Child Care: Then and Now

Child Care: Then and Now

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.

Vale, Jen McDonald

Vale, Jen McDonald

My dear friend Jennifer McDonald died, aged 60, on Tuesday, July 19.   A week later, coming back from a memorial held in her honour, I stopped at the co-op grocery to buy myself a bar of chocolate.  Chocolate is my addiction of necessity now as I can no longer tolerate either booze or caffeine.  The young woman serving understood completely.  There have been too many memorials of late.

 

It turned out a glorious day after weeks and weeks of rain.  A crowd of us gathered on the rooftop terrace of a pub here in Manly.  We had fresh air, sunshine and magnificent views, but only two of Jen’s writers could make it.  Most in attendance were family, old friends and, I guessed, long-time business associates of Blackie-McDonald – the public relations partnership Jen ran with her husband – and friends of their two grown children.  But I knew her as the principal of For Pity Sake Publishing, and this will be the story, abridged as it must be, of how I came to love and admire her.  Jen had had a rare form of breast cancer that first appeared over seven years ago.  Although she was in remission for some of that time, what struck me so forcefully at her memorial is that I never knew her when she was well.  And related to this is the fact that, although she played a huge part in my life, I played such a small part in hers, if the role I did play was in the culmination of her life’s work in the last of those years.

 

I was in rehab from a hip operation when I met a friend of Jen’s who’d also been a Canberra public servant and, like me, had stood in the crowd outside Old Parliament House the day of the Whitlam government’s dismissal.  There weren’t many people I met in Manly then who’d shared that experience, so we became quite friendly.  She gave me a potted history of her life and I gave a bit of mine, including that I was a writer with five novels under her belt but couldn’t get anyone to take my next one. That’s when she told me about Jen and how she’d started her own publishing house on the northern beaches.

 

My rehab buddy was determined to get us together and sent me off to For Pity Sake’s first book launch.  Held that hot, sticky summer at the pub in Collaroy, it was a crowded, star-studded affair.  I recognised Peter Baume, a former Liberal minister, whom I’d met in Canberra, and a few other faces not so readily identified.  Most memorable of all was Jen herself, her left arm still in a compression sling after her mastectomy, and a smile of radiance that would never leave me.

 

The book launched that day was a novel by Peter Yeldham, best known as one of Australia’s most versatile and prolific screenwriters. Dragons in the Forest was his thirteenth book, and Jen published three more of them.  I was so impressed by what she was doing that I offered my services and I began assessing manuscripts and editing for her.  I’d had experience in publishing but, having given up hope of getting that sixth novel of mine published, I was reluctant to show her the manuscript.  I can’t remember when or how it happened, but eventually I did.  The reader’s report left me speechless, the most enthusiastic I’d ever received.  I said that even if she couldn’t take on the novel, I’d be content to frame the report and go on working for her.  But she did take it on and, after years of rejection, As the Lonely Fly finally saw the light of day.

 

Jen was fond of saying she started her own company because that’s how she was sure to get her own books published.  While I was with her she did publish two – Vegetarian Vampires and My Big Breast Adventure.  Each was beautifully produced and was in its way controversial, especially the one documenting her experience as a cancer patient.  I had edited it and found it moving, informative, and most of all anxiety-relieving.  I thought women with breast cancer would be consoled by her brave, straightforward and at times humourous portrayal of the disease and, significantly, its debilitating antidotes.  Its insights also helped those like me who haven’t had the disease, but fear it as we do.  I thought it certain to find a wide readership.  But because Jen’s approach acknowledged the benefits of alternative medicines in addition to the standard allopathic procedures, the oncology establishment’s opposition effectively killed it.  To this day, and despite her eventual dying, I think this a shame.

 

For all this, I don’t believe we can take Jen’s self-deprecatory claim about what drove her into publishing as the whole truth of the matter.  Her memorial did much to confirm my own observations about her.  In her work at Blackie-McDonald she gave much of herself, supporting and mentoring their employees, as later she looked after us writers.  Dorothy Johnston, short-listed for the Miles Franklin and the author of nine works of fiction before she signed up with Jen, agreed with me that For Pity Sake was the best publisher she’d worked with.  It didn’t have the clout of Penguin, who’d brought out my earlier fictions, but there I was only one of a stable.  For Jen, by contrast, each of her writers was special.

 

One more thing.  I was worried about the name, For Pity Sake.  To my mind it risked connotations of pleading, with little indication of the utter professional Jen was, or the heft of her endeavour.  But there was no hope of getting her to change it, even as minimally as using the initials FPS instead.  Her Methodist father was a journalist and ‘For pity sake!’ was the closest he could come to swearing when his four obstreperous daughters made too much noise as he laboured to meet a deadline.  It was Jen’s portion of his bequest that funded the enterprise, and the name was the expression of her gratitude.

 

As these few words are mine.

 

 

 

 

 

Charlotte is Back

Charlotte is Back

Welcome to the resuscitated Charlotte is Moved.  According to Wikipedia, I’d posted the blog, ‘with political, social and artistic themes, from 2013 to 2016.’  I don’t remember why I stopped writing it, but my guess is that because of my partner’s death in 2015, I had lost the mojo for it.  

How did Charlotte come to be in the first place?  As noted in this website’s book section, Charlotte Biscay was a pseudonym I’d used for a story in a British Columbian anthology, and later for some corporate editing and writing I did on returning to Australia – a company, Charlotte Biscay Associates, was created for the purpose.  Charlotte had an earlier blog but, wanting a bigger and better one, it was changed to Charlotte is Moved.  Wordsmith that I am, I love the double meaning.  Not only did Charlotte move to a more professional website, she wrote on whatever happened to move her, and in this new rendition she’ll be doing much the same.

I’m writing this in the antepenultimate week of the 2022 federal election.  With a COVID infection ever possible and wanting to make sure just in case, I went this morning to cast my vote in the local pre-poll.  Satisfied to have it over and done with, I still came back feeling somewhat deflated.  I live in Warringah, Zali Steggall’s electorate, where she won with a whopping swing of 18.3 percent in 2019.  The campaign the Liberals waged against her then was rough, and we’d expected them to pull out all stops to regain the seat.  But then the PM intervened, postponing the party’s preselection until he got a candidate he wanted.  The delay caused one potential candidate to bow out, and two others were jettisoned in favour of the one we’ve got.  Informed opinion is that his woeful captain’s pick has nothing to do with winning back Warringah, where Steggall is pegged to be re-elected, but to help the government pick up other seats in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Ghost girl

So why have I left the pre-polling booth feeling so downhearted?  I volunteered for Zali Steggall in 2019 and have again this time.  By every criterion, she deserves to be re-elected.  With her campaign for meaningful action on climate change, her support for an effective federal integrity commission, and for gender equity she’s been a perfect fit for this electorate.  She’s worked hard as our local member, encouraging local businesses and community organisations.  But I worry about the direction Australia has taken, how the triennial elections campaigns have become so presidential and the media so concentrated.   That in 2019 Australia elected a bully for prime minister by a slim margin, and we can’t rule out his being elected again.  I’ve watched as he’s lied, obfuscated, deflected and spun while the media for the most part responds as though hypnotised by the very force and incoherence of his words.  Confessed political junkie that I am, even I can’t continue watching, and understand completely why people less interested to begin with have been so disengaged. 

Yet the hurdles facing my adopted country are enormous.  Climate change is our biggest challenge, with Australia the most vulnerable among the developed nations.  And years of neglect and short-sighted policy have left us with a host of other urgent concerns.  Hospitals, aged and disability care are on the point of collapse; there’s a shortage of general practitioners in the regions; gross inequities exist in education, and housing is increasingly unaffordable.  There’s a rising incidence of homelessness among women 55 and over.  We’ve had a decade of low productivity and low wages, and now, after pitiful expenditure on training and the COVID border restrictions, we have a shortage of labour combined with punishing inflation.  These are just some of the issues I can think of off the top of my head.

After decades of politicians chasing votes by cutting taxes, we shouldn’t wonder that services are so poor.  But few today, least of all those seeking election, dare to speak the obvious.  We’re going to have to pay for better social outcomes, and that will mean higher, fairer taxes.   We’ve been lied and spun to for too long, and the jig is up.

Independent candidates like Zali Steggall have scared the bejesus out of a Coalition threatened by the possibility of minority federal government.  As far as I’m concerned it’s the outcome they deserve, and would do much to restore our stumbling democracy.  Nor have I the slightest doubt that Anthony Albanese, who has shepherded the ALP through some of its darkest days, would be a good prime minister – far far better anyway than the divisive, power-hungry dissembler we’ve been saddled with.  Every single assertion of the current incumbent can be rebutted, and although this should have happened a lot more during this campaign, I won’t launch into a boring disquisition on them now.  Instead, I’ll be hoping that our better angels will prevail.

It’s reasonable to ask why an artist should concern herself with politics.  My simplest answer is that politics affect every aspect of our lives, and artists are not immune to this.  Unlike other businesses, for example, the arts received no Jobseeker support during the pandemic.  Neither did our public universities.  These were political decisions, and particularly punitive ones.  More complex answers would address other questions – whether an artist’s focus and energy should be directed to her work alone, whether the very act of producing artistic work is indeed political, or whether only certain of these works are, and why that might be so.  Like many artists I’ve struggled with these questions.  For the time being I leave them to you to ponder.