In the third of our women in politics series we speak to Jenny Macklin MP (ALP), Member for Jagajaga, Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Minister for Disability Reform.
Can you name the politician with the most influence over the lives of women and their families in the past five years? Few would probably come up with Jenny Macklin, the low profile but highly prolific Minister for Families in the Federal Labor government since 2007.
Macklin’s portfolio is huge: in addition to Families, she is also the Minister for Community Services, Indigenous Affairs and Disability Reform, in one way or another touching the lives of just about every Australian. Her achievements are likely to be remembered as some of the most significant of this government. They include the country’s first paid parental leave scheme; historic increases to the aged pension; the introduction of the new disability insurance scheme, Disability Care and; the national Apology to the Stolen Generations.
Each has contributed to Macklin’s reputation as one of Canberra’s most respected policy makers. Not bad for someone who never intended to be in parliament.
Macklin, 59, graduated from the University of Melbourne with a bachelor’s degree in commerce before working as an economics researcher in Canberra in the late 1970s. She went on to work with Brian Howe, one of the most powerful ministers of the Hawke-Keating era (later deputy prime minister under Keating) on health and regional development policy.
“Brian Howe really demonstrated to me that you can make a huge difference to people’s lives and so when he decided to retire as one of the most dominant ministers advocating social justice, I thought it was time to put my hand up,” Jenny Macklin told Australian Women Online.
Macklin entered parliament in 1996 at the age of 43. It was a testing time for her family, the youngest of her three children was just seven years old at the time.
“There’s no point trying to gloss over it. It was extremely difficult with a young family and I was very fortunate to have a wonderful partner who took more than his fair share of childcare responsibility,” she said.
Macklin’s ability to direct complex policy work was quickly recognised and she sat on Labor’s front bench from day one. Thirteen years down the track, she says her most recent policy reform is one of her best.
“Disability Care is a reform I have spent five years working on. For the first time, people with disability are getting what they need and that’s massive,” said Ms Macklin.
Paid parental leave is another of Macklin’s signature reforms.
“One of the biggest changes in family support has been the introduction of the country’s first paid parental leave scheme and I’m very proud of that.”
Before 2011, there was no national scheme, putting Australia well behind many of its international counterparts. Now, mothers earning up to $150,000 in the year before their child is born are entitled to 18 weeks paid leave at the national minimum wage ($622.10 per week before tax).
Macklin says it targets those most in need (the median income of those receiving it is $45,000). More than 300,000 women have benefitted from the scheme so far.
It’s set to be a key election issue, with Tony Abbott proposing to give women 26 weeks paid leave at their full annual salary (up to $150,000 per annum), rather than the minimum wage. The Coalition says it will pay for it with a 1.5% levy on big businesses.
Macklin says Abbott’s proposal will unfairly advantage women on higher salaries.
Whichever party prevails on election day, this parliament will be remembered as one in which gender has been talked about more than ever before. As one of the most senior female ministers, Jenny Macklin says, despite the combative nature of politics, it’s crucial for women from all walks of life to be involved.
“The outrageous abuse Julia Gillard had to put up with was horrific but we need young women in parliament,” she said. “We must have parliament representing the whole community, not just half of it.”
“There’s no question it was hardest for Julia because she was the first but I think there will be another woman who, like her, has the ambition to make a difference and contribute at the top level.”
If the ALP are re-elected to government, what is top of Macklin’s to do list? Long-term unemployment.
“One of our biggest challenges is inter-generational unemployment. We have significant concentrations of families and young people where no one is working. If I get that chance, that’s one issue I’ll dedicate myself to.”
For more information visit Jenny Macklin’s website: www.jennymacklin.net.au