At 10.30am on Thursday, Australian women asked the federal government to fund childcare for all essential workers for the duration of the pandemic. By 1pm, at a press conference fronted by the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General Christian Porter and the Minister for Education Dan Tehan, the deal was done.
In reality, there were hours, days and weeks of work by the union movement, headed by secretary Sally McManus, in cooperation with the government and other peak bodies and assisted by former ACTU secretary Greg Combet. But it felt good to have at least one crucial element of the response to COVID-19 sorted. It's going to be a long winter and we must be as organised as possible.
Which is why Morrison's comments were surprising and also comforting. Morrison said Australia no longer had a red team or a blue team, no more unions or bosses. We are all Australians. That's all that matters. And then, like a bolt from the blue, he thanked McManus (I'm sure recognition of tireless Combet will follow shortly) and minutes later, his Attorney-General thanked the ACTU and I had a strong feeling I wasn't in the Kansas where unions were terrible registered organisations which should be dismantled instantly. Surely, the government's war on unions must now be over and if not, some clever young person will make a TikTok at least as funny as the one mocking Morrison for trying to handle the ABC veteran Andrew Probyn, to be unleashed in the run-up to the next election. You can imagine: "I spoke to Sally McManus this morning. I want to thank her for her engagement ... all Australians working together. That's all that matters."
That's all that matters.
So what still needs to be done to protect and defend what the Prime Minister has described as our national interest?
Gender Equity Victoria (GEN VIC) worked with women's organisations across Australia to build a list of 10 actions the government could take right now to ease the burden on women and other vulnerable groups. It consulted with the Gender and Disaster Pod's Deb Parkinson of Monash University and two women's health services WHIN and WHGNE; and developed a framework which will ease the burden on women in the wake of COVID-19.
Parkinson says that the aftermath will be much like that experienced after the catastrophic bushfire season.
"All the same pressures are in place and we can see all the expectations on women to be both carers and workers," she says.
Start looking at the economy with a gender lens and ensure investment and investors do that too.
Her research showed increased family violence in the wake of bushfires, often excused by the pressures of the moment.
"There must be no more excuses for violence against women, not because a partner has become unemployed, not because he has had too much to drink. We must work to prevent as well as respond."
Some might be easier to achieve than others but there's plenty of items on this list which just require money (and JobSeeker and JobKeeper are just the beginning). The harder ones are those which require respect.
Let's go for the easy ones first. Fund gender and disaster workers. That should be simple. Boost all of the hotlines and refuge workers. Make sure that anyone working in the area of housing women and children trying to keep safe from both family violence and a killer sickness are well-supported. If an organisation like this says it needs money, then it does. Have an emergency stash for those working at the frontline of an emergency which accelerates because of the intersection of the virus and the violence. There is already increased demand. Don't let those services fall over. The government must, as GEN VIC asks, boost family violence prevention and responses, to cope with the demand now and the demand to come. It's also important that territories, states and the Commonwealth protect obstetric, gynaecological, sexual and reproductive health services from COVID-19. There are already significant restrictions to civil liberties in an attempt to flatten the curve but let's protect these basic human rights, which affect women now and in their futures.
There are the hard ones which don't require funding but a change of mindset. Providing recognition and support to carers and educators at home is so essential. Turning our homes into preschools and primary schools, into high schools and universities is hard work. While I've enjoyed showing my students my lovely grandson to cheer them up, I can see from their own faces how hard they are finding the shift. They also miss out on having everyone in classroom at once, having a few jokes, sharing the sweets they bought to give them a lift as they work their way through concepts they find challenging.
And then there are some demands which should be met just because they will make for a fairer Australia. Start looking at the economy with a gender lens and ensure investment and investors do that too. Women and men are affected differently. Build a post-COVID-19 recovery agency, just as we have one for the bushfires.
There is more. But let's remember this. A few weeks ago, we hadn't seen a rise in the rate for what used to be called Newstart for decades. Banks have suddenly volunteered pay pauses without having to be dragged before Kenneth Hayne. We've never seen so many employers so comfortable about employees working from home. We had never seen any recognition that workers are partners in our nation's wellbeing. We've never seen so much socialism under a conservative government.
Maybe, after all this, we can hold on to the things which make this a better country for all.
- Jenna Price is a Canberra Times columnist and an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.