Women’s policy under the Turnbull government seems to be in chaos.
No serious commitment during the election, troubling turnover at the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, lack of pay equity in the government itself, appointments to key roles without apparent relevant experience.
Let’s start with what could be fixed simply: pay equity.
The pay gap under the leadership of Martin Parkinson is not imagined. It’s explicit. Parkinson is not just the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, he is also a member of Male Champions of Change.
Yet an advertisement for Executive Level 1 advisers, in the divisions of Social Policy and Office for Women in PM&C offer different – and unequal – salaries for the women’s jobs.
If you want to work as an adviser in the Social Policy Division at EL1 you would be eligible for a salary range of $101,404 – $115,572. But an adviser in the Office for Women, according to the advertisement, “would be eligible for a salary range of $96,266 – $105,362.”
The shadow minister for women Tanya Plibersek says, “The fact Malcolm Turnbull is happy to tolerate such a significant gender pay gap in his own department, really says it all. He should be helping to close the gender pay gap, not contributing to the problem.”
Pay rates matter. Perception matters. The government knows that, and perception must presumably have been the reason for the post-election bureaucratic upgrade of the Office for Women, from branch to division, within PM&C. That upgrade means an upgrade in status within PM&C, and OfW now has its own first assistant secretary, the recently appointed Amanda McIntyre.
And there’s another problem with perception.
McIntyre was previously chief financial officer of PM&C from 2012. Before that, she was an assistant secretary in the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency; a consultant with the business management consultants Oakton and before that a manager with PWC. There is no clear track record of any long term expertise in women’s policy, although insiders say she has displayed what one described as an “amateur” interest in gender issues and has operated internally as a gender champion within PM&C by organising events. Don’t underestimate the importance of events for consciousness-raising and team-building but it’s not women’s policy.
Her new colleagues are highly praising, and a number described her as very strategically minded – and that’s excellent. But surely out of all the choices available, someone with at least some experience in women’s policy might have been a stronger choice. She leads a team of about 26 – and there are still a few experts in there – but any team needs a leader with genuine expertise.
Similar comments could be made of some other recent appointments by the federal government in key women’s advising jobs. In 2014, when long-serving director of WGEA Helen Conway announced her retirement, it took nearly a year to replace her. Her – acting – replacement Louise McSorley ran WGEA for about six months before the new director Libby Lyons was appointed. Lyons had previously tried to get Liberal Party preselection for the WA seat of Tangney and her track record doesn’t scream women’s policy either. Since Conway left, the agency has had a significant staff turnover, 13 resignations from a staff of 30. Conway provided generous notice of her retirement but still the government couldn’t manage its recruitment processes in a timely fashion – and to some staff, that was a sign.
McSorley left WGEA to act briefly as head of Office for Women where she was on a temporary transfer from the Department of Employment. Larkins, the then acting deputy secretary social policy told the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Affairs in May last year that McSorley’s contract, initially six months, had been extended. A few days later, Larkins wrote again, to say that the temporary transfer was not extended. McSorley is still in the public service.
And just poke your head into Senator Michaelia Cash’s office. Cash of course is the Minister for Women in Malcolm Turnbull’s Cabinet, and her brand new adviser on both employment AND women, Melanie Brown, also appears to have no experience at all in women’s policy. Brown finished her undergraduate degree in 2013, according to her LinkedIn profile (which has been removed since I made some inquiries). Since then she spent a year at Barton Deakin, the political lobbying organisation home page of which says: “Barton Deakin is here to help business work more effectively with Liberal / National Governments and Oppositions across Australia and New Zealand.” Then two years as adviser to Greg Hunt, the then Minister for the Environment.
“Women’s policy has been upgraded bureaucratically but that’s about it,” says Marie Coleman, chair of the social policy committee of the women’s lobby group the National Foundation for Australian Women. NFAW tried to compare and contrast various party policies which benefited women during the recent election.
“We would have liked the strategic approaches to policies which would benefit Australian women from the Coalition but we didn’t get that,” she said.