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A Femocrat’s Story, 1970s Style

IN APRIL 1973, five months after Gough Whitlam was elected prime minister, a woman I admired for the talks she gave on women's liberation became his women's adviser.  Elizabeth Reid had been one of ten on the short list. The others, including Susan Ryan, Anne Summers, Eva Cox and Lyndall Ryan, would become some of Australia's most accomplished women, but the publicity leading up to Reid's appointment was a farce. It would take decades before the media could handle issues concerning women with maturity, about the same time it took for Reid's significance to sink in.

Oddly, Reid did not see herself as a reformer, but believed that government action would be integral to a longer, more significant revolution in attitudes. In the beginning she sought advice from a small informal circle of public servants, several of whom had been appointed to senior positions never before occupied by women. Most were bone-hard pragmatists, but this was tempered by Reid's presence, and, raw as it was, my own. The others guided us on what might actually be achieved in government and advised which people we needed to get on side. Thus developed the strange amalgam of hard political thinking and socialist-feminist analysis that was to characterise Australian feminist involvement in government for years to come.

Soon after Reid's appointment I received a phone call from a man who introduced himself as Clyde Cameron, the minister for labour and immigration. The call was so improbable I took it for a joke, and would have hung up, but the caller persisted, suggesting that I might have seen him on the news. ‘What I believe in is wage indexation.  A system of wage indexation would act as a brake on inflation. It would prevent the unions leapfrogging one another in their awards...' I said that I understood, but couldn't quite grasp why he was telling me.

It transpired that he was offering me a job – a temporary one, but the pay was double what I was getting and the work infinitely more worthwhile. A newly separated mother of four, I was in my first full-time job as a low-ranking journalist in the Australian Information Service. Cameron had a vacancy that the union wouldn't let him fill immediately, but he could use it to second me. There were three important amendments to the ALP platform of direct concern to his portfolio; I was to write the policy speeches.

The request for my secondment went to the AIS director that morning. His surprise, to put it mildly, was considerable. I was his most junior officer, had never worked on a daily newspaper, had shown a singular lack of interest in any of my duties unless they had to do with women, and then would insert the most outrageous assertions about female discontent into the copy. The secondment seemed even more preposterous when Cameron himself was taken into account. A tough ex-shearer, he had tangled with the right wing of the Australian Workers Union and the left of the Victorian ALP. It seemed scarcely less likely for him to hire a women's libber than it was for me to join his staff.

The news travelled fast. Although Cameron had explained that I was not to be his press secretary, and was only seconded to write those speeches, not a single journalist in Parliament House believed it. There were very few women spin doctors then, less than half a dozen in all twenty-seven ministerial offices. There was only one female press secretary and she had created a sensation by appearing unaccompanied in the heavily male non-member's bar. After that it was almost de rigueur for women staffers to go there, if only to assert the right, but it was still a searing experience. In the 1960s I had been bold enough to march up to the bar at the Manly Rugby Union Club and though I was the first female to do so, no one made much of it except the other women who cheered and quickly followed suit. But journalists, I was to learn, could be far more brutal than footballers. None of them could fathom my appointment, or view it as anything but Cameron's further revenge on one of their most respected colleagues. What Cameron neglected to tell me was that he had sacked his previous press secretary – an act that had sent tremors through the press gallery.

John Edwards is a noted economist today but then he was a journalist specialising in labour issues, a natural for Cameron's press officer. In the years before Labor's election, strong attachments had grown between young journalists, academics, political activists and the older shadow ministers. The relationship between Cameron and Edwards was particularly intense, so much so that people often observed that to the childless Cameron, Edwards was like a son. I learned the whole story after sending a memo to Cameron requesting a government phone card and some subscriptions to magazines that Edwards said I was entitled to and would be necessary in the job. I was surprised that Edwards should take such an interest, but his generosity seemed in sharp contrast to the hostility I'd encountered from other members of the gallery, and I thanked him for the advice. But not long after, Milton Cockburn, Cameron's private secretary, sat me down and told me what was up. The very same phone card and subscriptions had been the substance of the irreconcilable difference between Cameron and Edwards. They had argued bitterly – Edwards maintaining that it was no more than coalition staff had helped themselves to, Cameron insisting that Labor ministers and their staff were socialists and didn't abuse the privilege. Edwards wouldn't give in, so Cameron let him go.

I felt a bit foolish for being set up so easily, as I would never have asked for the phone card or the subscription if Edwards hadn't made my entitlement seem such a vital union issue, so the memo was torn up before it reached the minister. But that wasn't the end of it. In the weeks to follow, wherever I went Edwards would be there – eating at the next table in a restaurant, in the seat behind me on a plane – popping up like Alfred E Newman in an issue of Mad Magazine. I confided in friends but they didn't believe me; it was painful to discover how little credibility I had. The one exception was Cameron's secretary, Peg Lee, who told me how heartbroken the minister had been and how torn apart Edwards was as well. Later Edwards apologised, but I had long forgiven him, and had actually come to like him for caring as much as he did. So many other people in that place had shut down their feelings, never understanding what piranhas they'd become.

Peg Lee was known as the office mum and she was certainly that to me, making time in her madcap schedule to teach me in those pre-computer days the all-important art of dictation. Seeing how green I was, woman-to-woman she provided me with the skills and confidence to get on with the job. My relationship with Cameron was strained somewhat when I twigged that he'd mistaken me for someone else when he hired me, though I knew Reid had recommended me – he'd said so in that telephone interview. Nor was he above the kind of sexual teasing that went on in those days, what would be taken for sexual harassment now. In this he was no different from the bulk of his colleagues, except that he was exceptionally laboured and awkward with it, as if he knew it was expected but didn't have the heart for it, and only did it to test and shock. I swallowed my pride and soldiered on.

My most important speech outlined the history of the basic wage, how it had entrenched unequal wage rates, and proposed its final dismantling as an essential step in bringing pay equity to women. Months later, the Women's Electoral Lobby would join the government in arguing the case before the arbitration commission. WEL's Edna Ryan had done the work that Cameron's department wouldn't, sifting through the federal awards to demonstrate that extending the adult minimum wage to women wouldn't cost employers anything like what they argued. The Commission agreed, ending nearly seven decades of institutionalised wage discrimination.

 

WEST BLOCK, ONE of three buildings forming the original parliamentary triangle, was considered temporary quarters several times in its history, and when I went to work there everyone expected it to be demolished. Certainly, on stepping through the doors you would suppose it more than ready for the hammer. The paint in the foyer was streaked and bumpy, the floor was tiled with depressing grey vinyl; there wasn't an ornament in sight other than the standard tinted photograph of the Queen. And yet there was an air about it.

The corridor leading to the offices was straight out of a Le Carré novel. Weak naked light bulbs swung from the flaking ceiling. The clacking of typewriters, with the pinging of their carriages, was ferocious. A door on the left opened onto the typing pool, where an army of women yanked out finished pages and rolled fresh sheets of paper in.

My own room was on the third floor. A reproduction Sali Herman, depicting a row of ramshackle Sydney terraces, hung on one wall, a calendar opposite. Next to the window, a foot or so from my desk, stood a regulation four-drawer filing cabinet with its combination lock. My floor was carpeted but out where my small staff sat there was the same brittle lino and general noise and desuetude encountered in the corridor downstairs, indeed wherever workers below a certain rank were found. It was considered odd of me to want a typewriter but one appeared quickly and without comment – to most of the department everything about me was odd. Lost in a reverie induced by the cooing of roof-nesting pigeons, I held my chin in my hands, wondering how I got there myself.

Once again, it had been Elizabeth Reid's doing.  She had been persuaded to set up a support unit within the prime minister's department, but all she could get was a four-woman section, headed by a senior adviser. A senior adviser was at the top of middle management, poised to step up, but not quite secure, on the executive ladder. The women in my section were permanent public servants, as was I; as a ministerial officer, Reid was not. At the time this was an important distinction.

I had been chosen to head the women's affairs section (no one yet thought this name a problem or, jokes aside, not enough to change it) because it was the only position I could apply for. Advertised with an asterisk in the government gazette (the bible of career bureaucrats), it was open to candidates from outside the service. Public service journalists were not permanent officers so, technically, I was an outsider. This was a compromise. The department was willing to have someone Reid was happy with but others would be flanking me, keeping things in line.

Before I could take up my duties, I had to get a security clearance. I waited at AIS, and dared to ring West Block a week later – it was taking so long. Finally, Keith Pearson, head of the personnel division, summoned me. I was meeting the genuine article, an old-style civil servant of rank. In his fifties, he had a smooth, narrow face, his eyes were warm and dark. He gestured for me to take a chair, then, half-perched on the edge of his desk, his arms crossed on his chest, he asked if I had guessed what the problem was. I hadn't, and wouldn't have persisted with my phone calls if I had.

‘Well, I'm going to put you out of your misery,' he said. He smiled, moved from the desk, went to the window, and gazed for a moment at the traffic before turning to me again. ‘You see, Ms Dowse, into this building comes every document pertaining to the government – every ministerial letter, every cable, every cabinet submission, every budget paper. There are papers that come to us that no one in the prime minister's office will lay eyes on, unless it is specifically requested. And because of this every officer here from senior adviser up has to have a top secret classification. And we've had trouble getting one for you.'

My heart gave a lurch.  My parents' background was on the record. Someone had named them to the House Un-American Activities Committee; my actress mother had been briefly a communist; my stepfather, writing radio scripts on the FBI, had been unceremoniously sacked from his job. I said nothing, other than I understood.

Pearson continued. ‘It's owing to the unfortunate fact that you were born overseas. There's more work involved, ASIO has to get in touch with all the agencies. A formality, but it has to be gone through and if you hadn't gone and got yourself born in America,' he joked, ‘we would have had you here in a minute. But don't worry, we'll have you here as soon word comes through.'

I thanked him for taking the trouble, but didn't share his confidence.

He had to escort me to the foyer – no one outside the department could wander through the building alone. But opening his office door he said, ‘You realise that all of what I've told you is confidential. And if it should get back to me that I did tell you, I will deny it, of course.'

Later Keith Pearson would become my boss, and I would become more acquainted with his intellect and humanity. Yet after that first encounter there didn't seem the remotest chance of his figuring in my future. Security clearances had been waived for ministerial officers, but rather than indicating trust in the government, the gesture meant just the opposite. ASIO had given up on Parliament House, given all the radicals ensconced there, and concentrated their energies on the departments, where it was believed, not without justification, that the real power lay. A clever strategy, apart from the astonishing ineptitude of its agents. Somehow my clearance came through – how could they have spent so much time and come up with nothing?

There was, though, one last brush with them. Now a senior adviser, I was to be given an intelligence brief. This came from the departmental ASIO officer, a young man I'll call Brown. One of my referees told me that ASIO had paid her a visit (it may well have been Brown himself), and questioned her on my domestic aptitude – how often I swept my kitchen floor and whether or not I was a conscientious mother. And Brown had additional concerns, urging me to contact him straightaway if approached by an officer from any of the East European embassies. He warned that these men were extremely cunning. The KGB especially was never to be trusted, and anyone at the Russian embassy was bound to be KGB. Everyone in Canberra knew this, but Brown was bent on impressing it upon me. He spoke at length on the diligence with which the KGB trained its operatives, and how deep was its penetration. There were these villages, deep in Siberia, he said, one replicating an American prairie community, another a hamlet in England, even an Australian country town, complete in every detail, down to the last Violet Crumble bar. I sat listening, trying to stop my lips from trembling, desperate to keep myself from laughing. Maybe he sensed this and so redoubled his efforts. KGB agents made a specialty of preying on women, and also had luscious females to gobble up unsuspecting men. Not once in all this did Brown ease up on his gravity. His eyes shone with candour. Or maybe it was just to scare me. Maybe he enjoyed the fantasy. Maybe it was all a joke. Who knows?

As the briefing spun to its close he reached into his filing cabinet and pulled out a pamphlet. They Trade in Treachery was one step above the most lurid comics of my childhood only because its simplistic, Manichean message was not actually delivered in cartoon. But the cover was a stellar representative of the genre. Against a black background, a woman with the exaggerated bust and lips of comic book females lay sprawled in a pose at odds with her business suit. What appeared to have felled her was not the boyish charm of any counterintelligence agent, but a yellow bolt of lightning traversing the cover from top right-hand corner to bottom left. This, I understood, turning it in my hand as I mumbled my gratitude, was to be a souvenir of the interview, and I would be allowed to take it with me, to have recourse to it from time to time, as a doubting Catholic might take to her rosary.

Again, I was warned to speak of the briefing to no one. (Was there to be no end of these conversations erased by either silence or denial?) But after three months I dared to mention it to a friend in another department. Her briefing had been short, a half hour to my hour, and the look on her face as I recounted my experience was not unlike the expressions I'd received when I spoke of what happened with Edwards. I concluded that intelligence organisations have the perfect cover in the very wildness of their operations, for it's almost impossible to convince ordinary citizens of the truth.

THE YEAR THAT ripped Australia apart, 1975, was also United Nations International Women's Year. Elizabeth Reid had been the star of the Mexico conference. Her plenary speech had introduced the word ‘sexism' to the UN lexicon, incorporating it in languages around the world. It was a stunning achievement, and many women left Mexico City with the laughable impression that Australia was some kind of feminist paradise. In only a matter of weeks this would be dramatically corrected.

The government's fortunes, bad enough when our delegation had left for Mexico, plummeted further in our absence. Inflation had been soaring, now joined by unemployment. Labor, trounced in a Tasmanian by-election, was running scared, and on social issues took an acute turn to the right. Instead of giving Reid the welcome she deserved after her performance in Mexico, the party excoriated her for what the press portrayed as a taxpayer-funded junket for sex-mad feminists bent on undermining the family. To make matters worse, Reid refused to cancel the Women and Politics Conference, and that, too, though brilliantly successful for the thousands of women across the political spectrum who attended, was fodder for the media. Then, spurred by the government's abysmal showing in the polls, the opposition used their Senate majority to block supply. As tensions mounted, Reid was forced to resign, and our section became a branch, with me its acting head.

Throughout the service officers resolved to work for nothing if the government's money ran out. But on 11 November, John Menadue, our departmental secretary, returned from lunch and called an executive meeting. ‘Lady [that was me] and gentlemen, we have a new prime minister.' Whitlam had been dismissed. Coughs, exclamations and glances whizzed around the room. No one had anticipated it, not even those who'd been critical of the government. Malcolm Fraser was the caretaker, but no policy decisions were allowed until after the 13 December election. With nothing more to do, Menadue closed the meeting and soon West Block emptied altogether. We rushed across the road and stood in the crowd in front of Parliament House to hear David Smith, Kerr's principal private secretary, read out the proclamation dissolving Australia's twenty-ninth parliament. He could hardly be heard. Then Whitlam appeared, and we shouted all the more, and Whitlam made his famous speech, asking that God save the Queen, because nothing could save the Governor-General.

Throughout the caretaker period we waited. I spent my days reading Anne Summer's new Damned Whores and God's Police. I thought it a remarkable achievement, and was full of admiration, and not a little envy. Why wasn't I writing, instead of sitting at a desk devising schemes so others could chase their dreams? If the government were returned, I would leave; someone equally committed could take my place. But if it weren't? My position would be advertised and a conservative would be appointed. In that case, I would have to stay. Being second-in-command in such a scenario could be far more useful than being the woman out front.

 

BY 10PM ON 13 December it was all over: Fraser had won. Whitlam's supporters were stunned. It lasted only three years, but when he went it was the passing of an era: Australia's Camelot, blighted by its flaws, but splendid all the same.

What was it like to be swallowed up in its wake? Frivolous things come to mind. On the Monday after the election, senior officers were told we'd be meeting with Fraser the following day. I had nothing to wear. Overnight the costume of a nation had changed. When I'd gone to West Block my attire rarely progressed beyond the peculiar Canberra adaptation of ‘70s radical chic. Beads and minis and high platform shoes were the vogue. Later, reluctantly, and without much appreciable flair, I would patronise shops like Millers of Manuka for suitably conventional apparel. That first meeting, however, required some ingenuity. The lone female, I felt it important to present myself as a worker – nothing too flash, but nothing too trendy either. I settled on a short-sleeved cotton coatdress buried in my closet since my AIS days. With my hair in a roll and a pair of mock pearl earrings I hoped to strike the right note: ready for business, but with no mistaking which side I was on.

The meeting went much as I had feared. Fraser suggested amending the arbitration act to prevent the unions from discriminating against women, but made no mention of employers. Back at West Block, I found a brand new file on the matter sitting in my in-tray, but all I could think of was my time with Cameron and the file was accordingly lost.

I could afford to be defiant. I knew my days were numbered. Neither Fraser nor Menadue wished for a repeat of the brouhaha that had surrounded Elizabeth Reid's appointment. This was a public service position, to be filled with the appropriate procedure and discretion. Still, the media was habituated to roaring over any woman being hired for a government job that paid more than a stenographer's salary, especially one of this nature, and never set store on the fine Westminster distinction between the bureaucracy and ministerial staff that meant so much in the service. Responding to pressure from Liberal Party women, Fraser was retaining the Women's Affairs Branch, but choosing someone to head it was still a ticklish matter. It couldn't be hischoice, but it was wise to ensure that the choice would be acceptable, to him and to his caucus, his party and supporters.

The frontrunner was Kathy West, the elegant, outspoken political scientist. Her appointment seemed a lay-down mezzaire. Here was a highly educated, articulate spokesperson for the best of Liberal values. We began studying her articles and speeches, anticipating her arrival. Meanwhile, urged by my staff, I had put in a bid for the job myself, merely as a statement of the work we had done. Never did I imagine that this was more than a gesture, or dream that it could be successful. But after her interview, West decided she would be too circumscribed as a public servant and withdrew her application. The news rippled towards us. The one or two other applicants were deeply conservative. I went home chastened but undaunted: we had weathered much so far, we could weather this, but it was going to be terribly hard.

Every evening I switched on the ABC news and listened to PM afterwards. Over the past tumultuous year we had been subjected to a stream of scandals and crises, but what I heard that night shocked me most of all. As I stood peeling potatoes it was announced that I had been selected, that I was Fraser's ‘supergirl'. I dropped the peeler and glanced around the room at my family. Their eyes were full of foreboding. The dismissal had sliced the country in two. How could I explain this in the women's movement? To the ALP? Then Milton Cockburn was being interviewed, telling listeners of my parents' careers being dashed by McCarthyism. Although the disclosure would make things undoubtedly tougher, if such a prospect could be envisaged, I could have wept with gratitude.

The rest was the usual media cock-up. Not as bad as it had been for Reid but with a tighter turn of the screw. I could resign immediately, but at what cost? There were at least 75 million dollars' worth of programs to consider. Child care, I believed, as I do now, was the key to achieving equality for women, and the new program, barely walking and with serious teething troubles, would have been abandoned or misdirected, given the antipathy from conservatives. The ongoing machinery for women's affairs, a complex network of desks within departments led by the branch in the prime minister's office, had gone forward for Whitlam's signature on 11 November; now, reworded to conform to the Liberal Party platform, it awaited Fraser's. It was also clear that, by selecting me, the department was making its own stand, in line with the Westminster principle. I had experience and had shown myself to be a resourceful, principled bureaucrat. I knew the portfolio better than anyone, barring Reid herself. I was later told that when Menadue had presented their choice to Fraser his comment was, ‘She's a socialist, isn't she?' but in obedience to the principle he gave no sign of disapproval. I was moved by Menadue's stand and Fraser's reaction as well. In this light a resignation would seem narrowly political, and could jeopardise everything we'd done. It appeared that I was going to have to cop it. That much of an Australian I'd become.

 

FRASER BEGAN TO command our cautious respect. Instead of the intellectual midget in a giant's frame that was the general view of him on our side of politics, he was, we saw, a decidedly more intelligent and complex character. Contrary to Ayn Rand, whose mean-spirited philosophy he had publicly professed, he displayed the kind of noblesse oblige that made him responsive to the needs of the unfortunate. In short, he was more the Lord Shaftesbury than a free market Whig, and that gave us something to go on.

We were able to persuade him that child care was an essential requirement for women in poverty, and that single mothers, often the poorest, especially needed it if they were ever to get off welfare. He understood that pre-school education on its own benefited mainly middle-class children whose mothers could afford to stay at home, and that greater expenditure on child care would ensure that resources would go where most needed. With his support we were able to start undoing the damage done in the last months of the Labor government when, in order to spend its allocation, an interim children's commission had undermined the policy by directing 80 per cent of the money to pre-schools instead of waiting for the child care submissions to come in.

Likewise, Fraser was sympathetic to women's refuges. In the case of two that had had their funding suspended, he ignored his own government's decision which had devolved their administration to the states, and moved in cabinet that the feds fund the refuges direct. Cabinet then ruled that the allocation be doubled, in a year of savage cuts. He gave us a minister assisting – Ian Macphee – the most sensitive on women's issues of any politician, in any party. Yet Fraser had to move quietly, to avoid alienating his political support; as did we, for the same reason. I learned to appreciate the role of perception in politics. In the case of child care, most of Whitlam's ministers were as conventional in their views as their conservative counterparts, and one Labor politician had used the program for shameless personal advantage. Under Fraser this was turned around, and, for a time, the program was on the road to achieving what it was designed for: providing inexpensive, integrated, quality care for children whose parents most needed it. But it suited both sides of the political chasm created by Kerr's coup to see the situation in reverse – that another of Labor's reforms had been dismantled by the coalition.

The year 1977 opened with Menadue's departure and the arrival of Ian Carmody. Utterly antipathetic to feminism, or ministers assisting (who represented a challenge to his power), he targeted us from the start. In a bureaucratic version of being sent to Coventry, our access to crucial information was blocked, and the branch was upgraded to an office to signify our imminent removal from the department. Carmody tried to sweeten this with a promotion, but I was hardly fooled. We were removed from the executive floor and sent down to premises in the basement, where the light was weak and the lino in worse state than anywhere else in West Block. By the year's end the government was re-elected with a slightly decreased majority, the Office of Women's Affairs was moved to a junior department, and I had resigned in protest. 


From Griffith Review Edition 28: Still the Lucky Country? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review