John Key Gets In Touch With His Feminine Side

Using a softline pitch to women, to sell hardline policies

by Gordon Campbell

The rough and ready perception about left and right political parties – that National know how to run an economy but Labour know how to run a society – is reflected in the way that the support for centre right governments is generally far softer among women voters. (See evidence below) On the whole, women voters are significantly less gung ho about economic extremism than males, more aware of the impact of such policies on family budgets, and more concerned with cutbacks to social services. Over the past 15 years in New Zealand and in the UK, and for longer in the US – women have tended to be more sympathetic to liberal and centre left governments.

That is why whenever Prime Minister John Key announces or defends a policy on the economy – or industrial relations – the rhetoric is usually couched in ‘feminine’ terms. The tax cuts in the May Budget for instance – which went disproportionately to the wealthy, and made society more unequal – were mainly defended by Key in the language of even-handedness (no one would be worse off) instead of on economic grounds. In the Key version of compassionate conservatism, it is usually the male voters who get the conservatism, and the female voters who are delivered the message of compassion.

The fabled centrism of the Key government seems to be largely based on such understandings. As Key and Stephen Joyce are well aware, the more that any centre-right government is seen to be pandering to its circle of business cronies, the more it will drive away a far bigger swathe of women voters. Obviously, the challenge for the Opposition has been to portray the Key government as willing to put dogma ahead of compassion – but it is only at this point, mid-way through its first term, that National is finally helping to make that argument stick.

The backdown over mining in national parks for example, was a concession to public opinion, and to the softline. Yet it was made in the same week that National also got tough on industrial relations – an ideological bone for business – by announcing its intention to take the existing 90 day probation period that currently applies to the work force in small firms, and apply it to everyone starting a new job. Tellingly, the rationale for this was framed by Key in the womanly language of compassion and inclusion – job opportunities for immigrants, a chance for Key’s pizza delivery man to get ahead. Job creation (for our young people !) was also touted as being a prime motive for the initiative – even though the survey report cited by Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson had actually found no evidence to believe this would be the case:

“Removing the risk of a personal grievance case resulting from a hiring mistake encourages employers to grow their business and take on more staff,” Ms Wilkinson said. But the Department of Labour report released last week said there was no evidence a probationary period did this. The ability to use trial periods appeared to have encouraged 40 per cent of employers who had hired someone to do so, however without any counterfactual evidence it cannot be stated categorically that trial periods had created extra job opportunities,” the report said.

Clearly, some of the new industrial relations policy does put the softline at risk. Requiring workers to get a doctor’s certificate to explain a one day absence because a child was sick or because you had a migraine – days later, how could any doctor establish that ? – is an ideologically blokey sort of attitude. When such attitudes were seen to be in alliance with other ‘small government’ policies from a National government (tax cuts for the wealthy, cutbacks in services) they served to opened up a massive gender voting gap for Helen Clark at the end of the 1990s. Even as late as the 2005 election, women were still deciding the election outcome for Labour.

The TNS poll just before the election, which most accurately reflected the actual result, paints a revealing picture. Labour in this poll is supported by 47 percent of women, National by 34. With men, the figures are almost exactly reversed: National 43.5, Labour 34.

Between 2005 and 2008, that support eroded. The anti-smacking legislation and the replacement of Don Brash by the more personable, less threatening John Key helped to loosen the Labour/Green grip on the women’s vote. Mild and friendly appearances can however, be deceiving. Since it has assumed office, National has scrapped any moves towards gender pay equity, and disbanded the unit responsible for promoting it. In Parliament earlier this year, Womens Affairs Minister Pansy Wong managed to make a complete hash out of defending the government’s pay equity efforts, which appear to have consisted of research carried out in a deliberate policy vacuum. In January, support for a meaningful rise to the minimum wage was mainly coming from women voters.

Meanwhile, actual policy continues to contradict the image of moderation. The relationship between being able to work and having affordable childcare for instance, seems to have gone out the window with the Key government. The May Budget slashed $400 million over four years from childcare subsidies, and while doing so, it penalised in particular those centres and workers who had invested in training and qualifications for the job. The only winners in this situation would be the private sector that runs childcare centres willing to ‘warehouse’ the care of children. Associate Education Minister Heather Roy has also made it clear there will be no extra government funds for the education of children with special needs, despite an Education Review Office survey that shows up to 50 % of schools are failing at meeting the needs of such children within mainstream schooling, with inadequate funding being a prime reason.

On family budgeting issues, the government has signaled that eligibility for Family Support – which was one of the quiet sops to the middle class, given how much of the tax cut benefits are being captured by the rich – is to be narrowed in future. At the same time, the effects of the increase in GST that made those tax cuts possible, will fall most heavily on poor and middle class families.

In a related move, Revenue Minister Peter Dunne, tax experts such as John Shewan and Key himself have all opposed the proposal to exempt food items from GST lest this should compromise the purity of our ‘no exemptions’ GST system. For social reasons well recognized elsewhere in the developed world, foreigners treat the ability to feed their families as something well worth a few human imperfections in the tax model. So far, the claim that there are better ways of achieving the same result (ie, of more affordable prices for healthy food) begs the question somewhat, given that no other means are actually being tried.

In sum, this is quite a hardline array of highly negative policies for families and for the vulnerable – especially given that the alleged need to tighten our belts is being issued in tandem with tax policy whose lasting effect will be to compromise the ability of any government to meet those social needs in future.

Moreover, once the tax cuts have kicked in and the prisons are built at the cost of adequate social services, it will be women who will be staffing the voluntary agencies that will be expected to pick up the slack. Unfortunately for Labour, it has a leader in Phil Goff who is the sort of guy that most women would probably dread being trapped with in the kitchen at parties. The more that Goff tries to sound credible to the blokes running the economy, the less human he seems to everyone else.

As mentioned earlier, a lot of evidence has accumulated over the past 20-30 years to illustrate the gender gap split – with women tending to support the left, and men the right. In the US, the Ronald Reagan ‘landslide’ victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980 was very much an avalanche among men – Reagan won the women’s vote 46/45 but took the male vote by a whopping 54/37.

There are caveats to this, of course. Like males, women tend to vote more conservatively as they grow older – and since they are more inclined to vote and also live longer than men, that can become significant. An interesting sub-theme in the US voting patterns is that while women as a whole have tended to vote Democrat in the past 20 years, married white women have voted Republican – with the main exception being Bill Clinton, who won the women’s vote right across the board in 1994. In the 2004 US presidential election, there was a striking contrast between young women voters (who went to the Democratic party by a wide margin) and married women, who supported George W. Bush. The explanation seems to hinges upon income :

Most unmarried women — 54% — have annual household incomes below $30,000, according to the Census; that’s twice the percentage of married women with incomes that low. Most married women — 51% — have household incomes of $50,000 and above; that’s double the number of single women with income that high.

That makes single women more anxious than their married friends about bread-and-butter issues, less confident of having health coverage and more likely to take an expansive view of what the government can and should do to maintain safety-net programs.
Having children seems to intensify views on both sides. Married women with children are even more Republican that those who don’t have children; single women who have children are even more Democratic than those who don’t.

In the United Kingdom, it was the advent of Tony Blair in the mid 1990s that marked the point at which women voters made the transition from being a reliably conservative voting bloc ( who used to leave boring old politics to the men) to being a reliable left liberal grouping. Some research findings from 2007 that illustrate this trend are reported here:

Women evaluate successful policies through the interests and experiences of the people they know or care for. Older women are more likely to vote Conservative than older men. Young women are more left leaning than young men. Men are more likely than women to prioritise the economy and the impact policies have on Britain as a whole. But women are more concerned about how policies will affect their families. Middle and high income mothers are more likely to support the Labour party than men from the same background.

Dr Rosie Campbell of Birkbeck College in London summarised her research in these terms : “We know that since 1997 the political views of younger women have been moving left-ward of younger men, but we know very little about what is causing the shift. This research finds the real gender gap is between middle and high income men, and women. “ More comprehensive voting data spanning the entire era data 1945-2005 can be found here and it contains much the same findings : a long post war period of conservative voting among women, and then a shift in the mid 1990s to much more liberal voting preferences, driven by younger, single women.

Lastly, while everyone recognizes that the views of parents can influence the voting preferences of their children ( for a while at least) the more fascinating question is the degree to which children and their gender, can affect the voting behaviour of their parents. This September 2008 study by the US/UK academics Andrew J. Oswald and Nattayudh Powthavee reached some quite startling conclusions in that respect. Basically, the pair built upon previous US research that showed how having daughters significantly affected the voting patterns of politicians in Congress –and not merely in voting to support such things as affirmative action for women, but on a whole range of social legislation. Astonishingly, the research went much further and found that the gender of children affects how their parents vote :

Consistent with the idea of causality flowing from the gender of children on to later parental attitudes, we find that, when compared to the year before the birth, men and women alter their political opinions. Daughters tilt their parents to the left; sons tilt them to the right…. The paper finds evidence that having daughters makes people more sympathetic to left-wing parties. Acquiring sons, by contrast, makes individuals more right-wing. Ceteris paribus, in our panel data, every extra daughter (or son) leads a person to be approximately 2 percentage points more likely to vote Left (or Right). Our data come principally from Great Britain, but we show that the basic result can be replicated on German micro data.

A long-standing idea in western society is that parents influence the behavior and psychology of their children. Following previous research, the analysis suggests the reverse idea, namely, that children shape their parents. The model describes a world in which, because of wage discrimination [ie gender pay inequities] and different female preferences over public goods [such as the chronic underfunding of health and education] parents rationally tilt to the left if they have daughters, and to the right if they have sons.

The best recent work on gender, work and family issues directly relevant to the New Zealand situation has been done by the Human Rights Commission. With the release of a major report entitled What Next? National Conversation About Work last month, the HRC has provided a useful roadmap for any government that was truly serious about promoting fair work conditions and comprehensive job creation – especially for the young, and among women. In compiling its report, the HRC carried out extensive consultation and spoke to over 3,000 employers and employees across the entire country. This stands in telling contrast to how Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson’s minions spoke to exactly 13 employees for their survey effort meant to justify extension of the 90 day probation period.

The HRC report contains useful data on the need for quality child care and early education, and the difficulty in finding and paying for this in rural and provincial New Zealand in particular:

In the workplace, the researchers found that the demands that are inevitably involved in raising children are still being allowed to pose a major barrier to career advancement. This situation is made worse by a culture of low wages, a related need for multiple jobs to make ends meet and extremely long working hours.

Such forces go hand in hand with the reluctance of firms and government departments alike to pay women equally either for doing the same work as men, or for doing work of equal value to the firm, and to the economy. The Equal Pay Act was passed way back in 1972. This was the same year The Godfather was released in cinemas, Jane Fonda was photographed in Hanoi on an anti-aircraft gun and Norman Kirk was elected Prime Minister of NewZealand. A lot has happened since, but the Equal Pay Act has still not been put into effect, and the law is still being broken – even by state agencies ! – with impunity.

As the HRC report says of this reality :

A group of Canterbury women lawyers told us that they had to work twice as hard to be seen as equal and that if you asked to be paid at the same rate as men you were seen as “greedy, unreasonable and ungrateful”. “Nice girls don’t get the corner office (i.e. become a partner). You have to be ballsy, push your position and ask.”

There appears to be no systemic follow-up to review progress. The proposed roll out of the Pay and Employment Women into local government and the wider state sector (Phase 2) is voluntary and uptake has been extremely limited….Discrepancies in starting salaries between men and women were found in many organisations in the state sector, in apparent breach of the Equal Pay Act. Women in the private sector advised us that this was also a problem for them. Lack of transparency about salaries, however, made it very difficult to raise awareness about pay inequality. There was little confidence in existing mechanisms to challenge gender pay inequalities.

In sum, women can be forgiven for being not being skeptical – or actively hostile – the next time they hear John Key using the language of fairness and equality to advance policies that contain no such elements. Smiling does not make it so. The reality is one where GST is being increased, food prices are rising sharply and the cost of childcare is heading beyond reach of many parents. As if inhabiting an alternative reality, the Key government is making plans to crack down on sickness beneficiaries and to require women on the DPB whose eldest child has turned six, to hunt for non-existent jobs, from which they can be fired at will. No signs of compassion there.

Right now, the Key voice track and the actual picture are almost entirely out of sync. As a consequence, women voters – who have some life experience of men who say one thing and do another – seem likely to decide the next election, once again.