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Prime Minister's new adviser on women's affairs argues for a more creative workplace which accommodates working parents' responsibilities and comments on her new responsibilities; Prime Minister's image with women analysed

ELLEN FANNING: Paul Keating's new adviser on women's affairs says she's not going to try to persuade the Prime Minister to tone down his aggressive parliamentary behaviour in a bid to win over female voters. Anne Summers, the former editor of Ms magazine and one time head of the Government's Office of the Status of Women, has given her first interview since taking up her new post in the Prime Minister's office. She's told P.M. that she was immensely flattered to receive Paul Keating's call to service, and her immediate challenge will be to improve the Prime Minister's standing with women. Polls consistently show that more women disapprove of Mr Keating, particularly his parliamentary antics. But, unlike many of her feminist colleagues who strive for a utopian political world, Anne Summers rejects the notion of women as political housekeepers, seeing this as a dangerous, new stereotype.

In this interview with our chief political correspondent, Maxine McKew, Anne Summers began by talking about the greatest challenge of the '90s, how to forge a more creative workplace that takes account of working parents and their family responsibilities.

ANNE SUMMERS: Well, I think this is one of the most important issues of the '90s, and I think that we, as a society, and we as a human race, have to figure out a fairer and a more harmonious distribution of time and effort between home and work. I mean, most of us have jobs that we like or we hope to have jobs that we'd like; we want to spend time there; even if we don't like them, we have to be there because we need the money. But we also have families or loved ones and responsibilities at home and pleasures at home that we don't want to feel totally squeezed and stressed as a result of trying to juggle the two.

And I think that women have had the major responsibility for this in the past 10 years or so, and we've now reached the point where we're saying 'Well, look, it's not just women that should be shouldering the double burden', that all of us should take some responsibility for the domestic part of our lives, and women shouldn't have to just, as the price of going into the paid work force, shoulder an additional burden.

MAXINE McKEW: In fact, is that the problem that many men have simply not caught up with the changes of the past 20 years, and they're feeling either lost or a bit resentful about it?

ANNE SUMMERS: Well, I think some men are resentful. Others, I think, have learnt an awful lot in a very short time - I mean, mind you, they had to - but just the changes that I've seen - I was going to say in my lifetime, it makes me sound very old - but the changes I've seen in the past 15 years - I mean, just the fact that the presence of men in the maternity wards, you know, in the delivery room; that didn't happen 20 years ago - now it's routine. I think the fact that most fathers share some degree of family responsibility - some obviously more than others. That's probably to do with their jobs and their aptitude as much as anything else.

But I think it is unfair to say that the Prime Minister is unaware of this or doesn't do his share, because, I mean, only last week he had to go home from the office early because his wife was interstate on a family matter and one of their daughters was sick, so I think he understands what that's like.

MAXINE McKEW: Well, that's an interesting point you raise because every working parent says that. What do you do when your child is sick? Now that happens all the time.

ANNE SUMMERS: Of course, it does.

MAXINE McKEW: But as far as the workplace is concerned, that really doesn't exist. You've probably got to pretend that you're sick yourself.

ANNE SUMMERS: Well, I think employers have to be more sympathetic. I mean, it's very strange, to me, how employers often forget that they, too, are family members, when they make some of their work-force policies. Whether this is something the Government should get involved with, or not, I don't really know, but you have to say that Australia's record in the whole area of child care has been absolutely superb. I mean, the growth of places since 1983, when I worked for the previous Government, is just phenomenal.

MAXINE McKEW: Sure. But it's a question of, I think, flexibility, now, isn't it? Is there a role for government here in encouraging employers to be more flexible, more creative, about how they arrange the workplace?

ANNE SUMMERS: I would hope so. I mean, I think one of the interesting things about Australia and something I'm very conscious of - having lived in America for six years where life, as you will know from your time there, is very, very different - is that there is a degree of co-operation and sharing of ideas and information between public and private sectors, which I think is pretty rare and I think is pretty good. And I remember before, when I worked on the affirmative action legislation, we had negotiations between employers, trade unions, women's organisations and all the affected parties so that we were able to come up with consensus legislation. Now, I hope we could do a similar thing with the work and family responsibilities area. We now have international obligations under ILO 156 - that's the International Labour Organisation Convention covering workers with family responsibilities - so that in signing that convention, the Government has actually undertaken to try and do some concrete work in this area.

MAXINE McKEW: To go back to the Prime Minister, I suppose your immediate challenge is how to close the gender gap which, of course, shows that more women than men disapprove of Mr Keating. How do you plan to go about that?

ANNE SUMMERS: Well, I think we should be realistic about my role. First of all, I'm only one person, and, secondly, I'm only here for three months. I'm here on a limited assignment, and part of my job is to give him advice in the women's area. I think it's terrific that he did this and I was very pleased that he chose me, of course.

MAXINE McKEW: How did it come about, by the way? Did you get a call in New York, one day, saying 'I've got a problem with women' or what?

ANNE SUMMERS: Yes. Well, not quite that. I did get a call one Sunday night from Mr Keating asking me if I'd be interested in coming back and working for him. And I was immensely flattered to get that call and it didn't really occur to me not to - fortunately, I was able to respond and respond positively, and it didn't really occur to me not to respond positively. I guess, one of the things I've learnt from living in America for six years is something of an American sense of responsibility to one's country, and if your country asks you to do something, you have to have a very good reason for saying no.

But I think it's good that he's made this appointment, as I say, not only because I've benefited from it, but Mr Keating is the first Prime Minister since Gough Whitlam to have an adviser on women's issues and women's policy in his own office. I mean, other Prime Ministers - particularly Mr Hawke - had the whole of OSW, the Office of the Status of Women, and he had very good Ministers in the form of Susan Ryan and so on, but he didn't think it was necessary to put somebody in his own office. And I think that, in making that gesture, Mr Keating has done a huge amount already. He's shown, in a very concrete way, that he thinks that the issue is important and that women are important, and I think women respond - we respond to the way we're treated. If we think someone's taking us seriously and is interested in us, we'll respond accordingly.

MAXINE McKEW: Nonetheless, one of the big problems that does appear to show up in the research about Mr Keating is that women really object to the confrontationist, aggressive approach he takes in the Parliament. Are you going to attempt to modify that? And how do you do that, because it does appear to be such an inseparable part of his persona?

ANNE SUMMERS: Well, I'm not sure I agree with the premise. People say this to me but I'm not convinced that it's necessarily true or that it's necessarily true with all women. I mean, that kind of aggressive behaviour doesn't put me off. I don't think it puts off most of my friends.

MAXINE McKEW: Is it a generation thing, do you think?

ANNE SUMMERS: It might be. It might be something that older women have more of a problem with. But you wouldn't attempt to change it. Mr Keating has been in Parliament for what, 25 years? He's spent years developing and honing his debating skills. I don't think that it would be realistic to even attempt to try and change that. It's too much part of his parliamentary personality.

MAXINE McKEW: You don't think, though, there's a rejection, generally, of that macho style of politics, that we really have to go beyond that?

ANNE SUMMERS: I think that there's a lot of self-examination going on within our political system. It's often said, for example, that women make better candidates than men because women are more gentle and more caring and more ethical and more what have you.

MAXINE McKEW: Do you think that's true?

ANNE SUMMERS: No. I think it's, in fact, a very dangerous, new stereotype which is developing, and just one more thing to burden us with. Not only have we got to do the housework and do the ironing and juggle the double load, but we've now got to go in and do the political housework, as well, and I really do think this is a very dangerous line of thinking. You know, I think, obviously some women are gentle and some women are very aggressive, including a lot of women that I've encountered in politics and business.

MAXINE McKEW: In fact, what's your US experience as regards that point?

ANNE SUMMERS: Well, I mean, some of the women that I worked with and met in business in New York - I mean, the word 'barracuda' is too kind for some of them. They'd give Paul Keating a run for his money in the aggression stakes, so I really think that this kind of sex stereotyping is wrong, it really is.

MAXINE McKEW: So it's unfair, you're saying, to expect women to be saints, to introduce a new form of political culture?

ANNE SUMMERS: Yes, I do think it's unfair. I think, this is not to say that women, as a group, won't have certain interests that might be a little bit different from men's, but part of that is the result of our experiences. I mean, the fact that we have been a minority in politics, the fact that it took some time before our interests were treated as being legitimate, political subjects, meant that we had to become advocates for issues, like it or not.

Now, I think, as more women get into Parliament, into politics generally, and as our issues are treated with the kind of legitimacy and credence that they are, more and more, being treated, that that kind of special responsibility for women to have responsibility for their gender, will decline. I mean, I would like to see women as a defence minister, as a foreign minister, as - you know, a whole range of policy areas. I just don't think women should be stereotyped and confined to those traditional areas.

MAXINE McKEW: Would you say then, as a rule, that, at the moment, because politics is seen as still a pretty tough, brutalising business - and I suppose it always will be - do women still have to behave more like men, then?

ANNE SUMMERS: I don't know. I haven't been back long enough to have strong views on this yet, but I am very interested in watching the political styles of Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence, and they do seem to behave a little bit differently from men who've held those jobs.

MAXINE McKEW: What distinguishes them, do you think?

ANNE SUMMERS: Whether that's the result of a conscious policy on their part or whether it reflects their personalities, I'm not sure. I think they probably are a little more consultative, a little more conciliatory, I think. I mean, this may be an unfair generalisation because, as I say, I've only been back a couple of weeks and I haven't had an opportunity to observe them in detail.

MAXINE McKEW: But of course, both were brought in to do the political housekeeping.

ANNE SUMMERS: As political housewives, I know - I know.

MAXINE McKEW: To get back to the point you made earlier. Anne, having worked for both Bob Hawke, as a bureaucrat, and now with Paul Keating, as an adviser, what's the difference between them in terms of how they treat women?

ANNE SUMMERS: Oh, it's again, a little early for me to draw any conclusions here, Maxine. What I do know is that the feedback I've had from the National Women's Consultative Council member who had a very good meeting with Mr Keating a couple of months ago, they came away incredibly impressed by him, and also impressed by his degree of appreciation of the issues that they're interested in. So again, it's not true, as some people say, that, you know, he only discovered women last week. Anyone who's sat in the Federal Cabinet for the last nine years, I think, has got to be pretty well-versed in these issues, and particularly somebody who was Treasurer and had to find the money for a lot of these programs that people like me help dream up.

So he's more familiar than he's often given credit for. And I think it's true that he's very, very good on these small group situations and it's a pity that more people don't have the opportunity to meet him in that kind of situation.

ELLEN FANNING: Anne Summers in her first interview since becoming Paul Keating's adviser on women's affairs, and she was speaking with Maxine McKew.