lack of awareness by public servants regarding what gender mainstreaming is, and the co-option of the term mainstreaming, there was also evidence that the political will to support an effective implementation of gender mainstreaming was undermined by sexist attitudes within government:

[Ministers Name] often said things like he was keen to make sure that a man who was supporting his wife had money to [do this]… but he wasn’t so convinced that women’s pay was an important issue.

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

In addition to the broader government position on gender equality advancements, there was evidence that there were explicit attempts to undermine OSW’s role in implementing a gender mainstreaming strategy:

… I was able to see that even on some policies, which I thought were inescapably to do with women, that they had not come to OSW... One in particular: I think a parliamentary question was being asked that was potentially embarrassing to OSW, and when we did some uncovering, it was discovered really that it was passed to the social policy area of the economic division of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and not to OSW. So that was a blocking that happened not from the department but from within Prime Minister and Cabinet itself. And I am led to believe that that was probably quite common.

The maintenance of the OSW structure, particularly its position within Prime Minster and Cabinet, could be argued as evidence of support for its role in providing gender relevant policy advice. However, this claim is challenged by many sceptics. They argue that the maintenance of OSW has been politically strategic, and instead of abolishing it, its policy influence has simply been diluted and its purpose has been replaced by a propaganda role:

…the main role of OSW that permeated through all of the levels, was that OSW was there as a promotional tool for the government, to promote the government’s agendas where there were some, but more to protect the government from criticism about not having agendas or its policies, and that was the largest role that I played when I was there.

When a recent ex-OSW employee was asked: In terms of the priorities of OSW work how much of it would involve promoting gender equality in departmental policy making? The response given was:

About 5%, if that, not much. It used to be the rationale behind OSW to influence government policy making across departments and that was why it was put in PM&C [Prime Minster and Cabinet], to do that, but now it doesn’t do that at all.

In terms of political will, it cannot be discounted that OSW structures remain.

However, this alone does not constitute international best practice, particularly while their effectiveness in implementing a gender mainstreaming strategy is increasingly limited by the focus of their work, their access and influence on departmental policy, and the allocation of resources they receive to do this.

Allocation of Resources

Adequate allocation of resources has also been identified as an essential element of a mainstreaming model’s success (Mackay and Bilton 2000: 27). It offers an insight into how a region substantively supports the implementation of its mainstreaming program in practice.

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

Under an expert-bureaucratic model, appropriate funding of gender experts within the bureaucracy is essential to its success. In Australia, this relates directly to the funding of OSW and its gender mainstreaming program and the funding of departmental women’s policy units or bureaus.

Since the removal of women’s policy units, departments have decreased their responsibility for resourcing the gender mainstreaming strategy. Currently, the collection of disaggregated statistics appears to be the only resource contribution of mainstream departments. As a result, OSW can be judged as predominantly responsible for implementing, and subsequently resourcing, the gender mainstreaming strategy.

As previously noted, OSW’s structure and role appears to have changed over the years. Therefore, a simple audit of staff numbers or budget funding is an inadequate indication of the resources given to the mainstreaming strategy. It is known that there is not an ongoing fund within OSW’s budget for mainstreaming. Subsequently, resources which would support mainstreaming exercises would have to be negotiated from administrated funding under OSW’s ‘Other Women’s Programs’, which is allocated only .04% of the overall OSW budget. Further evidence of insufficient resources was also evidenced in the exercise designed to inform departmental secretaries about the gender mainstreaming strategy:

When I rang to say, ‘Sorry we didn’t reply to the letter that was sent [regarding the secretary’s meeting with OSW about mainstreaming]…,’ I was told, ‘Oh, we don’t have the capacity or the people or the time or the resources to meet with all secretaries, so now we’re just going to do a pilot of a small number’.

Clearly limited resources along with a lack of political will has impacted on general understandings of mainstreaming obligations. Despite these limitations, some tools have been developed. Currently available to all departments is:

A gender mainstreaming telephone help-line [which] provides a telephone service to provide tailored advice to departmental officers to assist with the integration of gender issues into their work. … [and] Gender mainstreaming information sheets… [which] contain information and practical hints on ways that departments can better integrate gender considerations into the development, implementation and evaluation of policies, programmes and services.

In addition to this, there is currently a gender mainstreaming kit in production. However, the lack of understanding around mainstreaming and familiarity with departments’ mainstreaming obligations suggests the usefulness of these tools are limited to those who are educated about what their gender mainstreaming responsibilities are, and have a commitment to implementing them. As a result, it is unlikely that these tools are fully utilised, while more resources are need for awareness raising and training in this area.

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

There appears to be minimal monitoring or enforcement in place regarding Australia’s gender mainstreaming strategy. The only internal monitoring mechanism in place currently is the Women’s Budget Statement produced by the Office for the Status of Women. Other than this, there are monitoring requirements at the internationally level, for the United Nations and the Commonwealth Secretariat.11 (The accuracy of such reports is under question in this paper).

The Women’s Budget Statement (WBS) initiative was developed in 1984, and contributed to Australia’s early status as a leader in gender mainstreaming tools. Its purpose was to require government agencies to audit all their activity for its impact on women, not just programs specifically directed to women (Sawer 2002a: 44). There was a belief amongst many that that the quality and value of the early WBSs have been severely eroded since the election of the Howard government:

Its not that the ‘real’ Women’s Budget Statements were even particularly radical, but now they are just about promoting what the [Howard] government is doing for women, which is a bit of a joke.

When the first Women Budget Statement was produced under the Howard government, the Minister went nuts, and screamed: how dare you produce something so critical of government? Needless to say it hasn’t had any teeth since…

In addition to there being no identified monitoring mechanisms in place, there also appears to be no enforcement strategy to ensure that women are considered in all mainstream programs, policy development, evaluation and reporting. Increasingly international best practice includes formal monitoring and enforcement elements in mainstreaming strategies, such as a monitoring body, or statutory duty requirements on public authorities to mainstream.

Australia has developed no such mechanisms in this area. 12

Capacity Building

Gender mainstreaming is considered to be a transformative strategy, whereby policy development is expanded to incorporate understandings of policy impacts on men and women. It is a long-term strategy requiring substantial investment in training and specialist support (Mackay and Bilton 2000).

Under the Howard government there has been no capacity building undertaken within departments in order to facilitate the effective implementation of a mainstreaming strategy.

There has been no training, development of sectoral skills, or fostering of gender expertise.

Specifically, in terms of OSW’s capacity building efforts, these appear to have been hampered by a lack of resources, political will, and a hostility towards gender equality initiatives generally:

I know that OSW wanted to meet with every secretary of every department and talk about gender mainstreaming in their departments… I know anecdotally that some secretaries refused to meet or said the y were too busy or just put off the meeting… It

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

wanted it as more of a chat… I was then told that some secretaries had been so hostile to the idea that they were going to start with the non-hostile ones and work down.

There have been some successful capacity building initiatives. Ironically, this has been in the international arena rather than on the domestic front. Specifically, OSW’s work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) regarding the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) can be held up as one of the successful examples of Australia supporting the integration of a gender perspective into policy making:

Australia has made a major contribution to advancing gender mainstreaming in the work of APEC. Since 1999, a wide range of measures have been implemented to promote women’s involvement in APEC and to assist more than twenty APEC fora to integrate gender into their activities. Some key measures included: development of information sessions on gender for APEC fora; development of gender criteria for funding of APEC projects; workshops on sex-disaggregated data and analysis; and various practical guides for APEC Ministers and fora that show how to integrate gender and increase women’s involvement in APEC. Australia was the ‘lead’ country for several of these projects and was the Chair of the APEC Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Gender Integration for two years (January 2001-December 2002).

Despite this good work, there is little evidence of similar success within the government’s own policy making structures, or support from government for this to be pursued. As a result, it appears that Australia is committed to presenting itself as committed to equality advancements and mainstreaming mechanisms on the international stage, while domestically providing no maintenance or development in this area, particularly in the area of sectoral gender expertise, of which there is an increasing dearth since the de-prioritisation of women’s policy work.

Disaggregated Data

Disaggregated data plays a key role in informing gender analysis and assisting decision makers in understanding the gender implications of their policies. It appears that currently, while there is an acknowledgement of the importance of disaggregated data, there are some serious shortfalls in its collection and the way it is used.

A common response by participants to queries regarding the collection of disaggregated data was as follows:

Well, I think the data is not too bad. There are gaps. We have stats people at work and they consult with us about surveys that are being undertaken and work that the ABS is doing, so I think it is being taken into consideration. But the ABS has also been cut in the last few years, so there’s gaps.

The ABS -the Australian Bureau of Statistics- has indeed been cut, specifically, in the Howard government’s first year the ABS’s Women’s Statistics Unit was abolished. In

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey was also abolished (Summers 2003). As result, key gendered questions often remain overlooked or the information available has not been updated to reflect new policy developments and their impact on women:

For example paid maternity leave - do women come back at the same level, to the same job as before they left the workforce? We just don’t know that kind of information and we don’t have a lot of longitudinal data…

The Office for the Status of Women has made efforts in the area of data collection. The ‘Window on Women - women’s data warehouse’ provides an online tool for analysts to access gender disaggregated data in a number of areas. 13 However, this is just a data resource, and lacks any in-depth analysis. Furthermore it appears to be a collation of existing data, and therefore is outdated in parts.

Some bureaucrats also expressed the concern that data collected wasn’t being used to inform policy making, but was being manipulated to provide evidence of support for established government policies:

It’s difficult to because the data gets skewed you know… the data is there, but we end up basically just putting a spin on it for the government.

This practice is something that has been noted previously, when Ann Summers, in her Pamela Denoon lecture, praised the 1999 OSW publication of Women in Australia, but noted ‘its tendency to promote government policy rather that just outline information’.

In comparison to other tools and efforts, it would appear that the collection of disaggregated data is an area in which there is some activity which would support a mainstreaming strategy.

However, the lack of in-depth analysis of this data, and the potential use of it by government to support, rather than inform, policy, means there are still considerable advancements to be made in this area before it can be judged to be an effective mainstreaming tool.


As there have been noticeable gender equality advancements throughout western democracies over the last three decades, it is reasonable to expect that Australia’s gender initiatives, particularly in the area of mainstreaming for which it was an early international leader, would have continued to grow and become more sophisticated. Unfortunately this is not the case, and advancements have fluctuated according to a number of factors, most noticeably the vulnerability of the mainstreaming strategy to the political will of the government of the day.

During the period of the Howard government (1996-present), under which Australia had international obligations to develop and promote gender mainstreaming (via the Beijing Platform for Action), there has been little more than a skeletal mainstreamin g structure. Senior

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

often unfamiliar with what gender mainstreaming is, and there are regular accounts of government hostility towards gender equality initiatives. There is insignificant funding, valuable expertise in civic society is inadequately accessed, and key resources, such as women’s sector policy organisations, are at risk due to government funding cuts. Therefore, Australia’s report to the United Nations that a mainstreaming strategy is fully and actively supported by the Prime Minister and his government is overstated.

It should be noted that Australia is not completely bereft of gender mainstreaming activity. There were some accounts of gender being given consideration in policy developments. However, these were always ad hoc developments, and were never considered part of any formal gender mainstreaming strategy. Moreover they were considered to occur when policy practitioners brought experience from a women’s policy bureau - expertise which is no longer fostered and developed - into a line department which had a manager sympathetic to gender analysis in policy work.

Gender-disaggregated statistics are available: however their analysis and use to inform policy developments remains limited. OSW remains within the central Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Their remit to influence and inform policy development however appears increasingly limited. Women’s Budget Statements also continue.

Again, however, the impact of this exercise has become significantly diluted.

Resources such as the telephone help line and guidelines are available. The lack of awareness of gender mainstreaming obligations, however, means these too have limited impact.

So why is there such a chasm between the Howard government reporting of its gender mainstreaming obligations and its implementation of these responsibilities? Why isn’t there adequate political will and resources? It appears the answer is found in the conflict between the requirements for a successful gender mainstreaming strategy and the government’s neoliberal and neoconservative agenda.

The Howard government’s neoliberal agenda has provided the basis for significant funding cuts to the public service generally and departmental women’s policy units specifically; to the women’s sector; to services such as legal aid; and has provided the justification for moves towards privatisation of higher education. All of these areas, and many others, are highly gendered policy areas, and yet it appears developments have been pursued despite the negative impact on women. As a result, gender mainstreaming is undermined by the neoliberal agenda in three, inter-related ways.

The first is that many of the policies which have been pursued under the neo-liberal economic agenda have been ‘patently at odds with the intent to remedy gender-based disadvantage’ (Teghtsoonian 2003). As a result, the consideration of gender impacts have been overlooked in favour of economic outcomes. For example the Nelson review’s proposed changes to higher education, particularly in relation to universit y fees, is being pursued despite the

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

embracing the neoliberal agenda a ‘New Public Management’ ethos has been embraced. This has resulted in a disproportionate focus on measurable ‘outputs’, and the expense of longer term ‘outcomes’ whose value is difficult to measure in market terms (see Kettunen 2003). As gender equality outcomes are often difficult to measure within the neoliberal framework, their value often falls outside of the government’s radar (which impacts on their subsequent support and funding). Finally, Australia, and particularly the Howard government, has been successful putting a neoliberal spin on the term ‘mainstreaming’. As result, mainstreaming has been used to justify the abolition of a number of gender specific initiatives, despite this being in direct contrast to all of the international guidelines and literature outlining how mainstreaming should be approached.

Tension can also be identified between the governments’ claimed political support for implementing their international mainstreaming obligations, and their neoconservative values regarding gender and family. Women’s issues have been consistently framed within family discourse. This has led the shift (regression) of the gender agenda within politics, to one which is primarily concerned with the private-public role of women in Australian society.

While this would have implications under any government, the impact has been particularly dire under the Howard government due to the neoconservative interpretation of ‘family’. This pre-occupation is one in which traditional, nuclear families are promoted and prioritised at the expense of other gender considerations. An example of this is found in Howard’s Baby Bonus $500 million scheme, which is designed to reward women financially for staying home for up to five years to care for their children. However, this scheme lacks any resources, or even discourse, to address how these women will be assisted when they are ready to re-enter the workforce - a problem that has been well identified in affecting women’s status in the workforce. In contrast the government has so far failed to take up the Sex Discrimination Unit’s call for paid maternity leave, which has been supported by women’s groups across the political spectrum, and is estimated to have been able to be funded by one-tenth of the 2003 surplus budget. The federal government has also supported legal initiatives to have IVF services for single women and lesbian couples restricted. These and other examples such as family tax arrangements or child care funding cuts 14 highlight how the government’s neoconservatism has restricted opportunities for working primary carers, and rewards the heterosexual single ‘breadwinner’ family unit. If an effective gender mainstreaming strategy had been in place, it would have been clear the government’s position on these matters was at odds with general gender equality advancements. Clearly its priority is not with these advancements while it remains committed to develop neoconservative, ‘women in the home’, nuclear family policies.

It can only be concluded that the government’s prioritisation of their neoliberal, neoconservative agenda has been at the expense of their claimed gender mainstreaming political priorities. As stated, if the government had given the priority it claimed to its gender mainstreaming obligations it would be difficult for it to justify such an intense attack on

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

understanding of what our gender mainstreaming obligations are, while internationally we have increasingly come under scrutiny and criticism. This was demonstrated recently in a United Nations document, where it was noted that the Australian government appeared to have failed to acknowledge the impact cuts on women’s organisations and legal aid would have on the battle against domestic violence. Reflections were made such as: ‘The focus on the family at the expense of fundamental women’s human rights have impeded on women enjoying their rights [in Australia]” (See United Nations E/CN.4/2003/75/Add.2).

Simply having an Office for the Status of Women, a Women’s Budget Statement, or being a signatory to the United Nations Beijing Platform for Action does not entitle Australia to claim international best practice. Furthermore it is clear that unless the government provides tangible and applied efforts to meet their international obligations, and allows the Women’s Budget Statement and women’s policy organisations to provide critical gender policy discourse, Australia will continue to fail to deliver its gender mainstreaming obligations. This can only lead to further eradication of gender equality advancements in Australia, the development of policies which reinforce discrimination and restrict men and women’s roles in society and further international criticism of our gender agenda.


Bacchi, C., (2001) ‘Managing Equity: Mainstreaming and diversity in Australian universities’ in Brooks, A., and Mackinnon A., (eds.) Gender and the Restructured University, Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Donaghy, T.B., (2002) ‘Equality Mainstreaming: Lesson learning from Northern Ireland’.

Paper presented at the Australasian Political Studies Association 50 th Anniversary Conference, Australian National University, Canberra, October.

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Kohler-Koch, B. and Eising, R., (eds.) (1999) The Transformation of Governance in the European Union, London: Routledge.

Mackay, F. and Bilton, K., (2000). Learning from Experience: Lessons in mainstreaming equal opportunities, Edinburgh: Governance of Scotland Forum, University of Edinburgh.

9 .


11 Due to the time restrictions on public authorities, consultees also received these documents all in the same time period, all with the same deadlines, which made the tasks even less achievable. 12

If public authorities were to put a little more creative thought into how groups participate in the consultation process, such as the futuresearch process (, then this sharing of knowledge/expertise could be better developed

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

Magnette, P., (2003) ‘European governance and civic participation: Beyond elitist citizenship?’, Political Studies, 51, 144-160.

Meehan, E., (2003) ‘From government to governance: Civic participation and ‘new politics’; the context of potential opportunities for the better representation of women’. Paper presented at the European Consortium for Political Research Joint Sessions of Workshops, Edinburgh, April.

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Russell, L. and Sawer, M., (1999) ‘The rise and fall of the Australian women's bureau’, Australian Journal of Politics & History , 45:3, 362-378

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and Hewitt, G. (eds.) Gender Budgets Make More Cents, London: Commonwealth Secretariat, 43-64.

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True, J. and Mintrom, M., (2001) ‘Transnational networks and policy diffusion: The case of gender mainstreaming’, International Studies Quarterly, 45, 27-57.

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Endnotes 1 Parts of this paper have been developed from an earlier paper delivered to the International Political Science Association, Durban, June 2003. 2

Most notably via women’s policy machinery bodies and methods such as gender or women’s budget statements. 3 The three policy areas have not been explicitly identified to protect the anonymity of participants. Direct quotes are taken only from the formal interviews. Confidentiality agreements restrict any specific identification of participants. Informal conversations constitute interviews and correspondence whereby it was agreed there would be no transcript, and information gained could not be cited. ‘Senior’ bureaucrats are those who hold a public service position above Executive Level 2. Gender analysts constitute women’s sector activists and academics. As a number of public servants were concerned that by criticising the government they would be in breach of their employment contracts, recent ex-employees (who left 2001-2003) were sought out and included in the sample group. 4

The two substantial exceptions to this are Marian Sawer’s work; and Bacchi’s (2001) critical exploration of Australian universities’ gender mainstreaming experiences. 5

The very presence of ‘femocrats’ was testament to Australia’s forward thinking around the need for women’s perspectives and agendas to be considered and acknowledged in the provision of bureaucratic advice and policy making. 6

It should be noted that the appointment of senior bureaucrats aligned to government is judged as the beginning of the politicisation of the public service in recent years, and this began under Keating’s Labor government. 7

A number of anecdotal accounts indicated that bureaucrats also find it increasingly difficult to criticise government policy, which they believe silences policy debates and undermines policy process. The politicisation of the public service have far reaching implications, and is an area which urgently requires research and analysis, not least to understand its implications on gender equality. 8

While some departments have gender relevant units these bodies generally do not have

Tahnya Donaghy: Gender and Public Policy Making in Australia

9 This is discussed and evidenced in the Northern Ireland case study, see Donaghy 2002. 10 This is a pattern which extends outside of the women’s sector as outlined in Sawer 2002b. 11

At time of writing a report was being complied for the Commonwealth Secretariat by OSW. 12 The current policy proposal form departments submit to treasury would provide an immediate opportunity to provide some level of formal monitoring in this area. Even though community impact is requested in this document, there is no enforcement of this section to highlight gender impacts. 13

See 14 Ann Summers, in her 2003 Pamela Doon lecture, provides an overview of these developments and their impact on women.