Sex Discrimination and Emissions Trading: Nationals then and now


Commentators on Australian politics have long maintained a death watch on the National Party and its current woes have seen this topic attract renewed attention. Thinking about this topic, and in particular the Nationals’ appeals to an imagined mass conservative constituency.As as I prepared my lecture on feminism for Modern Political Ideologies. In discussing liberal feminism I highlight the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) (an Australian equivalent to the unsuccessful Equal Rights Amendment) introduced by a Labor government with the support of more progressive conservatives. The Act was vociferously opposed by many conservatives in particular leading members of the National Party (details in A Woman’s Place). With the rural population declining the Nationals believed that they could appeal to a broad conservative constituency. Susan Ryan the Minister who introduced the Bill recalls:

On 2 June 1983, on behalf of the Hawke Government, I introduced into the Senate the Sex Discrimination Bill 1983 (Cth) (‘SDB’) to make illegal discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status or pregnancy. The Bill also outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace, marking the first time in Australia that such protection had been legislated for. Its coverage extended to all areas of employment, education and services. There was, however, little in the Bill that was entirely new. Several States – New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia – already had sex discrimination legislation in place. The Commonwealth SDB built on these State provisions, extended their coverage, and included the new prohibitions on sexual harassment. To make the Bill as strong and extensive as possible, the Government relied, in constitutional terms, on the corporations power[1] and the external affairs power.[2] In preparation for the use of the latter power, the Hawke Government had ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women[3] (‘CEDA W’).

Twenty years on none of this seems remarkable. At the time, the politics surrounding the Bill were explosive. From the first legislative step – the ratification of CEDA W – the initiative met with sustained, vociferous and irrational opposition from powerful sectors of the community. Parliament was besieged by thousands of petitions stating opposition to the Bill in the most colourful terms. Inside and outside Parliament, opponents claimed that the Bill would bring about the end of the family, ruin the economy, undermine the male labour force, and destroy Christianity and the Australian way of life. The Bill was described in Cold War terms as a Russian plot, designed to replace our sunny, god-fearing way of life with communist barbarisms and godlessness. Criticisms along these lines formed the basis of full-page advertisements in the major newspapers, and found their way onto banners at large rallies held to ‘stop the Ryan juggernaut’. Talk-back radio programs in country towns, as well as our cities, were clogged up for weeks on end with hysterical critics of the Bill. Some of the most ferocious critics were women.

The picture from here shows a protest against the Bill, I always tell my students (mostly born in the late 1980s) that the Bill obviously failed to castrate their fathers (predictions of the impact of gay marriage face a similar test (hat tip Norman Geras). The Nationals sought to carve a new political appeal as true conservatives opposed to Liberal ‘trendies’ such as then Liberal leader Andrew Peacock. In 1984 they endorsed candidates for several urban electorates with particular attention given to those held by Liberals who had supported the SDA. They tapped into a conservative Christian, particularly Catholic, milieu that was at this time somewhat distinct from the Liberals. In 1984 however these National candidates polled derisory votes, in Goldstein the Nationals’ Pat Brown accused sitting Liberal MP Ian McPhee of being a ‘trendy Liberal socialist’ but won only 1.6%. Noteworthy that the Nationals today are following in the footsteps of their predecessors by championing a conservative crusade against Labor legislation, but now it is the Emissions Trading Scheme. After their 1984 experiment the Nationals went on to the ‘Joh for PM’ debacle. Noteworthy that the last survivor of that debacle John Stone is currently a vociferous voice against the ETS. Not history as farce the second time round because it was a farce at the first attempt. Perhaps the eventual success of the SDA should give comfort to the American champions of health reform and the Australian supporters of the ETS.

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