Sussan Ley says she is listening to women who rejected the Liberals. But will she hear what they are saying?

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Sussan Ley, deputy leader of the Liberal Party and shadow minister for women, has been given a difficult task: bring women voters back to the Liberal Party. This will be no mean feat, given widespread acknowledgement they played a significant role in the Morrison government’s defeat.

Ley has assured women that “we hear you”. She has also promised to travel widely throughout Australia to listen to women.

Ley is a very appropriate choice for the task. She was shadow minister for women in 2007-8. She was also the responsible minister for women in the House of Representatives in the last government, given that the minister for women, Marise Payne, was in the Senate.

Ley identifies as a feminist. She has long argued the Liberals should seriously consider candidate quotas for women — a position that Liberal leader Peter Dutton opposes.

Read more: Quotas are not pretty but they work – Liberal women should insist on them

Ley is not a conventional Liberal woman politician. Born in Nigeria, she lived part of her early life in the Middle East, where her father worked for British intelligence. After the family migrated to Australia, she embraced punk culture in her youth. Ley also added an extra “s” to her first name after dabbling in numerology.

She went on to work as an air traffic controller, aerial stock musterer, shearer’s cook, farmer and for the Australian Tax Office. She holds a bachelor of economics, master of taxation law and master of accounting. She also holds a commercial pilot licence.

Ley has argued her unconventional childhood not only facilitated her diverse career choices but also

helped me accept a lot of differences in people and cultures, and I think it’s also helped me become less stressed than I might otherwise be about things when they’re completely outside the square.

She may well need that capacity and flexibility when it comes to understanding the nature of the “woman problem” the Liberals face.

There are parts of the Liberals’ “woman problem” that Ley will understand. Unlike Scott Morrison, she would not need Jenny Morrison’s advice on how to respond to a woman who alleged they had been raped in Parliament House. Unlike Morrison, she is not influenced by the US religious right’s anti-transgender strategies that underlay his electorally disastrous endorsement of Warringah candidate Katherine Deves.

However, unfortunately for Ley, the Liberals’ “woman problem” has deeper roots than those more obvious manifestations. It also has roots in the contemporary Liberals’ economic ideology, particularly their embrace of free markets and reluctance for governments to intervene in the economy.

As I demonstrated in an academic article published earlier this year, the party’s “woman problem” is not due to the Liberals being hostile to gender equality. Recent Coalition governments have introduced some worthwhile gender equality measures, including in the area of domestic violence. The problem is in economic frameworks that limited their gender equality policy.

Read more: Politics with Michelle Grattan: Sussan Ley on being a woman in politics

Liberals tend to believe the market is gender-neutral and could be relied on to improve women’s equality. Making the case that gender equality was good for business was seen as the key to ensuring better pay and conditions for women workers.

Consequently, the Morrison government rejected more interventionist equal pay measures such as those introduced by the previous Labor government. Policies targeted at key female-dominated industries were not introduced in the government’s pandemic budget measures because of beliefs the market would soon ensure women’s employment recovered.

Similarly, the large number of women in precarious work wasn’t addressed because this wasn’t seen as a result of structural disadvantage in the labour market. Rather, it was argued many women choose to work in casual jobs. Implementing the Respect at Work report recommendation that employers have a “positive duty” to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment was seen as an unnecessary intervention by government in the private sector.

No wonder many feminists criticised the government for having inadequate policies in regard to women.

Ley was among those who failed to understand the basis of criticisms being made. For example, Labor politicians complained the Morrison government hadn’t adequately supported female workers during the pandemic, including those in the childcare industry. Ley replied:

What you hear from the opposition is this long, ongoing, bleak, dreary narrative about entrenched disadvantage. And, you know, it’s just so last century.

She went on to highlight “the opportunities for women in the modern world” and the increased choices they would have.

Ley’s dismissal of the “entrenched disadvantage” of many women less fortunate than herself is definitely premature. The Australian government’s own Workplace Gender Equality Agency provides copious statistics on women’s continued unequal position.

Importantly, it wasn’t just Labor or the Greens that argued the Morrison government’s policies were inadequate in regard to women – so did the teal independents who defeated prominent Liberal politicians.

For example, Monique Ryan, who defeated Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, supported implementing all the Respect at Work recommendations. So did Zoe Daniel, who defeated Tim Wilson, and Allegra Spender, who defeated Dave Sharma. All three emphasised the importance of ensuring equal pay for women.

Ryan supported reforming the Fair Work Act to include an equal remuneration objective and stronger gender pay gap reporting provisions. The Liberals had opposed both measures.

The teals’ support for such measures owes more to social liberalism than neoliberalism. Social liberalism allows for a more active ethical role for government in furthering equal opportunity, while still supporting a strong private sector. Neoliberalism advocates restricting government intervention, particularly in the economy.

Social liberalism played an important role historically in the development of the Liberal Party. However, its influence has been sidelined as the party has become more conservative. So the teals held great appeal for moderate former Liberals who felt the party had lost its way.

Ley seems genuinely puzzled as to why so many women considered the Morrison’s government’s gender equality policies to be insufficient. The question is whether she can think sufficiently outside of the neoliberal square to hear what they are saying.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Carol Johnson, University of Adelaide.

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Carol Johnson has received funding from the Australian Research Council for research on gender equality policy.

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