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  Issue No 87 Official Organ of LaborNet 10 March 2001  

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Interview

Working Woman

Interview with Peter Lewis

Cheryl Kernot on women in the workplace, Labor's male culture and where Meg went wrong.

 
 

When working on the Workforce2010 document what impacts did you find the changing labour market would have on women?

There is going to be the continuing shift from the manual to the personal - to the service industry - and some of that implies that a lot of new jobs are going to be there for women, But I think there is a warning tag attached to that because it doesn't necessarily mean high paid, good jobs. We've seen a concentration of women in service industries, and we've seen a concentration of women in casual work.

It does say, too, that there will be an increase in demand for teachers and nurses and aged care and carers generally, and historically women have filled those jobs. So I guess at one level the outlook in terms of the availability of jobs sounds good, but there's some qualifications about casualisation of the workforce and the way in which women miss out on retirement income as a result of the primary responsibilities for them to juggle work and family. So, on one level it is good news in the number of jobs that are going to be out there; on the other level there is the same old story and the same old issues that have to be dealt with.

I guess both part time and casual work is a double edged sword for women. One of the orthodox analyses is that it actually provides the flexibility to allow a woman to balance her family responsibilities and her career. But what are the down-sides?

It is a double-edged sword because (a) by taking on a series of casual jobs it can mean an interrupted career path for the women (b) there is insufficient knowledge really about entitlements and what they are giving up. When you finish maternity leave, for example, and go from a previously full time job into a part time job. People don't understand that the longer-term consequences are a lack of financial independence at retirement age.

So it is a double-edged sword in the short term and the long term, and I just don't think that we deal with it sufficiently on either level. I think the issue of casualisation and the concentration of women in casual work is one of the big employment issues. I think the metal workers case decision (even though I am told there are some technical difficulties) is symbolically really important to say you can't exploit people who made choices for their lifestyle needs. In other words, being parents, you can't exploit them by keeping them permanently on casual or permanent work when they have been working for you and been loyal, and a lot of things that come with good labour - you can't exploit them.

I think that that has got huge potential. I think the McDonalds attitude on maternity leave, and I think the Coles Myer attitude in some respects on the proportion of permanent workers in their new supermarkets are all good signs, but there is a huge way to go and we do not have sufficient family-friendly workplaces, and we've got to get really, really serious about that.

Does it concern you that often things like family-friendly practices are regarded as "women's policy" which in the end, ends up as saying the woman's job is to care for the family and also be part of the workplace.

Yes, it does concern me, but I think what encourages me is that there is a recent survey which shows that a really high proportion of men, who are caught in that spiral of unpaid overtime; and even some who are paid overtime, feel that job insecurity - in other words, having to do the extra work or losing your job - they feel that they can't be decent parents - the decent fathers that they want to be. I think the culture is changing but typically the responsibility for changing it still seems to rest with women, and I'd like to see men in a position to accept change; to do more to change it.

The Business Council and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has talked about this more frequently, but when you look at the people - an analysis of who has family-friendly workplaces - it is still men and women in higher levels, in management - people who have negotiating power, so to speak. Nothing much has changed for women with inferior bargaining rights, and that is the whole point I think that we need to address.

There are some good examples, and this Government's approach is to say, oh well, we'll showcase the good examples. I don't think they do enough about talking to employers. I don't think they do enough about work-based or close to work-based childcare. I just don't think they take it seriously enough. We've got an argument going on about maternity leave as though the only needs that working families have are when the baby is a baby, but families, and particularly women as the primary carer often - I mean, they have got needs well beyond when their children are over one year of age, and I don't think that we've been serious about cooperative workplaces where childcare needs are taken seriously.

And we also need to look at some out-of-the-box things, like bringing the child to a workplace for an hour before school starts. I don't think that we have seriously addressed. We have been too ready to say, oh well, we are talking about it; things seem to be happening and it is all happening according to what the market will bear. Well, when I was wearing my previous hat, and a stressed mother of only one child, I asked myself, what could make a huge difference to people's lives, and that is why I moved the amendment which started the test case for carers' leave. I'm really proud of that, because it made a structural difference. It seems that the pace of change has been very slow since then.

Well, putting on a policy-makers hat, which is the role of politicians - what can you do as a policy maker to change the situation? A lot of it seems to be either in the workplace or in the home. Where does the Government come into this equation?

I think the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations has got a lot more to do in speaking out to encourage and change culture than the kind of impression they give in bashing unions or supporting employers only in Question Time every day. I think it is quite easy for a Minister to use his or her position and leverage to bring about greater change, but if you are in a government which believes that everything is market-based, well you won't go after that change.

So, OK, we aren't necessarily going to go back and re-regulate in huge areas, but I think we are saying we are going to support more test cases; we are going to look at what we can do for work-based childcare; and we are going to encourage employers to come to the table so that we can create a climate for change that will happen more quickly.

What about that next step away from the workplace and into the family, and that old public-private dichotomy? Is there a role for the government in some way, to empower women not to be the prime person bearing that responsibility for children?

Overseas - at one extreme, Scandinavian governments have required men to share parenting. That is to actually, formally take legislated leave so that men take a share of the paternity leave or the parental leave, when the baby is new. I don't think that that would sit comfortably in the short term in Australia. I think that is a cultural change that is coming, but we are not there yet.

I prefer to see governments look at what is happening with outworkers, for example. Because that is where women are exploited in their homes. I'd like to see governments making sure that the structures are there for women to work more flexibly from home. And not just women in management. It's horses for courses obviously - and some jobs don't lend themselves to it, but I would like to see us, as a government, do more about the entitlements of casuals, and I think that goes into the home and into the workplace.

What do you think the single worst policy decision for women from the Howard Government has been?

That is a really hard question. There are so many of them, but I suppose it has to be the GST because of all of its ramifications. But you know the thing that really got me back when I left the Democrats, was the meanness - was the abolition of the dental hospitals. And the reality that in a country like Australia people on health cards couldn't get their teeth fixed. I just thought that was the symbol of mean spiritedness, and I wondered what on earth had gone wrong that in this pursuit of the bottom line you would do something like that to vulnerable people. I think that was despicable! I know there was a report out recently that showed that for many people that inability to afford to go to the dental hospital has remained a reality. It hasn't been picked up. Nobody's fixed it. I just think that was a terrible, terrible decision which came in their very first budget, and they are now reaping the consequences of that meanness of spirit.

Looking at Labor's side of the fence for a moment, as a relative newcomer, and I guess some would say an outsider to the ALP, how have you found the culture in its treatment of women?

Well I think that there is a lot more to be done.

There can be a bit of a blokey culture and as a women it can be easy to be excluded from that culture and often from the decision making process. I must say it is a culture that I am working hard to change.

What did they say to you before you came across?

Well people said to me:

"Labor is very bad with women in positions of power. They can cope with women at branch level, and back bench level, but they are not very good at accommodating women's views at the major levels where decisions are made."

What constructive changes do you think need to be done to minimise that?

It takes a huge reassessment by the men who run the Party. It takes a huge reassessment of the difference between their attitudes and the reality of the rest of the Australian population. I think Affirmative Action and Emily's List support have borne fruit. They have got women there in a bigger critical mass. I think that has been really important, but we are still only three voices on the front bench. We are not significantly represented I think in Labor campaign structures throughout the country, and I think we need to get a lot more serious about the image we present as a party because it is still predominantly masculine. And that is just so out of kilter with where Australian voters are - particularly women voters..

We have a similar issue in the union movement, still having that blokey public culture, and while it is easy to have a few figureheads that are women, translating it to the culture down the level is a really hard thing.

You do. We don't want to be figureheads. We just want to be there sharing the agenda setting where it is happening - and we are not. I think that is really, really short-sighted.

What about the role in the media? I know there was that bit in the paper today about your red dress photo. You have obviously spoken about this before, but do you think it is harder for women in politics to forge their own identities?

Yeah, it is. I don't think you are allowed to be yourself. Pauline Hansen is being allowed to be herself, which is quite interesting.

What is your take on Pauline, as a woman in politics?

I think Pauline is a mouthpiece for a wide range of issues about which people feel angry, and the fact that she is female contrasts with John Howard and Kim Beazley and she is not afraid to be herself including in her dress sense. A lot of people find that hard to deal with.

Can I just say on that photo in the red dress ... I think it is time men stopped giving women the advice on what to do and what to wear. Not just men, you know. There are some things about that red dress that were taken totally out of proportion, particularly by females in the Press Gallery; whereas whenever I went around the country, people in airports and community meetings were basically more interested in that vicarious element of "my Goodness, look what they can do with a bit of flesh that was you" - you can turn out looking like that, whether it was in red, or purple. (There was a purple shot with it.) But I do think that we live in a media culture where women are too trivialised according to appearance. And I think that is regrettable. I think also that women's 'sex' as in 'gender' and sexuality and a whole lot of other things, are preyed upon more than men's. Although I think that has been moderated a little bit by the treatment that Bill Clinton has been given - but still in Australia there is a ....

There are not many men politicians that you would link sexuality to whatsoever, are there?

No. And sexual past. And all of those things. So, there has been a level of double standards, and if you raise it you are accused of complaining, but it is the truth. It is the truth and we need to get over it.

There has been an impression that things have been hard for you since you have made the jump across to Labor. How have you been going the last 18 months? Have you been enjoying your work? Has it been working for you? Are you looking forward to the next 12 months?

I enjoyed the Regional Development portfolio, but it wasn't the best choice considering I had the second most marginal seat in the country, so that had to be reviewed. But I learned a lot, and ironically the things that I learned in the first twelve months are now bearing fruit.

The announcements that Labor has made recently on bandwidth and on-line universities - and even today, learning that local communities are looking at setting up their own telecommunications outlets - are things that I found really stimulating, and incorporated into Labor's thinking way back then. I enjoyed that, but I really love the Employment portfolio because it is so important: The future of work; the right of people to access work; and the challenge of making available work, shared more fairly, I think is a fantastic challenge. And I am really enjoying that. I am enjoying the challenge of how to fix up the Job Network, so that it works properly, and bringing some sanity and training across the board to things like Work for the Dole.

So, I am enjoying that. I am enjoying good friendships at the parliamentary level - I am enjoying that very much. I do find that the media had incredibly unrealistic expectations of what I could do and be. They expected me still to be a leader of the Democrats, with the right to speak on everything - because I had done so. And they have been pretty harsh on me as a result, I think, of an unrealistic expectation of the role I could play in a new Party.

So there has been a lot of that. You know: where have you been? Well, I have had my head down, immersing myself in my portfolio, but also working in the second most marginal seat in the country, which is really, really hard work.

What about the union movement? You are obviously a stranger to that. I know you worked with Jennie while you were with the Democrats?

And I know Sharan Burrow very, very well. She has been a slose friend of mine for six years. I think the combination of Sharan and Greg will be fantastic for the future of the union. The Missos helped my campaign. I have had a lot to do with the CEPU on Telstra and Australia Post campaigns.

What is your perspective on what we need to do as a movement? The union movement?

Well, I think you are doing good things in terms of starting with Jennie George and now with Greg and Sharan, not presenting that old politics, symbolism to the world. I think people being willing to listen. I think that is going to happen because of the tremendous way that Sharan and Greg have been articulating the role of unions.

Secondly, I think you have tried really hard to make it more relevant to women, but I think we have all got to do a better job of explaining to people that as deregulation intensifies collective actions are even more necessary for protection.

And I think that with the 'Mad Monk', as people call him, in charge, the level of slick confrontation is going to continue and the desire to demonise is going to be just as much as it has been in the past under Reith. I think in the main most people (except for some employers) believe there is an important role for unions. I just don't think we have managed to get the most positive aspects of it well understood in the media.

But I am really confident of the next few years, because I think you have got good leadership and you have got clear issues to focus on. You have got the government that has got an attitude that most people find repugnant, and you've got a Labor Party on the cusp of at least being considered as a serious alternative now. So, I think as long as we keep a cooperative working relationship things are going to get much better.

Finally, I have got to ask you: Do you have any perspectives on the Democrats' leadership ballot? It seems to me that the same issues that drove you from the Party ..

Let's go back to that. Number one: the pressure on me to negotiate with Peter Reith from within the Democrat strategists was enormous. I regret that now. And I regret the photo of me and Peter Reith. I don't regret some of the things that we put in the legislation to make it fairer. Like the Outworkers Clause for example. But what that did for me was to just clarify starkly that it was easy to negotiate with a Labor Party when they were in government because we had similar starting points, but my one experience of negotiating with the conservative government I think was too much of a compromise because the starting points were not sufficiently similar. I just knew that pressure to compromise was going to continue. I was really uncomfortable in it and I didn't want to be forced into a position of having to compromise all the time. I hope people understand that.

How would you have played the GST?

Well, I was opposed to it, but I didn't have confidence that I would have been able to actually win the debate on strategy. Because there was this incredible feeling of the need for the Democrats to be seen to be players and wanting to be players. Because it came out of years of being sharers of the balance of power, rather than having balance of power in their own right. So there was always competition between Democrats and Greens and Brian Harradine. And I thought Meg's biggest mistake was after Brian Harradine said 'no' to the GST, instead of taking a weekend for reflection; instead of feeling as I did, that collective sigh of relief of the whole nation, she bowled straight up to the television cameras and said "Peter Costello has my phone number".

And I thought that was a huge error in judgement. Having said that I also think, when I look back at what they are claiming was the policy, I don't believe it was based on Democrats policy. So a lot of that unrest has been bubbling away ever since.

You are right: it is revisiting some of the issues that made me leave. This kind of need to make yourself relevant by being seen to be a player at the big table, I'm not sure that has been the best image for the Democrats. I also think that they went out of their way to attack the Labor Party and to try and give everybody the impression that they weren't close to the Labor Party - because of me. And I think they went too far the other way.

Who do you think should come out as leader?

I don't have an opinion on who should. I'd say at the beginning it looked as though it might be close, but from the people that I still know, I'd say that Natasha has quite a lot of support from office holders in the Party, with the exception of the majority of Senators. But people around the country, on National Executive and things like that - but it is very hard to tell in the Democrats because it is up to individual members. They will be judging it on things that are important for them and whether the GST or image or the future direction of the Party as a third party running progressive issues or as negotiators with whoever is the government of the day. That is what they will all be grappling with.

What I think is just as important for us all to factor into our considerations is that as the Democrat vote has declined, the Green vote is back on the increase and that has a lot of implications for more hard line leverage. I often think about the irony of my being a Minister in government and having to go back and negotiate with the Greens. Some of them are extremist ones who made life so unbelievably difficult in the Senate - or a Brian Harradine, or the Democrats. History has a way of coming round, doesn't it?

Can I say one more thing? The Queensland's State election: in my marginal seat; in all of the State seats that are either wholly within or partly within Dixon - the vote was 63%. Now, that was incredibly encouraging, but I am not silly enough to think that it transfers straight over to the Federal campaign. But it does say that a lot of people in a marginal seat were prepared to give their first preference to Labor. And I think that is very, very encouraging.

Just taking that one step further. One thing that has been concerning me is that if you and Beazley just get in because people are pissed off with the GST and petrol, it is not that great a mandate is it?

No. We have to have people identify us as being different. And I actually think in our attitude to employment and workplace relations, I think we are going to be much more agenda setting about redressing what I see as the worst excesses of the last ten years. And for me if we accept that underwork and overwork are realities of the present - then we shouldn't accept that that is the way it has to be, and we shouldn't accept that we do nothing about it. Instead we say: this is what we have inherited; how can we make it fairer. I think we are much better placed to do things like that than a government that just gets elected by default.

I'm not interested in being a government that falls over the line by default, although we know that governments lose government - we've also got to earn it, and I think we have lots of good things to offer.


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*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 87 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Working Woman
Cheryl Kernot on women in the workplace, Labor's male culture and where Meg went wrong.
*
*  Activists: Honouring Our Heroes
Anna Stewart changed the lives of Australian working families by helping women achieve balance between the competing demands of work and family.
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*  Women: The Future is Female
Julia Gillard outlines the campaign to increase female representation within the Australian Labor Party.
*
*  Unions: Sweatshops – Beyond 2001
FairWear convenor Debbie Carstens looks over a unique partnership between churches and unions to end exploitation in the textile industry.
*
*  Politics: The Battle for Bennelong
Many trade unionists are working to kick John Howard out of office. But only one woman has a chance of kicking him out of his own seat. Meet Nicole Campbell.
*
*  International: Border Skirmishes
Alana Kerr travelled to Thailand to observe first hand the battle to organise Burmese women workers in exile.
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*  History: Inside the Ladies Lounge
The McDonald sisters run Trades Hall, and have for over half a century. The building can’t speak about what has gone on in that time, but Lorna and Elaine probably know it all.
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*  Satire: Taliban to Put One Nation Last
The Parliamentary fate of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party was further obscured today as key fellow right-wing extremists moved to distance themselves from the controversial Queensland politician and the group she founded and leads.
*
*  Review: Seven Steps to Slavation
Jenny Macklin details the seven barriers that stand between women and a better working life.
*

News
»  Sweat Stains the Great Aussie Cossie
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»  Chinks Emerge in Carr’s Call Centre Stonewall
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»  Telstra Called on Part-Time Work
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»  ACTU Pushes for Reasonable Hours
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»  Ruddock Faces Legal Action Over Working Visas
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»  National Textiles Revisited: More Workers Dumped
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»  New on the Menu: Home Delivery AWAs
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»  Pay Equity Case Up And Running
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»  Child Care OH&S 'a Time Bomb'
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»  New Precedent for Workers with Print Disabilities
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»  Australian Shippers Promote Slavery
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»  Ambos Tried Without a Jury
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»  Unions Cautious Over New Insurance Deal
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»  Fears Over Future of Unfair Contracts
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»  APESMA Launches Professional Women’s Network Directory
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»  Women’s Gateway Launched
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»  EMILY's List Raises Flag for Women Candidates
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»  Web Pioneer Goes Global
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»  Public Education Day on March 15
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»  Activists Notebook
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Columns
»  The Soapbox
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»  The Locker Room
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Tool Shed
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Letters to the editor
»  Viva La Shane!
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»  Still the Same
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»  Sydney Council Tip of Iceberg
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»  New Battle Grounds
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»  Patricks Footnote
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»  The Ripple Effect
*

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