Senator Michaelia Cash minister assisting the Prime Minister for Women in Parliament House Canberra on 6 March 2014. Photo: Andrew Meares for Daily Life Photo: Andrew Meares
The plaque on Michaelia Cash’s desk is a replica of one that sat on Ronald Reagan’s when he was in the Oval Office. With gold lettering on brown leather it says: “It can be done”.
The West Australian Senator bought it from the Reagan Foundation's online shop (where she also got one for fellow Liberal senator, Cory Bernardi). And amid the Australian flag and women's sporting memorabilia that adorn her parliament house office, it fits right in.
Cash is one of only five women in the Abbott government ministry. She is also the one with responsibility for women’s issues, as the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women.
When Tony Abbott announced his ministerial line-up last September, eyebrows were raised that not only were there so few women in the federal ministerial line-up but that the Prime Minister himself had “taken over” women’s affairs.
But Cash – who was elected to federal parliament in 2008 and is also Assistant Minister for Immigration – insists that he is a genuine supporter of women and that he is not calling all the shots.
The former corporate lawyer had the women’s portfolio in opposition for three years and says she is “humbled” by the opportunity to tackle priority issues such as violence against women, flexible work arrangements for men and women, as well as female genital mutilation and under-aged or forced marriages.
After attending breakfasts and speeches this week to mark International Women’s Day, on Saturday, Cash will fly to New York with Australia’s Ambassador for Women Natasha Stott Despoja for a meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She has Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In loaded on to the iPad to read on the flight.
On Thursday, in between Senate question time and a meeting with Education Minister Christopher Pyne, Cash spoke to Fairfax Media about how her job works and what she thinks about feminism.
You are the “Minister Assisting” the Prime Minister for Women. Can you explain how the portfolio works? Who is in charge?
One of the decisions that I made when I was the shadow parliamentary secretary [for women] was that we wanted to move the Office for Women, which was in The Department of Families and Community Services, into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. And to have a whole of government approach to women’s issues.
I wanted to send a very clear message to the Australian people – and to Australian women – that the Prime Minister is committed to gender equality, that our government is committed to gender equality...
The role of Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women was the title given [to me]. In saying that, the Prime Minister has been very clear to me, I act as the Minister for Women and obviously I take to him policy ideas that I have. And he is always prepared to share with me his thoughts in relation to women’s policy. So the Prime Minister and I very much work as a team.
How often do you talk to Tony Abbott about women’s issues?
You don’t necessarily always talk directly to the Prime Minister, because he’s an exceptionally busy man. But I have a key contact in the Prime Minister’s Office and I also speak with Peta Credlin [his chief-of-staff]. And quite literally I am on the phone to his office, I would say every day.
I have a very open, honest, transparent relationship with the Prime Minister. And I have to say, he has been so supportive of me and me personally and what I want to do in this role. It’s very humbling for me.
What’s your relationship like with Peta Credlin?
She’s not just an influential person, she’s a very wise person and she’s a very, very busy person.
So I know with Peta and Peta knows with me, I will not bother her unless I need an answer to a question. And if I do pose a question to Peta … I can assure you, unless she’s on a plane, she gets back to me straight away.
To what extent can we see Credlin as a senior woman within Coalition ranks?
She’s just a competent person. A little bit like me - I hope that I’m a competent person.
We are just competent people discharging a role. We also happen to have a gender that is female. But our gender never influences us in relation to our competency.
At the National Press Club on Wednesday, you were asked if you were a feminist. It seemed like you didn’t quite answer the question. Or you didn’t want to say you were a feminist?
No, no, no. Not at all.
I wanted to be honest with people and I say, “I am just me”. I believe in equality, I believe in female empowerment. I believe in the implementation of policies that will further women’s economic opportunities.
If you then want to label me as a feminist, that’s fine...
Look behind me and see the policies that I am supporting. Merely because you are a feminist does not mean you will implement policies that empower women.
I believe in gender equality and if you want to label me as a feminist go ahead and do it. But certainly, labelling myself as a feminist, if that is a prerequisite now for being a Minister for Women, that’s ridiculous.
Do you think the term “feminist” has become loaded? That it is not helpful to equality debates? Is that why you are hesitant to use it?
No… In terms of feminism, I’ve never been someone who really associates with that movement.
That movement was a set of ideologies from many, many decades ago now. They have done wonderful things for women. I will never ever detract from what the feminist movement has done. And in fact I often say in speeches “women in Australia stand on the shoulders of the women who have gone before them. And we further their achievements”.
But in 2014 for me now, it’s all about being part of a government that implements policies that will take women further down the journey of economic empowerment.
Do you think Australia’s next female prime minister is in the current parliament?
We have got some fantastic women in the Liberal party. And … the Prime Minister’s made it very, very clear, he expects those women to step up and take on more senior roles.
If you’re going to the issue of the fact that we only have one woman in cabinet [Foreign Minister Julie Bishop] …We said to the Australian people before the 2013 election, the shadow cabinet we have will be, within reason, the cabinet [after the election].
We were upfront and said, given the fiscal environment that we are inheriting; we believe that Australia needs experienced ministers. We were honest. The Australian people voted for it.
The Prime Minister has now gone on the record and said, there are women knocking, not only at the doors of cabinet, but also on the door of the outer ministry.
But do you think that the next female PM [from either side of politics] is in the building right now?
If I say that, then there will be like “so there’s a leadership coup on!”
Do I think that we have competent women who are able to discharge the role of prime minister? Absolutely. Without a doubt. Am I going to name one for you? That would be very, very naughty.
But I do have a bit of a passion for Julie Bishop [who is a fellow West Australian]. When you want to talk about a competent woman, can I tell you? My grief. Go and interview her. That woman a) does not sleep, b) she is competent, she is stylish, she is articulate. She is over every brief she has. She is highly respected; you just need to talk to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade …
Does she have the ability to discharge the role of Prime Minister? Absolutely.
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