Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Australian Women's Round Table meeting, 27 August 1997: speech

The Minister, Senator Jocelyn Newman and representatives of the 46 national women's organisations represented here today, good morning and welcome.

I will be your chair for the next two days - a two days which, we are all hoping, will be a fruitful period of ideas and information exchange.

Policy makers like OSW can, of course, conduct focus group research as one means of finding out what the electorate believes and wants, but with the inevitable rise of interest group politics in a democracy as free flowing and robust as ours, the use of this Round Table mechanism to inform and advise governments on policy is a welcome and preferred alternative.

The round table should cut both ways of course; from the point of view of the Office of the Status of Women, it should, as I've said, mean we, the bureaucracy, and they, the Government of the day, are better informed about what women in the Australian community want from their federal government. From your point of view, I hope you leave the Round Table with a clear understanding about how this Government works and about how you might better influence its decisions. After exhaustive consultations with all of you, as the minister has already observed, OSW has identified four key areas of policy interest which all of us share and in order to make the two days useful and rigorous, you will see that we have confined the meeting agenda to those areas.

We had the choice of course, of doing a once-over - lightly critique on all government policy, but it seemed to all of us that we could only leave such a meeting feeling that we had achieved nothing, and indeed we could well have been right. We have also allowed some time for a discussion about applying for government funds.

I thought I might confine my remarks to areas which I hope, will prove useful to you over the next two days.

First, I would like to describe how the Office of the Status of Women works, what its functions are, the issues it wishes to pursue, and by default, what I do not believe it is useful for the Office to pursue. I would also like to look at how you, with us, can work to influence government decisions.

Since the office review of 1993, OSW has become a tightly focussed policy advising unit much more like the rest of the department to which it belongs, PM and C. It has two clients - the Minister Assisting and the Prime Minister.

At its peak, OSW had a staff of 45 people - 14 more than its staff allocation today. Even had the staff allocation been 145 people, there is no way it would have been any match for the rest of the 130,000 strong public service. So the aim has always been to work strategically, to have other departments do the work and own the policy outcomes as much as possible, to know when to intervene in the policy process( very often towards the end, as it is in the final count down to cabinet, but also earlier).

For OSW to hit above its weight, it has also required good access to the prime minister's personal office and that of the minister assisting. Timely interventions here can be more than equivalent to weeks of numerous staff working the policy process through the bureaucracy, however meticulously. That responsibility inevitably falls mainly on the head of OSW, and already in my four months here it is plain to me that no amount of bureaucratic experience could have made up for lack of political access.

Bearing in mind the inevitable limits to a prime minister's attention, OSW has always needed a committed and high level minister assisting. The significance of having the Minister Assisting in Cabinet, for all the many cabinet discussions and decisions impacting on women, just cannot be under estimated. It is crucial that an alert and informed minister is always at the Cabinet table. The decision to have the Minister Assisting at Cabinet level reflects well on a Government's commitment to women, and the effort Senator Newman makes in this portfolio, when Social Security, the minister's other portfolio, involves expenditure of $40 billion, against our $4 million, is critically important.

But I digress from my main point - that OSW's work cannot be all things to all women.

There are policy areas which we inevitably cannot give a high priority to, or any at all. Sadly, the portrayal of women is one where, although we may advise and inform other ministers and advise our minister assisting, there are not the resources to develop a pro active policy.

Even letting tenders for others to do the policy work is a time consuming and staff consuming process if done properly, and OSW needs to move to spending its project money through a thorough tender process, as against using ad hoc grants. Widespread use of ad hoc grants leaves OSW open to charges of unprofessionalism and the very real risk that taxpayer's money may not be spent effectively. But again, proper tendering takes time and resources.

For the next twelve months, the main policy foci for the Office are pretty apparent: informing the development of employment policy ( the Government's main concern) to reflect the particular needs of women, similarly with tax reform. There's also monitoring and working with the Department of Health and Family Services on child care policy, developing aspects of small business policy for women and involvement in the developing of mainstreaming policy for the Commonwealth Public Sector, monitoring the development of superannuation for women. There are, as you can imagine, a dozen or so as yet unknown hand grenades in the year ahead, for which we must always be prepared.

In addition to this pure policy work, OSW also has carriage of the Government's National Domestic Violence Strategy, the development of an optional protocol for CEDAW at the United Nations, responsibility for the appointment of women to commonwealth boards, responsibility for the development of good gender management practices for women in the work force, along with the encouragement of family flexible work practices under the new Workplace Relations Act, including the provision of permanent part time work with pro rata conditions.

By the way, OSW also organises this two day Round Table, no mean feat, administers the grants program and dreams up small diversions in its spare time such as the reprint of the autobiography of Australia's first female member of the House of Representatives and first woman cabinet minister, Dame Edith Lyons. You will note from this description that we do many things other than provide policy advice to our two clients, which makes us neither fish nor fowl but very busy.

If I had to sum up the direction of the Office over the next twelve months, I would say it is to fight for our place at the high table of ideas, where the big policies, like unemployment, which affect us all are decided.

Second, it is to have an office which spends its program money, and on time.

Third it is to fight the bushfires as hard as anyone and win.

Fourth to develop some policies which benefit low income groups, the strugglers and the often forgotten, fifth and finally to get up a damned good National Domestic Violence Initiative by the end of the year and then run it.

So what does this say about the direction of women's policy under this Government?

That the Government expects the Office to at least maintain the gains of the past twenty five years but also acknowledges every woman's right to make her own choice, in or out of the workforce, and for the Government to be uncensorious about what that choice is.

Gender awareness, we so often tell men, is about diversity - acknowledging it, celebrating it, using it. That means not just diversity between men and women, but also between women and women. Whilst this has been accepted for those with different ethnic backgrounds, or racial backgrounds, it must also include tolerating women of different outlooks, by dint of their life experiences, their characters or skills. It is only with this greater tolerance of diverse view points that women's issues will be able to move into the mainstream.

One of the factors driving the rejection of feminist principles by younger women - and for that matter, a great many men - is the perception that the women's movement believes there is a right and a wrong type of woman. For example denigration by women of Margaret Thatcher and Bronwyn Bishop on the grounds that they are represent the 'wrong values'. This sends a message to the rest of the community that the women's movement is capable of the same censorship and rejection they accuse men of, that the women's movement and therefore feminism is as capable of discrimination as those they condemn, that it may even be partisan, that there is therefore no consistency in the feminist position and it can thus be rejected.

Liberation, after all, is first about tolerance, second about diversity.

The great range of women's groups represented here today says that we as a group at least acknowledge this, even if the perception of others is different.

The progress of the status of women, when you look around the world, at countries with similar interest in this to Australia's, is pretty standard. The United States, home of the free market, has about the same percentage of women in politics as a totalitarian country like China, where policy issues are driven by the All China Women's Federation, a semi independent body with a paid staff of 90,000 women, working from the village level up.

Despite the vast differences in approach, these two countries, like our own, rate fairly similarly on the political representation achievement scale. About 20 something percent.

To get the percentages up, Women's policy in Australia is now facing another sort of challenge. It is the challenge of convincing companies and political parties that women need not be there just as tokens, or only when they are clearly outstanding and better than every male in the room, but because it is plain old fashioned common sense for them to be there - good business, good politics.

What's more, to be successful, it needs to be done in a climate where governments also recognise the needs of women who don't want to break through the glass ceiling - who want to be full time mums or homemakers, or just have an ordinary job, where they put their families first. Not only is it arguable that the recognition of the rights of these women is another democratic responsibility of government, it also helps bolster the case for equal rights for women because it means the Government's position on diversity and the rights of individuals is seen as internally consistent.

Finally, a few words on the art of lobbying.

Lobbying is a combination of knowing who to lobby, when to lobby and what to lobby with.

The basic rules seem pretty clear - always base your arguments on facts, pick your issues, lobby decision makers or people who have access to decision makers.

Find the problems, but find possible solutions too. Governments want solutions that are affordable, always revenue neutral, and have broad appeal. They often want ideas about how arguments can be put to the community with the broadest possible appeal.

Governments - and Oppositions for that matter - are very interested in numbers - the number of people affected adversely and positively, and the number of dollars it will cost. Sometimes lobbyists might have to concede the issue of immediate concern is only of direct relevance to a small number of people - the art here is to tie up with other, larger interest groups with broader appeal.

Often it's worth a call to OSW - we will help you with facts and figures if we can, and we can suggest who else you might speak to.

One thing my 19 years as a journalist taught me - and I say this with some irony - the last resort of the successful lobbyist is the press. When you have to go public, you're admitting you've finally failed all other routes and are relying now on a last ditch attempt at a public relations campaign. The best lobbying, as some of our most successful corporate and industry groups might confess, is the lobbying you never see. You just see the policy outcomes. Those in the know appreciate this, and see you again next time when another issue arises.

OSW does its government advising entirely in private. We are a part of a government department and our role is not to publicly oppose government policy, but to provide new policy advice or improve upon existing policy. Despite the hankerings of those who would like to see this office play an Ombudswoman role, it cannot and never has been able to play that role. I cannot think of a head of the Office who has ever publicly criticised government policy, though that does not mean we do not work effectively within the government to ensure outcomes for women - all women - are maximised.

Thank you again for coming - we have two days of hard work ahead, I know we are all looking forward to it.