The Family Issue

The general Australian attitude towards family politics is one that has given me more headaches than I can count, and I’m not prepare to sit here and sugar coat it; this country is still stuck in the 1960’s when it comes to financial family policies. ‘The Australian model’ has one basic essence: a woman finds a man with a good profession/high salary (he needs to be able to support a family, after all), has children, stays at home with them because child care is too expensive, then remains the primary caregiver until 10 years later she goes back to work only to find that her degree is no longer applicable and she has to take up some mind numbing work just to stay afloat. Whilst there are obviously variations of this model, it is sadly the truth more often than not (and I’ve lived here for over a decade to witness it). Time & time again governments aren’t prepared to come up with a proper maternity leave scheme and implement it. Time & time again the Australian population’s reaction towards any slight tax increase for the common good is meet with great fear and anger.  I really don’t understand it. Why is Australia so behind in family friendly policy making?

There are two major issues with the way the government support families today:  one being the lack of an adequate and fair government maternity leave scheme and the other being access to subsidised, low cost childcare. Democratically elected politicians are spending more time and money on bizarre anti immigration strategies, right under the nose of the people who elected them, than thinking about the common good of the people who actually live here. There seems to be a policy hole in the way financial family policies have been developed at an institutional level, and what’s even more worrying is that the general public just doesn’t seem to demand any changes in the way family policies are being developed.

Moving away from politics, there is also tremendous amount of work to be done within workplaces. In my experience, many workplaces seem to have a general negative attitude when it comes to supporting working mums to stay working, and there are no generally no extra sick days or assistance schemes for any working mother (or father for that matter).  Women who wish to return to work after being on maternity leave often find their role has been ‘restructured’, or they are unable to come back to work in a part time capacity. There are also numerous examples of women being pushed out of managerial positions post child, and instead been offered a lesser role. Take it or leave it. This not only creates the culture and understanding of a workplace as being a place where ‘male culture and rule dominates’, it also has the unfortunate consequence of shaping negative attitudes of women by other women. I have directly observed this type of negativity towards working mothers with small children in several workplaces, where the norm is that you should always be ready to work overtime (i.e. be single and not have much of a life outside of work) and sick days are something you just accrue on your payslip. Time & time again I have listened to comments made by (usually single) women towards women with children, saying “it’s their choice <having children>, so they shouldn’t complain about anything <work related, i.e. pressing demands and unachievable part time workloads>”. This is part of an obscure conception that having children is somehow a choice made by women only, and now they’ll just have to face the consequences of such ‘bad’ decision-making.  And by the way, who do they think they are these women who think that they can even remotely contribute to the workforce whilst also raising small children? There is also a strong pattern where women in leadership roles, married or unmarried, don’t have children, or have chosen to not have children. Who can blame them though, in a country where having a decent career and children is an equation that just doesn’t marry up!

Luckily, it’s not all depressing everywhere. Some places in the world seem to get it right. I give you the example of Sweden.

According to statistics worked out by the European Union, Swedish parents are among the EU’s most successful in balancing work and family responsibilities. Female and maternal employment rates are among the highest in the EU, and child poverty is the lowest. The country’s family policy is aimed at supporting the dual-earner family model and ensuring the same rights and obligations regarding family and work for both women and men. Generous spending on family benefits, flexible leave and working hours for parents with young children and affordable, high-quality childcare are the main factors for success. The aim of the Swedish financial family policy is to contribute to improved conditions for good living standards for all families with children, increased freedom of choice and empowerment of parents.

At 71.8% in 2011, the employment rate of women was close to that of men (76.3%) and well above the Lisbon target for female employment (60%). Measured at 73.7% in 2011, the employment rate of mothers of children under six is the fourth highest in the EU. At the same time, at 1.9 children per woman in 2011, the fertility rate is relatively high compared with other EU countries.

In Sweden, a high proportion of women use flexible working arrangements. Female and male part-time employment rates stand at 39.6% and 13.7% respectively, compared to the EU averages of 32.1% for women and 9% for men. Women work on average five hours per week less than men, a smaller difference than elsewhere in the EU. At 15.8%, the gender pay gap in Sweden is lower than the EU average of 16.4%.

Sweden has a highly developed and flexible parental leave scheme that allows and encourages both parents to spend time with their children. The mother and the father are together entitled to up to 16 months paid leave per child. Of this, 13 months are paid at 80% of the most recent income up to a ceiling of approximately 440,000 SEK ($72,000 AUD) per year and the remaining three months are paid at a flat rate of 180 SEK ($30 AUD) per day.)

Each parent has a personal, non-transferable entitlement to two months of paid parental leave (of the total 16 months). The remaining 12 months can be freely shared between parents. The right to be absent from work full time is restricted to the child’s first 18 months. Thereafter parents who want to reduce working hours or be on full leave must use parental benefit days to ensure such a right to parental leave. Parents have the right to decrease their working time by up to 25% without using parental benefit days, until the child is eight years old or finishes the first year of school.

At around 3.2% of GDP, financial benefits for children and families represent one of the highest shares in the EU (the EU average is 2.3% of GDP). Along with the high level of labour force participation, this is also seen as a major reason for low poverty among children. Sweden has one of the EU’s lowest child poverty rates  (14.5% in 2011) and was among the top-rated nations for child well-being in the 2007 UNICEF report.

What Sweden is essentially doing is not only recognising that raising children is an extremely important task that can and will be paired with full- and part time work successfully (given the parents feel supported by their government and work places), it also contributes to happier, healthier and well functioning families. Check out this Danish study for proof of this. Furthermore, this also contributes to greater gender equality, and leaves women with real choices about their life, not only in their marriage and family life, but also in their workplace.

Australia needs to learn from countries such as Sweden, instead of developing into an ‘American Dream’ like society. The notion that families are something private in which the man has to take care of still has a strong presence, however all this really does is limit the options for women and put pressure on men to be the sole breadwinner in an economy which is getting more and more difficult to navigate.

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a place on the river

Recently, I spent a day in Footscray, a suburb in Melbourne’s inner west.

There is plenty to be excited about in Footscray. Firstly because the suburb is characterised by a very diverse, multicultural central shopping area, which reflects the successive waves of immigration experienced by Melbourne, and by Footscray in particular. Once a centre for Italian and former Yugoslavian migrants, it is now a hub for Vietnamese, and increasingly, East African immigrants in Melbourne.

Interestingly, Footscray is named after Foots Cray, on the River Cray in Kent, England (UK).  For over 40,000 year, Footscray was home to the Aboriginal Woimurrung and Boonwurrung tribes of the Kulin nation.  In 2011, Footscray’s 13,193 residents came from an impressive 135 countries. Needless to say, the restaurant scene is booming with different cuisines and there are currently about 30 Vietnamese restaurants, 20 Indian, 17 Chinese and several African, Australian, Indonesian, Italian, Thai, Turkish, Malaysian, Portuguese, Korean and Japanese restaurants.

Stats from 2006 show that less than half of Footscray’s population (41.1%) was born in Australia, and the main countries of overseas origin are Vietnam, China, India, United Kingdom and Italy. In the 21st Century, Maribyrnong municipality of which Footscray is a part of saw a major increase in residents from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma, including a large proportion of refugees.

At a first glance, Footscray may seem like a dirty, neglected and perhaps dangerous place. If you take a closer look however, there is evidence of great social connectivity all around. This is particularly evident in the way many residents know each other’s first names, and the many people chatting with each other in the streets. A friend of mine rode his bike through Footscray and told me that when his bike suddenly broke down in the main mall, several individuals came to his rescue and in a joint effort they were able to fix his bike. When going to the Footscray market, a widely known institution, there are plenty of conversations to be had with the various fruit and vegetable merchants. It’s all about establishing a relationship with your butcher or fruit vendor. In the restaurants, the hospitality is warm, welcoming and down to earth. At the various bakeries and cake shops, whether it’s Italian or Vietnamese, there is a sense of pride related to the sharing of cultures and traditions. To me, Footscray is where postcolonial Australia really takes form and demonstrates what a multicultural society is all about. Footscray intrigues me so much that I have started photographing life in the suburb. I’ll share more as I go, but for now I have some photos from my initial visit. Please click on the photos to view them in a larger format.

IMG_6705 the station

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IMG_6703 donuts

IMG_6733 saigon

IMG_6713 namasthe

IMG_6714 woman walking

 

hello winter

I’ve got the post holiday bluuueees…..no wonder, considering how cold it’s been in Melbourne lately! I thought spending July in Europe and Asia meant the worst of the coldness took place while you sipped mojitos in Bali. However waking up to extreme winds and rain this morning brought some serious doubt to that theory. Even though it turned sunny in the afternoon, the winds felt arctic and went straight through my glorious winter coat. I have to say that after 11 years in Australia, I still can’t get used to these freezing houses we live in! Al though I finally have ducted heating in my house (hurrah!), I still seem to spend my days sipping ridiculous amounts of tea & coffee, and jumping into a downward dog every now and then just to make sure the blood is still circulating! Anyway, here are some photos from my out & abouting today. I welcome the return of the winter boots and coat! Along with the jetlag, it’s really making my life complete!

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By the way, did you hear the news of how the Norwegian PM became a cabbie for the afternoon as part of the 2013 Norwegian election campaign? If not check it here.

Something for K Rudd and T Demolition to think about?

Thank you, Julia.

As the week is coming to an end, it felt like it was time to acknowledge the sad week we’ve witnessed in Australian politics. In a shock twist, Julia Gillard was forced to let go of the prime ministership on Wednesday night, after Julia herself had called a ballot the same day. Of course we all understand that the pressures internally in the Labor party to conduct such a ballot at this point in time would have been strong. So about as sudden as she had risen to power, she was gone again, and Kevin 07 wasn’t slow to make himself comfortable in the power chair.

While countless articles and opinion pieces have been written on the things Julia did wrong as the prime minister well as the things she did right, I’d like to pay tribute to her for the extraordinary resilience, strength and professionalism she portrayed while she was time and time again subjected to extreme bullying and vicious harassment by her peers, the media as well as the people of this country, primarily because of the fact that she was a woman. Australia might like to look at itself as a progressive, forward thinking and highly developed country, however when faced with a woman as the prime minister the real issues around misogyny and inequality suddenly revealed its ugly head. The sort of descriptions that emerged in the public debate made you wonder if people would ever call their mothers or daughters similar things, and if the answer was no, why on earth the prime minister of the nation should the target of such cruel abuse?! The lowest of the low occurred a few weeks back when radio host Howard Sattler suggested on national radio that Julia’s partner of many years, Tim Mathieson, must be gay. Even when she politely answered that of course he’s not, Mr Sattler kept at it and wouldn’t let it go. It was only due to Julia’s extreme resilience and professionalism that she didn’t just walk out of the studio right there and then. What Mr Sattler was essentially insinuating was that it was hard to believe that any man could be in a sexual relationship with Ms Gillard. Why? Because what kind of man could be attracted to such a strong, independent and unbreakable woman? What kind of man wants to lie down next to a woman who doesn’t cry, who isn’t a mother and who never shows any signs of weakness? Only a gay man, of course.

Julia Gillard, you will be remembered for your courage and guts, and most importantly for your commitment to making life better for all Australians.

Like she said in her final speech, let’s just hope “it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that….”

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talking, small scale

When I first came to Australia as a young gal, I remember so well how confronting I thought it was when shop assistants asked me ‘how are you?’ Or ‘how’s your day going?’ and I immediately had to resist the urge to run out of the shop and hide somewhere. Born and raised in Norway, I just wasn’t used to this random chit chat. What was I meant to respond? What did they want from me?

Later on, this obviously became the norm even in my life, and I found myself asking people the same questions, forgetting that I was once so intrigued by the real meaning of such phrases. I now understand that these types of questions work as a social lubricant – meaning that they make it easier for us to approach each other, making strangers into another version of you. It cuts through our scepticism and fear of other people when we look into a stranger’s eyes and realise that we are both making the same effort to have a conversation about something relatively ‘empty’, like the weather. In other words, it’s not about the content of a conversation; it’s about the people, and our willingness to communicate with those who share a part in our day, whether it’s at the super market, the coffee shop or whilst waiting for a tram.

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‘Phatic communication’, or small talk, is still something I’m learning to master. Aussies, on the other hand, are excellent at this art form. Whether in country towns or in Melbourne CBD, at restaurants or shopping malls, people often strike up a chat just for the sake of a chat, and there’s never any time to be offended. ‘Where did you get that skirt from?’ ‘What’s that dish you’re eating?’ ‘Can it get any hotter?’ ‘What are you up to on the weekend?’ and the list goes on. Ahhh, the small talk and its associated gestures. What a brilliant way to make a society run more smoothly. The laughter when the 5 pm commuters are all crammed into the loaded train carriers. A situation that could make anyone ‘go off’ so to speak, suddenly becomes so ridiculous that all you can do is giggle, like an ‘oh well, it could be a lot worse’ kinda scenario. It seems to me that one of my greatest lessons learnt whilst living in Australia, has turned out to be the ability not to take people and situations too seriously, to be able to giggle at most things, and be less afraid of strangers. I now realise that most people are really only a reflection of myself, with their similar lives and ideas and wants. Who would have thought??!

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