Is Gillard's leadership of the ALP an advance for women's liberation?

Julia Gillard’s successful challenge to Kevin Rudd for leadership of the federal ALP on June 24 delivered Australia its first female prime minister. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Josephine Tovey wrote the next day that, “While her role as the first female Prime Minister will make her a hero to many women, it is her actions that will keep her being one ... Will she, as Prime Minister improve the lot of other women, and make their paths to equality easier?” Given her past track record, the answer should be obvious — a resounding “No”.

Gillard publicly identifies as pro-choice, stating in 2005 that any cuts to federal funding for abortion would mean that “women without money would be left without that choice or in the hands of backyard abortion providers”. As shadow health minister that same year, she voted against the ban on the RU 486 abortion drug. However, her views on the drug were slightly more conservative than those female Coalition MPs who also opposed the ban. Tony Abbott, however, supported the ban and remains actively anti-choice. His election as PM, should the Coalition win the federal election on August 21, would represent a setback for women’s access to reproductive rights.

Political careerist

Although a member of the Socialist Left faction of the ALP, her political career as a student activist, an opposition MP and deputy PM in the Rudd government has demonstrated her political opportunism. According to Frans Timmerman, an influential Labor “left” faction organiser, Gillard’s acceptance into the Socialist Left faction was delayed because as president of the Australian Union of Students, “she made some concessions to the Liberals and the Zionists ... The [ALP] left couldn’t get solidarity with her to fight off the Right, so the whole organisation folded up.” According to Jacqueline Kent’s 2009 biography of Gillard, Lindsey Tanner, another key SL leader, also believed her to be a careerist.

Gillard’s political agenda finds common ground with some members of the right-wing Labor Unity faction, with whom she has worked effectively at key points in her career. She was chief-of-staff for Victorian Labor leader John Brumby from 1996 to 1998 and ran as deputy leader to Kevin Rudd in his successful bid for the ALP federal leadership against Kim Beazley in late 2006. As Kent points out in her biography, “Julia Gillard was more than a deputy in the usual ALP sense ... Rudd and Gillard were partners from the beginning”. They shared a common political agenda of “fairly” negotiating the interests of big business, small and medium bosses and “working families”. Such negotiations inevitably prioritise the profitability of the employers over the interests of working people.

Gillard’s pro-business agenda was most clearly manifested in her role as Rudd’s minister for employment, workplace relations, education and social inclusion. In a speech to the Australian Industry Group on December 3, 2007, Gillard emphasised that her portfolio responsibilities were “ultimately about the same thing: productivity”. She explained to the AIG: “Simply put, productivity improvement can’t be separated from the idea of fairness. Bringing those on the margins of the workforce into full participation in our economy will lift productivity and ease capacity constraints.”

Business-friendly FWA

Gillard oversaw the introduction of the Rudd government’s industrial relations legislation Fair Work Australia (FWA). Dubbed “Work Choices Lite” by many militant unionists, FWA fails to abolish the core tenets of the Howard government’s Work Choices legislation and even extends its erosion of the award system. Using the euphemism of “award modernisation”, more than 2400 state and federal awards are being stripped back to 10 “national employment standards”. By contrast, the Howard government restricted awards to 20 “allowable matters”. FWA exempts employers from the obligation to give notice of dismissal in the initial employment period — six months for “regular businesses” and 12 months for “small businesses”, i.e., those with fewer than 15 full-time employees. Not even Work Choices had such an exemption. As with Work Choices, pattern bargaining — the right to take industrial action in pursuit of industry-wide pay and conditions — remains outlawed.

While women workers comprise 45% of the workforce, they are overwhelmingly concentrated in casualised, low-paid, poorly-unionised industries such as the hospitality, retail and community services sectors. In 2004, although comprising 47% of the paid workforce, women made up 65% (1.5 million) of those earning less than $500 per week. While 36% of full-time workers are women, they make up 45% of the full-time workforce earning less than $500 per week. Almost half of women workers are employed in part-time jobs, compared with only 15% of male workers. As such they are adversely affected by FWA’s attacks on workers’ rights.

And, according to Business Review Weekly founder Robert Gottliebsen, Gillard favoured a draft of FWA that was much more “business friendly”. Writing on the Business Spectator website on July 29, Gottliebsen stated: “There is no doubt that John Howard took Work Choices too far. After the 2007 election, Julia Gillard, then minister for industrial relations, set about an extensive consultation process with both unions and business to reshape industrial relations so that the excesses of Work Choices were removed, but there was a clear framework which would allow business to prosper efficiently … But when former ACTU boss Greg Combet and others saw the Gillard draft, they were very unhappy and got into the ear of Kevin Rudd. Past favours, including the role of the unions in the 2007 election campaign, were called in … When the final legislation was revealed, many business people believed they had been double-crossed.”

As federal education minister, Gillard was responsible for delivering Rudd’s “Education Revolution” which included the controversial My School website, hosted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. The website compares schools based on data collected by the National Assessment Plan Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), a yearly test introduced by the Labor government in 2008. The NAPLAN test is a one-day test, restricted to very narrow criteria of literacy and numeracy. It was not designed, nor is it able, to provide a general comparison between schools. The website’s statistics contain an admitted 34% margin of error. Australian Education Union (AEU) federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said that the Rudd government officially “opposes league tables because they are damaging but they facilitated their creation through the My School website”.

Attacking teachers

Gillard stridently defended the launch of the website in the face of widespread teacher opposition, claiming that the publication of comparative results would hold “under-performing” schools, teachers and principals to account and thereby improve educational outcomes. According to Gillard, the My School website gives parents “choice” in finding “better performing” schools for their children. Such “choice” simply widens the gap between elite and under-achieving schools, in respect to funding access, facilities and resources.

Publishing school league tables also attacks the working conditions of teachers, one of the few historically well-unionised female-dominated occupations. Teachers who perform well according to the My School criteria are rewarded with better pay and conditions while “failing” teachers are sanctioned. Gillard warned “under-performing” teachers that they could be sacked. She also played wedge politics by encouraging parents to confront teachers and principals with “robust conversations”.

When the AEU planned a national boycott of the May 11-13 NAPLAN tests, Gillard threatened to use scab labour saying, “State governments are working on contingency plans including using casual teachers, retired teachers and other staff to administer the tests. The national tests have to go ahead. I’m absolutely determined that they do go ahead.” FWA commission ruled the industrial action “unprotected” and ordered the AEU to direct its members to supervise the tests.

On May 6, Gillard compelled the AEU to abandon the boycott by announcing a consultation working group to discuss the website with the union. She said at the time, “Our point in this campaign was always to get protection for the data and to get protection for the data you need to be engaged in the dialogue and that was not available to us before this morning.” Significantly, she refused to remove any information from the website saying, “The government has always said we were committed to the My School website, that all of the information on the My School website would stay and be updated”.

Gillard claims to be a defender of women’s right to “to determine their own reproductive lives”, which is supposedly national ALP policy, and thus presents a less aggressive threat to women’s rights than her anti-choice rival for PM, Tony Abbott. Even so, she is no champion for the interests of the working class, including working-class women.