A little-used expression that I really like is ‘praising with faint damnation’. The opposite of a more popular saying, ‘damning with faint praise’, it describes a way of politely under-reacting to something truly stupid or awful. It’s the ‘you’re going to need a bigger boat’ of political discourse.
I thought of it yesterday when I read Tanya Plibersek’s reaction to the government’s Women’s Economic Security Statement.
‘After five years of Liberal governments, Kelly O’Dwyer’s announcements today are too little, too late,’ she said.
Plibersek isn’t wrong, per se, just as Martin Brody wasn’t wrong in Jaws when he pointed out that Quint’s tiny boat wasn’t up to the task of hunting down a gigantic, malevolent shark hellbent on sating its insane hunger for human flesh. It’s just that her judgement fails to capture the stunning inadequacy of O’Dwyer’s plan, its insultingly threadbare response to Australia’s problems with ‘women’s economic security’.
Even the actually good things it contains—like reinstating funding for the ABS Time Use Survey, which tracks how much time women spend on unpaid domestic labour—are exercises in throwing crumbs off the table and claiming outsize credit for it. The last Time Use Survey was due in 2013, but the ABS cancelled it due to the Gillard government’s increase in the public service efficiency dividend, one of the short-sighted funding cuts imposed in a doomed attempt to return the budget to surplus.
Then there is the avalanche of pure bullshit, the pointless guff that you can imagine makes a range of spivs, talking heads and consultancy parasites rub their hands together with glee.
$3.6 million for a Future Female Entrepreneurs program, a ‘digital platform and in-person workshops’ that will ‘provide young women and girls with the tools and support they need to prosper in the digital economy’. This is a classic MORE [clap] FEMALE [clap] BOSSES [clap] move, aiming to incorporate more women into the economic ruling classes so that their own interests become tied up with supporting the system that causes ‘women’s economic security’ problems in the first place.
There are various measures to try and increase the number of women in STEM occupations, including a ‘Women in STEM ambassador’, a ‘Girls in STEM toolkit’ and a ‘Decadal Plan for Women in STEM’, whatever that means.
A ‘Reducing Barriers to Work Forum’ will bring together business leaders, employer groups, ‘innovative employment, career and recruitment service providers’, and relevant not-for-profits to ‘seek better pathways to employment, workforce participation, flexibility and closing the gender pay gap’. Can’t wait to read the key announceables from that pointless gabfest before it disappears down the memory hole! I hope the company they contract to provide the empowering pink bunting at the special morning tea is at least owned by a brave female entrepreneur.
So far, so much of the standard hand-waving and weird social boondoggle measures that governments do when they don’t really want to do anything. It causes me some amount of physical pain to imagine the sheer waste of resources involved in researching, writing, promoting, implementing and reporting on these half-arsed brain farts while so many women live lives of abject poverty and deprivation, but what are you gonna expect from the Libs?
Where this report really gets into dystopian territory is in its response to the hardships caused by domestic violence. Rather than proposing things that might actually help, like unconditional cash assistance, state housing, increased funding for front-line services, and other socialist nightmares, we get two measures that actively punish women escaping abuse.
The first is a proposal for early access to superannuation, so that women, who already have less super than men, can increase their chance of later impoverishment to compensate for the impoverishment inflicted on them by domestic violence. The second is ‘continued support’ for interest-free loans from the Good Shepherd microfinance organisation, so that women can increase their chance of later impoverishment to compensate for the impoverishment inflicted on them by domestic violence.
In both these scenarios women are essentially told that they have to support themselves. Rather than alleviating the financial burdens of violence, these measures simply punt them into the future. This isn’t just ‘too little, too late’. It’s ‘nothing, too late, and fuck you too’. We’re not going to change the basic distributive patterns of the economy to reflect the demands of justice; we’re going to change the distribution of your own income, so that you get a bump now at the expense of your future self.
There’s something truly callous about this that makes me concerned for the souls of the people who came up with it. It’s neoliberalism par excellence, a complete abrogation of any community duty to care for those who need it. Combined with the reheated Lean In rubbish that makes up the bulk of the report, it paints a clear picture of the basic incompatibility of feminism with conservative Liberal economics.
I once wrote in support of Kelly O’Dwyer. Not her politics, but rather her ability to breastfeed in the parliament, which was being attacked by men in her own party. Even though I think her ideology and policy preferences are abhorrent, I defended her against an obvious instance of public sex discrimination. I tried to show solidarity with her life as a woman and as a mother, because I believe that all women deserve to be treated fairly and with respect.
I don’t regret doing that. I’d do it again, even though she has used her entire career to try and crush people like me, normal women whose lives have been shaped by poverty, discrimination and violence. Kelly O’Dwyer, despite being the Minister for Women, has demonstrated a complete unwillingness to show solidarity with other women in any meaningful way. I don’t know her, so I can’t say whether she is cold-hearted, uncaring, and cruel on a personal level, but these are the qualities manifested in her political actions.
Despite being a materialist who favours structural analysis over small-target moral condemnation, I am unable to look past it in this instance. I find myself struck by sadness and disappointment that, once again, the economic interests of different groups of women produce real barriers to caring for each other. I don’t want to exclude Kelly O’Dwyer from the feminist project, it’s just very hard to include her while she is running around with a cricket bat, actively destroying women’s ability to live free and flourishing lives.
In the coming days and weeks we will see O’Dwyer promoting this report in the media, spruiking her awful plans, parroting liberal feminist rhetoric about empowerment and entrepreneurship. Don’t trust her. We’re going to need a bigger boat.
Eleanor Robertson is a Sydney-based writer.