It’s winter, 1972. Hair was longer, hems were shorter than they’d been for years. Rising opposition to Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam was opening up other cracks in what was still a deeply conservative society. After a long campaign, government censorship of books and films, if not entirely lifted, was loosened. The movement for Aboriginal rights had taken on speed, green bans were rescuing parkland and heritage buildings from demolition. All this contributed to the general social ferment, as was our rapidly growing, increasingly strident women’s movement.
In those dying days of Coalition rule, 23 years of hide-bound conservatism, and months before the federal election, the government introduced a Child Care Act. You’d be pardoned for thinking that this was in response to the feminist demand for better, affordable child care. But that was only part of the story – a small part at that. Australia’s economy was changing from a predominantly industrialised one to the consumer-led service economy familiar to us today. But labour then – particularly women’s labour – was in short supply, and the consumer economy relies in large part on two-income households. That was what the Act was about. Maybe the government thought it a neat solution for addressing an economic necessity while silencing us feminists at the same time. But the Act’s provisions took little account of baby or toddlers’ emotional or developmental needs. Nor did they do much to reassure mothers. The huge centres proposed were more like barns than places for nurture or learning.
Come December, the government was swept from office, replaced by a reform-bent Labor one led by Gough Whitlam. A year and a half later I was in his ministerial department working on what would become an altogether new child care program. For women then, child care was the key reform essential for our advancement. This was because, throughout history and in most known human societies, the care of young children had fallen exclusively to women, and most if not all Australian women were either mothers or looked forward to becoming ones. Without affordable, reliable, accessible child care few of us could study, or hold down a job, let alone follow a career. Without the certainty of quality care for their kids, only some women – those prepared to give up parenthood, or wealthy enough to pay for nannies – could achieve any agency in the conduct of their lives, even if the many barriers to women’s paid employment were lifted – by discrimination legislation, for instance.
Yet those of us involved in developing the new government’s policy soon saw that we couldn’t just argue that decent child care was key to women’s greater freedom. Nor could we simply point to its proven benefits for children, or that the program as devised would contribute to the overall good of society. To persuade the cabinet and then the parliament, we had to couch our case in economic terms, and it’s no exaggeration to say that since then, to greater and greater degrees, the general progress of society has been measured in that way. That is to say, economically.
It’s been nearly half a century since that child care program was introduced. It’s still going but, with many changes, it’s not the same as it was. From 1974 Australia had a government-subsidised, community-based, multi-faceted program, considered one of the best in the world. But in the 1990s it was opened up to profit-making, the predictable result of which was to make child care prohibitively expensive. For many women, it was costing more to go out to work than staying at home, so countless women stayed at home.
At same time, women in careers were clinging to their corporate ladders or encouraged to be ‘entrepreneurs’. The public sector was denigrated, private profit revered. All kinds of government services were privatised; all kinds of jobs became businesses, even if they were casual and poorly paid. For the first time in my memory there were Australians who were billionaires, at least one of whom was a woman. This was okay for some but overall things were going backwards. Changes to the tax system along with the cost of child care acted as disincentives for women’s participation in the workforce. That in turn contributed to a widening gender pay gap, with serious consequences for women on the brink of retirement, who now comprise the largest growing cohort of the homeless.
But now, at last, the tide could be turning. COVID has taught us what a vital role government has in sustaining a viable society. Once again ugly cracks in the nation’s social fabric have been exposed. Women’s anger, matching ours of the seventies, has brought about the election of a new kind of government, with a third of the house of representatives comprised of independents, the overwhelming majority of whom are women. In the senate, the Greens and independents hold the balance of power. After years of Coalition neglect and mismanagement, Australians voted for a Labor government. But the challenges it faces are enormous, and it seems to me repairing the damage demands an equally radical reset in what will amount to a cultural revolution – central to which is recognising that over the previous decades we not only changed our economy, but radically changed our ways of thinking. To restore a fairer social equilibrium, integrity in government and, above all, to halt the exponential rise in human-induced planetary warming, we need to return to a vision that works for society, not just a group of privileged individuals.
In some ways, this is already happening. The Albanese government’s promise of less expensive child care is as much a response to labour shortages in a highly gender-segmented workforce as it was when the Child Care Act 1972 was enacted, but with one significant difference. If the legislation then was presented as a sop to our feminist demands when its true aim was to address a labour shortage, child care is no longer merely a ‘women’s issue’ but one for fathers as well, in fact for the whole of society. How different it is from when I went marching in the streets with my feminist sisters. Fifty years ago you’d never see a man pushing a pram or carrying an infant strapped to his chest. Now you see them everywhere, fathers and grandfathers. Change can seem glacially slow, for every two steps gained there’s often one step back. But once change happens, our thinking is never the same again.