It’s time: we need a new social contract, with women at the forefront

Dec 13, 2021
Women protest Brisbane
The anger of women against mistreatment at the hands of power structures came to the forefront of Australian politics in 2021 (Image: AAP/Dave Hunt).

The interests of half the population can no longer be ignored in the quest to remake our systems of governance, writes Eva Cox.

The big issues we are facing in the 21st century are deeply troubling. We all face the mix of environmental threats and pandemic events that combine to raise questions about our survival.

By the last quarter of the 20th century we had seen stable, fair democracies that were trusted by most voters, and science discoveries that seemed future positive. Now, we have major deficits of trust in government. Voters feel the government’s lack of attention to public services and care, while current economic paradigms now focus almost entirely on the financial trades and material measuring of wealth. We are no longer optimistic that the priorities of those in power will create future wellbeing.

We need to look seriously at how our governments (increasingly business-led) manage our lives and sustain our communal wellbeing. At the basic level, they need to address the tensions and anger of citizens who expect that social rights and obligations will not be handed over to the private sector. We need public ownership and non-profit services that are based on needs, so we share resources fairly. Competition and wealth creation matter but not as the distributor of wellbeing.

Yet too many of the current debates, as illustrated by the recent conferences in Glasgow and Rome, seem concerned only about climate effects on economic failures, not how that plays into the shrinking of public spending for the wellbeing and survival of the societies to which we belong. Interestingly too much of the missing essential recognition of social/relational aspects of societies can be ascribed to the dominance of macho materialism as core value.

What is clearly needed is a change model that reinstates social wellbeing policies. Interestingly there are now international and local initiatives to follow. For example, UN Women have had a recent launch of a major project that would meet many missing needs. From their website they quote UN Secretary-General António Guterres:

“Now is the time to renew the social contract between Governments and their people and within societies, so as to rebuild trust and embrace a comprehensive vision of human rights. People need to see results reflected in their daily lives. This must include the active and equal participation of women and girls, without whom no meaningful social contract is possible …

… Robust connections between governments and civil society organizations help build state effectiveness to enable this, the work of women’s rights organizations should be recognized and supported, including through capacity building, funding for the long-term sustainability, and a safe and enabling civic space. Resist backlash by building progressive coalitions.”

And in the conclusions were the following statements that sound familiar:

Even in the Global North, the golden age of the post-war social contract was short-lived. Since the late 1970s, labour market deregulation, retrenchment and privatization have shifted power squarely towards corporations, gradually releasing employers from the responsibility to provide stable jobs and living wages and reducing the state’s responsibility for social provision. As a result of this revocation of the social contract, trust in public institutions and traditional political parties has been further eroded.

It’s clear that, internationally, I’m not alone in my call for a social contract and the need for feminised input into it. There are some hopeful signs in Australia, but not by those in power. The absences of feminised inputs were noticed by a group of powerful women led by Sam Mostyn, Chair of Chief Executive Women. Late last month she spoke at the National Press Club on behalf of a group of eminent women called Women for Progress. During her presentation she outlined the need for urgent reform but not (yet) the need for a social contract:

“So what we at CEW are saying is that this pandemic has left women more vulnerable in their employment, their financial security, their mental health and their safety than they already were. And what we are also saying is that in order to recover from the long-term impacts of COVID-19 we need significant and innovative investments in social infrastructure and in people – in CARE.

She finished with:

So now is the opportunity to build towards a vibrant, smart, sustainable and equitable economy and society. Now is the time for Australia to develop a comprehensive plan for growth which closes the widening social and economic gap between Australians along gender, class, racial, cultural, ableism, LGBTQIA and geographical lines. And for us to recognise that the compounding effect of excluding multiple diverse identities robs us all of our full potential as a nation. We need to capitalise on important lessons from the COVID-19 crisis and put care at the centre of the economy AND WE NEED TO PUT WOMEN AT EVERY DECISION-MAKING TABLE.

(The capitals were hers).

As a long-term public feminist, I am delighted both at the return of the social contract idea as a basis for reform and recognition by some powerful voices of what is missing. Nations built just as economies damage ‘the externalities’ that create human societies.

My views on this are longstanding and were sparked by my 1995 Boyer Lectures on ‘’A Truly Civil Society’’. They identified the necessity of social trust as the glue to achieve such a society.

Relations to government should start with citizenship rights and obligations, not the fragility of customer choices per se. My predictions, 26 years ago, of bad results of the shift above, are evident and we can see the outcomes being faced in once democracies e.g. Hungary, the Philippines, Poland and Brazil.

Time for change? As reforming prime minister Gough Whitlam put it nearly 50 years ago, ‘‘It’s time’’. Time for us to introduce a social contract here to restore the trust in social democracy that is dangerously slipping.

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