“John Howard has finally taken up domestic issues in the federal election campaign. A pragmatic change of tactic for sure, as the recent ACNielsen poll shows a growing number of voters are concerned with health and education matters. And while polls after the leaders’ debate and deployment of troops showed a swing back to the ALP, the most important finding, a week before the Liberal Party election launch, seems to have been that women voters were shifting to Labor.

Success in the leaders’ debate undoubtedly helped Kim Beazley in the initial weeks of campaigning. But it was the talk of John Howard’s “khaki” election, however, that seems to have turned off many women voters.

Sending men to war and the customary array of big boys’ toys hasn’t the same thrill for women who stay behind. Likewise, Kim Beazley’s concentration on easing the GST burden (women pay the GST bills in families while men get most of the tax cuts) and issues like health and education started to register with voting females.

After a couple of decades of feminising electorates, where talk of war has been something of a negative, the 2001 federal election campaign has been surprising in its concentration on issues of national security.

For weeks, on radio and television, women commentators have been scarce as a succession of male experts have opined on anything from aeronautics, weapons, anthrax, terror, Islam, the Middle East and the politics of the United States. Not surprisingly, then, the sleeper in this election campaign could be the resurgence of “what women want”. Especially following the announcement of the prime minister’s baby rebate, which led to a day of radio talkback on mothering.

Surveyed by Rehame, just 12 per cent of callers favoured the rebate and 64 per cent were negative.

Mostly it is women who sit with the young and the elderly in the hospital queues; who come into daily contact with teachers working in our demoralised public school system; who juggle housekeeping to pay gas and electricity bills. Women are also more likely than men to decide on how to vote as late as election day.

But it’s not just women voters who have been overlooked in this campaign. In the last two federal elections, increasingly women candidates have affected election outcomes.

In 1996, John Howard’s comprehensive victory owed much to Danna Vale, Joanna Gash, Jackie Kelly, Teresa Gambaro, Trish Draper and Fran Bailey, who won important seats in marginal electorates. They retained those seats in 1998 and stood between John Howard and defeat.

Many commentators believe they owed their success to their appeal as women candidates. Should these women MPs retain their seats in 2001, which is suggested as likely from the polls, they will have established an important stronghold for the Coalition in mortgage-belt Victoria, South Australia, NSW and Queensland. As well as demonstrating a special talent for listening and serving voters.

Chris McDiven, president of the NSW Liberals, believes the issue of getting more women candidates in safe seats is the next challenge for the party. Women candidates are standing in greater numbers than ever in 2001. The ALP alone has some 70 women candidates. Labor women are candidates in around a third of Labor’s winnable seats. Only a Coalition landslide on November 10 will prevent an increase of Labor women MPs this time around.

Joan Kirner, former Victorian premier and convener of Emily’s List Australia, sees the election result coming down to ”adding up the marginals”. She maintains that Emily’s List-sponsored candidates are holding up well.

Following the Liberal election launch, Kirner is also confident that most, if not all, women MPs in Labor marginals can hold their seats. In the 1996 federal election, Labor lost women voters to the Coalition. In 1998 it began to win them back. In the 1998 election, which Labor narrowly lost, Labor closed the gender gap by some three to four percentage points, although women remained 2 per cent more likely than men to vote conservative.

John Howard’s stand on asylum-seekers has delivered a handsome lead to the Coalition in spite of sudden gains by Labor in the third week of the campaign. But, heading for the home stretch, John Howard has shone light on domestic policy with farewells to troops left to the background.

Women voters are more likely to be distracted by their hectic schedules of balancing home and family. They won’t focus on party offerings till the last week of the campaign. Meanwhile, a host of women candidates are working electorates, talking through issues close to women’s concerns, issues they can readily identify with. This election campaign, watch out for the women.”

Article published in The Canberra Times