Which bit of 'I will step down from all parliamentary roles effective immediately' isn't clear? That's what I asked myself and that's what Labor's asked—especially the women of Labor—for the last two months following the member for Bowman's announcement after being exposed for unacceptable behaviour directed at women.
It wasn't 'I will step down from all parliamentary roles effective immediately provided I don't lose any pay.' It was a very clear statement, yet it hasn't happened. The member for Bowman is still Chair of the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training and, in spite of the Prime Minister describing the behaviour as 'disgraceful' and endorsing the course of action that the member had outlined, it hasn't happened. In spite of Labor giving the government 41 opportunities to sanction the member for Bowman for his failure to keep his word and to do the right thing for once, it hasn't happened. The $23,000 a year additional amount that he receives he continues to receive.
Earlier this month opposition members of the committee that he chairs expressed deep concern about his conduct and said that maintaining his role diminishes the committee, the House and the parliament. But this is the sort of person the Prime Minister supports to stay in a committee chair role: someone who created Facebook pages purporting to be community pages, it's reported; someone who is alleged to have trolled women online, and they have spoken at length about it—not just a comment here or there but over many years. There was certainly a commentary about this behaviour from women at the women of Macquarie forum that I held last night via Zoom with the member for Sydney. There was fury at the lack of action. 'No consequences' was how one woman described it. Another said it was a 'total demonstration of incapacity to listen, to care or to take responsibility'. As another pointed out, the Prime Minister won't move against the member for Bowman, because it's too much risk having a minority government.
But it isn't just the member for Bowman whose role weighed heavily on the nearly 200 women I met with last night and whose actions they took as a sign of deep disrespect for women by this government. It was the decision by the Nationals to re-elect the member for New England as their leader. Let's think about the Deputy Prime Minister and what women from his own side of politics say. Pauline McAllister, New South Wales trustee of the party and a member of more than two decades described it as a 'backwards step'. She said:
I think there are a lot of women who feel a bit disenfranchised. I think there will be a lot of women who will be totally disappointed.
Well, no wonder they're disappointed, because the eight-month investigation by the New South Wales Nationals was unable to reach a conclusion about sexual harassment allegations made about the member for Armidale, which preceded his resignation in 2018.
But it isn't just that. It's the discussion reported about the attitude to families accessing early learning for their children—comments that women who use professional childcare services are somehow outsourcing their parental responsibilities. There are so many things wrong with that point of view. It takes us back to the 1950s. There's no recognition from the people who made those comments that it's hard enough to balance working and parenting, but the government members think parents need more judgement about how they do it. It isn't even just that. It's the lack of women who sit on the government benches. It's the fact that, when two ministers rose to speak on a question in question time today, and one was a woman and one was a man, it was the more junior male minister who prevailed. That said it all.
But it isn't just that. It's the way the Prime Minister has to be reluctantly dragged into action when it's anything to do with women, like taking action to investigate what happened to Britney Higgins. You know what women told me last night? They said they were tired, physically and mentally—exhausted, some of them—from the endless fight to be treated with respect, from juggling responsibilities and from the pressures that they face. They're also tired and dispirited when they see men like the ones who sit opposite us in parliament, the born to rule, believing that a woman's place is in the home, not the House or the Senate. Making some token promises in a budget is not going to change who they are. Even the member for Bowman agreeing to step down, or being forced to step down, as committee chair won't change who they are. Until they actually change, it's all just an act. They know it, we know it, the women on the other side know it and the women of Australia certainly know it.