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Parliament has a shocking disconnect from the real world — especially when it comes to women's lives – ABC News

Parliament has a shocking disconnect from the real world — especially when it comes to women's lives
Chaz Mostert has won Bathurst for the second time, with co-driver Lee Holdsworth nabbing his first victory on Mount Panorama
Go home, 46th Parliament. You're drunk.
Like the office bore at a Christmas party, the Australian Parliament spent its last fortnight bellowing on about itself, achieving nothing of note and generating eye-rolls from all and sundry.
Is this a problem? After all, the Prime Minister has made it clear that he prefers "can-do capitalism" over "don't-do governments". 
Perhaps a parliament that doesn't have a legislative response to climate change, that dodges the people's clamour for integrity measures, that commissions a damning review of the way it treats women, hears it, then shrugs and keeps doing it anyway, is the speed he's looking for.
But for the rest of Australia, it's a spectacle which confirms the institution's shocking disconnect from real life. 
A parliament locked in a scrimmage of the abstract — culture wars, mutual accusations of mendacity, the abuse hurled across the chamber — while in the real world, Australians in a pandemic can't escape the literal truths of their lives.
This is true for women in particular, who lost more of the jobs during lockdowns, picked up more of the unpaid work, were vastly over-represented in the low-paid caring jobs on which the nation relied so heavily, and are more likely to experience domestic violence. Especially if they're Indigenous women, who are also more likely to live in communities failed by the vaccine rollout.
And now we go into an election campaign fought between two 50-something blokes who are relentlessly, fixedly selecting policy positions based not so much on principle but on the extent to which they'll mess with the other guy. 
Each of them is working incredibly hard to box each other in, to leave each other no room to move. They define each other, and as a result will campaign on the narrowest range of policy differences, haggling over a handful of vulnerable seats.
ScoMo says just enough about "net zero" to thwart Albo's critique that he's a coal-based Neanderthal. Albo goes just far enough in his 2030 targets to give him a sliver more near-term ambition, but not so much that ScoMo could drive a campaign truck through the gap. Move and counter-move. Two dudes playing chess in a bubble.
In 2020, the Government's notoriously bloke-heavy Budget presented a strategic opportunity for the Labor leader, who announced a $6 billion plan to remove the subsidy cap on childcare. It was one instance in which the positioning game (the government having left its lady-flank exposed) theoretically benefited women.
I say "theoretically", of course, because Labor is not in government, though the government responded in this year's Budget, which goes to show that the messaging war can extract real-life results.
The truth is, though, that there is a huge group of parents who don't benefit from fiddling about with the childcare subsidy cap, and they are the working parents who don't use childcare at all. Not because they don't need help with their kids, but because formal childcare doesn't fit their needs.
The 2021 Who Cares Survey, commissioned by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees union, found that of parents among its respondents with kids aged under 12, only 9 per cent used formal childcare. But 30 per cent had grandparents looking after their kids. Why? Because formalised childcare is largely designed around the needs of 9-to-5 workers. 
Political leaders love to compare coronavirus to being at war. But what is obvious right now is that this is not like a war in one very important respect: It is destroying the employment of women.
And long day care centres aren't flexible in a way that suits workers whose shifts change week to week, or who work outside those hours. Many can't afford to pay a full day rate when they might only need a few hours of care.
This shift-working sector of the service economy is growing, not shrinking. We rely on it increasingly to answer our needs, and yet we don't adjust our assumptions or find ways to repay our debt to these workers, who also do a disproportionate share of unpaid work. Of the Who Cares Survey's respondents, 24 per cent said they also cared for someone sick, elderly or disabled. That's more than twice the national rate of 11 per cent.
These burdens are disproportionately carried by women, we know. But where is the leadership to safeguard their economic security? 
The Prime Minister — in the March flurry of woman-themed activity following the scandal of Brittany Higgins' treatment and the national women's marches that ensued — created new jobs for female ministers including Women's Safety Minister Anne Ruston and Women's Economic Security Minister Jane Hume.
There was talk of a national plan for women's economic security, but naught's been heard of that since, and a search of Senator Hume's press releases in recent months suggests little activity on this front beyond periodic commentary on ABS job figures. She has other jobs, of course; Senator Hume is also minister for financial services, superannuation and the digital economy.
At the executive end of the food chain, things have stalled for women too, as Chief Executive Women president Sam Mostyn observed in her recent National Press Club speech.
"So, how is it that, as CEW revealed in our 2021 senior executive census, only one of the 23 new chief executive officers appointed to a major company during the 20/21 financial year was a woman? And how is it that, among the top 200 businesses, the number of woman CEOs fell from 14 in 2018 to 10 this year?" Mostyn asked.
"And this despite what we know from research published last year by Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency — that when a company has a women CEO, it leads to a five per cent increase in the market value of Australian ASX-listed companies."
The pandemic has changed us and continues to change us in ways that need to be measured and accounted for.
In March this year, the PM initiated a clutch of inquiries to examine the parliamentary culture for women and specifically the circumstances around Higgins' allegations. There was the Gaetjens inquiry into who knew what and when about those events; it's yet to report, nine months on. 
These are the key recommendations from the review into the workplace culture in federal parliament sparked by Brittany Higgins's allegations.
There was the Foster Review, which reported in July and has yielded a 1800 number, a complaints mechanism for staffers and a voluntary training programme.
There was to be a review into Coalition parliamentary culture, which was assigned to WA Liberal MP Celia Hammond but soon was subsumed into another broader review by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, which was released last week.
The Jenkins report confirmed that Parliament is a dodgy place for women to work. That gender parity would improve things. That clear leadership is necessary. That there needs to be a code of conduct. That the use of alcohol in the building urgently needs regulation.
The government has accepted the Jenkins review, and the PM said he wasn't very surprised, and indicated the various political parties should now work together to review the findings of the review, with a view to embarking on a decision-making process yet to be determined.
To be clear: the urgent concerns of women nine months ago prompted the nation's leader to initiate a number of reviews, the findings of which are now under review and in all likelihood will stay that way until the parliament dissolves into an election.
At the end of a year which has brought great hardship to so many, there's a prevailing sense of exhaustion; a dispiriting fug of fast-moving events, new variants, new things going wrong, the escalation of hostilities with China, the apprehension of threats that seem out of our control.
For government ministers including the Prime Minister, this exhaustion must be acute, too, of course; national leadership in a time of pandemic is an anxious, demanding, scary job and not one that any human could do perfectly. 
Health Minister Greg Hunt's resignation from politics this week is an indicator of how much it's cost him.
The departure of some of the nation's most high-profile politicians on the eve of an election easily lends itself to the suggestion of rats fleeing a sinking ship. But as the last poll showed, it's not over until the votes are cast.
But the spectacle of the past fortnight, in which key government legislation was left dangling, and Kate Jenkins' shocking report on the parliamentary culture wasn't enough to quell sexist behaviour in the chamber even for one day, is a particularly depressing one.
The Prime Minister's promise last week was of "sensible… calm… practical… methodical" decision-making. But the method is hard to spot in the introduction and then stalling of religious discrimination legislation, the presentation and then abandonment of a voter ID bill the need for which nobody could quite explain, the failure to make even a credible attempt at an integrity commission and the flagging of a new strike against anonymous bullies online, the course of which remains unclear.
Fug or not, it all feels very far from the real-life worries of tired Australians.
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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