Political responses to Equal Pay (Chapter 6 of my History Honours dissertation)

Political responses to Equal Pay

In Britain, early attempts to pass equal pay measures through the House of Commons nearly succeeded. In 1936 a private member’s bill was introduced, attempting to introduce equal pay for women, in the common classes of the civil service on the same scales of pay as men.[1] The first vote narrowly carried 156 votes to 148, much to the surprise of the government.[2] The government then insisted that the vote be retaken and threatened to resign if the bill passed again. This second vote defeated the equal pay motion 149 to 134.[3] Eight years later a similar occurrence happened in the Commons over an amendment to the Education Bill, seeking to introduce equal pay for teachers. On this occasion the equal pay amendment passed by one vote, and was the only time the Churchill government lost a vote in parliament during the war.[4] Once again the vote was sent back to the Commons and the government threatened to resign unless the amendment was defeated. Again this threat resulted in the equal pay amendment being defeated, this time with a Royal Commission set up to investigate the matter.[5] The Conservative Government hoped this would defer the issue till after the war, by which time fewer women would be needed in the workforce.

The shift of the British Conservative Party on the issue of equal pay, has parallels with that of the New Zealand National Party, in that from the 1940s through to the late 1950s its position changed significantly. In both countries the Labour Party, once in government, was reluctant to support equal pay for women. Between 1936 and 1944 the British Conservative Party votes were instrumental in defeating parliamentary proposals for equal pay in Britain.[6] However, once in opposition, the Conservative Party found it could make political mileage on the issue. In 1947 the then Labour Government in Britain announced that it would not introduce equal pay, despite being sympathetic while in opposition.[7] Conservatives, particularly the moderates within the party saw this as an opportunity to win votes off Labour, so also began making sympathetic statements in favour of equal pay. Once back in government in 1951 The Conservatives delayed any decision on implementing equal pay citing economic difficulties. Public opinion meanwhile was turning in favour of women, and in 1954 opinion polls indicated a majority supported equal pay.[8] In response Labour in opposition by 1954, announced it would introduce equal pay if elected government. The Conservatives responded by announcing their own 7 year plan to phase in equal pay for the civil service from 1955 to 1962.[9] This was achieved using existing public service pay setting mechanisms rather than through passing equal pay legislation, which did not happen in Britain until 1970.[10] The campaign used litigation or the threat thereof as pressure on the government to achieve this change.

In New Zealand the Parker Appeal and her subsequent demotion resulted in a debate in Parliament. Leader of the Opposition Walter Nash, in opening the debate, said that women being paid less than men was “discrimination that had been shown against women for centuries, but I think we are becoming a little more enlightened now.”[11] He went on to say that what happened to Jean Parker was “class discrimination of the worst kind, to say that a women who can do the job as well as a man should receive less than a man.”[12]

National MP Dame Hilda Ross, when speaking in this debate, said it was a pity that this had happened. She went on to say any women who stood for a position in public life knew there would be a great deal of prejudice against her just because she is a woman.[13] When Prime Minister Sid Holland interjected shouting “not in your case” Ross responded that yes, she had, saying she had experienced National Party men not support her because she was a woman.[14] Ross was known to have supported the equal pay cause, unlike most of her National Party caucus colleagues at the time.[15] Mark Derby, describes Ross as well intentioned but deluded in that she argued that Parker should not be concerned at her loss of status and income since “she is young, she is attractive and she has got a husband.”[16] While Ross did repeat the National Party line that Parker had been poorly advised by the PSA in taking the case, she also expressed sympathy for Parker’s position. PSA executive women’s representative Joyce McBeth confirms Ross’s sympathy for the PSA position. McBeth recalls Ross being supportive despite her National Government’s position on equally pay. Ross had spoken in favour of equal pay four years earlier in 1952 saying “equal pay for work of equal value…it will come and I see no reason why it should not come.”[17] Ross organised meetings with women Labour MPs such as Iriaka Ratana to build support for equal pay.[18] Ross talked of women with many years’ experience in the public service having to put up with young men in junior clerks’ positions being considered more senior in the public service. Ross remarked “if some young man in this house was my senior, I would resent it.”[19] According to one Labour MP, Reginald Keeling, the world was moving towards equal pay in 1956.[20] Keeling mentioned that Tram conductors and grocery store employees had already achieved equal pay.[21]

After the Parker case, the PSA made a decision to shift its focus to the government and to seek legislative change. The use of litigation as a tactic had helped raise public awareness, but had failed to deliver the desired outcome of lifting Parker’s pay rates up to that of her male colleagues. The PSA initially applied to the Government Service Tribunal for the lower salary cap on female employees to be removed, which was subsequently rejected in 1957.[22]

The response from the National Government was for Prime Minister Sid Holland to call a ‘tea party’ of women from these organisations to discuss the issue.[23] The PSA was not invited to this event at first, as Prime Minister Holland argued that the PSA was not a Womens’ Organisation.[24] There were also questions within the PSA as to whether they should attend the event. PSA Women’s sub-committee member Margot Jenkins held the view they should not allow the government to fob women off with tea and biscuits.[25] Eventually the government was forced to back down on this issue as the PSA had support from the National Council of Women, and other women’s organisations after the Parker Case. At this ‘tea party’ Holland was quoted as saying: “Men used to be the breadwinners, but now I know that thousands of women have dependants, and these women should be getting paid the same as men.”[26] However, the government was of the view that this could not be implemented in the public service without the private sector also changing. In March 1957, the National Government announced it would set up a Commission of Inquiry into equal pay.[27] The main focus of this inquiry was working with government departments to examine practical and procedural issues involving implementing equal pay in the public service.[28]

The position taken by the Labour opposition was to support equal pay, which had nominally been their policy since 1927.[29] Despite Nash’s depiction of women being paid less as class discrimination of the worst kind, he was slow to act on the issue after winning the 1957 election. At first Labour did not accelerate the process of lifting women’s wages in the public service.[30] In part this was due to Labour winning the 1957 election with a majority of one. Megan Cook disagrees that this was the case as the previous National Government had already declared its support for equal pay, and set in motion a process that was likely eventually to lead to its implementation in some form.[31] Another explanation is the budget crisis of 1958. On taking government in 1957 Labour were informed by treasury that the country’s economic situation had deteriorated rapidly.[32] Finance Minister Arnold Nordmeyer and Nash began adopting delay tactics regarding equal pay during this crisis.[33] It is also likely that social attitudes of the time influenced Nash view, who still to some extent believed in the male breadwinner ideology. Cook agrees with this position claiming that Nash, while supporting the Parker case when in opposition, based on a commitment to egalitarianism. Yet Nash held a conservative view on the position and women and he still believed at heart it was the role of men to provide for dependents.[34] Grace du Faur agreed with this assessment and thought Nash was surprised public service women were pushing this. She believed Nash’s outlook was based on the fact that his own mother did not have equal pay.[35] This prompted the PSA once again to look for ways to apply pressure on the government. According to Jim Ferguson the PSA believed legislation needed to be passed by Labour, as the chances of passing such legislation under a National administration were slim.[36] This time they did so on the international stage, with Margaret Long making her infamous announcement at the 1958 ACTU women’s conference as already discussed.

In March 1958, NSW Premier JJ Cahill announced that he would legislate for equal pay, which he did later that year.[37] Other Australian states and the federal government did not follow this move until a number of years later. When the NSW state government announced it would legislate for equal pay, the federal Labour Minister Harold Holt responded. Holt claimed he did not oppose the principle of equal pay, but that the matter should be decided by the appropriate tribunals.[38] Supporters of the campaign sent letters to the Prime Minister, leaders of the state political parties and members of the state parliament. Officially the NSW opposition supported this bill introduced by the NSW Labor government, but one opposition MP spoke against saying it would have a bad effect on marriage and the NSW birth-rate.[39] While this campaign was successful in achieving legislative change in NSW, in other states and federally the change did not occur until the 1960s.

In 1958, the ILO debated and eventually passed Convention 111 regarding discrimination in employment. This specifically stipulated that there should be no discrimination against women in employment.[40] Like the Holland National government in 1951, the Nash Labour government took a ‘neither for nor against’ position and abstained on this ILO Convention.[41] The Australian government federal government also abstained as it had in 1951 on the earlier convention. In response to this, the New Zealand Council for Equal Pay, which was a coalition of women’s organisations and unionists, called on the government to ratify both the 1951 and 1958 ILO Conventions.[42] The Council for Equal Pay also issued a statement to the media expressing concern about the government’s stand on the ILO Conventions.[43] While this did not change the government’s position at the time, it continued to build public awareness and support for the issue of equal pay.

See the source image
NZ Prime Minister Walter Nash 1957 to 1960. Eventually passed Equal Pay legislation in the dying days of his government.

In the dying days of the 2nd Labour government in 1960, there was a real push by the equal pay campaign to get legislation through before the general election. Nash by this time was casting doubt on whether Labour had gone into the 1957 election with a promise to take action on equal pay.  At meetings Nash would say Labour supported the principle but had made no commitment to legislate. Nash, however, was a notorious hoarder of old paperwork and it was believed the evidence of this promise would be found in his collection.[44] Nash’s private secretary Joan Evans was friends with a many of the people campaigning for equal pay. Evans was able to find the policy document that proved Labour had promised to legislate for equal pay in the 1957 election.[45] This document was produced by the PSA delegation at their next meeting with Nash, who rather changed his bluster once the document was released.[46]

When PSA national secretary Jack Turnbull meet with Nash in mid-1960, Nash expressed concerns that there would not be time to get the bill drafted.[47] Turnbull responded that the PSA and the campaign group had already done quite a bit of work on this so were happy to help the draftsmen put together the bill, which Nash agreed to.[48] The Government Service Equal Pay Bill finally reached parliament in October 1960.[49] The Bill, much like the British one was to implement equal pay in a phased way between 1960 and 1963.

The National opposition had up to that point given the impression that they would oppose equal pay. They claimed greater analysis was needed into the impact this change would have.[50] By this stage the government commission looking into this issue had reported back but it was thought the opposition would argue that more information was required. Deputy leader of the Opposition Jack Marshall did indeed make this claim when the Bill was first introduced into parliament.[51] Much to the surprise of equal pay supporters when the Bill returned to parliament for its second reading the opposition announced it would support it. Much like the British Conservative Party, the New Zealand National Party had caucus members supportive of equal pay. Also some feared that women voters might be put off voting for National if they opposed equal pay.

In 1960 the Government Services Equal Pay bill passed with support of Labour and National. The goal of the PSA campaign from 1955 onwards had been to get an equal pay act for public servants. Margaret Long later reflected that this was a fairly limited goal and explained that in organisations like the PSA people had to work within allowable parameters.[52]

 

 

[1] Harold L Smith British feminism and the equal pay issue in the 1930s Women’s History Review 1996 105

[2] Harold L Smith British feminism and the equal pay issue in the 1930s Women’s History Review 1996 105

[3] Harold L Smith British feminism and the equal pay issue in the 1930s Women’s History Review 1996 105

[4] Harold L Smith The Problem of “Equal Pay for Equal Work” In Great Britain during World War II The Journal of Modern History Volume 53 Number 4 1981 668

[5] Harold L Smith The Problem of “Equal Pay for Equal Work” In Great Britain during World War II The Journal of Modern History Volume 53 Number 4 1981 668

[6] Harold L Smith The politics of conservative reform: the equal pay campaign for equal work issue, 1945-1955 The Historical Journal Volume 35 Number 2 1992 401

[7] Harold L Smith The politics of conservative reform: the equal pay campaign for equal work issue, 1945-1955 The Historical Journal Volume 35 Number 2 1992  404

[8] Harold L Smith The politics of conservative reform: the equal pay campaign for equal work issue, 1945-1955 The Historical Journal Volume 35 Number 2 1992  409

[9] Harold L Smith The politics of conservative reform: the equal pay campaign for equal work issue, 1945-1955 The Historical Journal Volume 35 Number 2 1992  409

[10] Glew 169

[11] New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1956, Volume 309 1549

[12] New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1956, Volume 309 1549

[13] New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1956, Volume 309 1576

[14] New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1956, Volume 309 1577

[15] Bronwyn Dalley. Ross, Grace Hilda Cuthberta from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 28-Jan-2014  http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5r25/ross-grace-hilda-cuthberta

[16] Derby 122

[17] Cook 81

[18] Joyce McBeth, interviewed by Alison Lash, epcas 38, series 38, August 1 1985

[19] New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1956, Volume 309 1577

[20] New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1956, Volume 309 1585

[21] New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1956, Volume 309 1584

[22] Nolan 239

[23] Nolan 239

[24] Margaret Long interviewed by Alison Lash, epcas 38, series 38, August 10 1985

[25] Margaret Long interviewed by Alison Lash, epcas 38, series 38, August 10 1985

[26] Derby 123

[27] Nolan 240

[28] Nolan 240

[29] Nolan 240

[30] Nolan 240

[31] Cook 90

[32] Mary Logan Nordy, Arnold Nordmeyer A political biography Steele Roberts Wellington 2008 306

[33] Keith Sinclair Walter Nash Auckland University Press Auckland 1976 346

[34] Cook 90

[35] Grace du Faur, interviewed by Cath Kelly, epcas 38, series 38 August 9 1988

[36] Jim Ferguson, interviewed by Cath Kelly and Margaret Long, epcas 38, series 38, November 22 1986

[37] Sheridan & Stretton 138

[38] Marian Quartly and Judith Smart Respectable Radicals: A history of the National Council of Women of Australia 1896 -2006 Monash University 2015 294

[39] The Canberra Times Equal Pay bill passes through all stages, 11 December 1958 13

[40] Corner 3

[41] Corner 81

[42] Corner 82

[43] Corner 82

[44] Grace du Faur, interviewed by Cath Kelly, epcas 38, series 38 August 9 1988

[45] Grace du Faur, interviewed by Cath Kelly, epcas 38, series 38 August 9 1988

[46] Grace du Faur, interviewed by Cath Kelly, epcas 38, series 38 August 9 1988

[47] Jack Turnbull, interviewed by Cath Kelly, epcas 38, series 38 April 19 1986

[48] Jack Turnbull, interviewed by Cath Kelly, epcas 38, series 38 April 19 1986

[49] Roth 155

[50] Corner 89

[51] Roth 155

[52] Margaret Long, interviewed by Alison Lash, epcas 38, series 38, August 10 1985

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