Marginal seats, as we know, decide elections. These seats can be found everywhere from northern Tasmania to northern Queensland, but they tend to have one thing in common: A lot of kids.
Research recently conducted for Save The Children shows the 10 most marginal Coalition electorates and 10 most marginal Labor electorates all have a significantly higher proportion of households with children than the rest of the nation. Some have nearly twice the national average. Both major parties know this.
Political leaders love to compare coronavirus to being at war. But what is obvious right now is that this is not like a war in one very important respect: It is destroying the employment of women.
Unsurprisingly, these seats are also home to high numbers of women aged 20-45. And both the Coalition and Labor know women in this age group are more likely to be "soft voters" than other groups. In other words, young women are more willing to shift their vote than older women or men.
It means young mothers in these 20 marginal seats could play a big role in deciding the outcome of the coming election. For all the "hi-vis" campaigning, this could turn out to be the "pink-vis" poll.
So, what's the key to winning over these voters? Clearly women share similar concerns to men about health, education, climate change, job security, COVID restrictions, national security and so on. But many women have done it much tougher than men over the past two years, bearing the brunt of the pandemic. In many cases, their worlds have been turned upside down.
Women lost more work during lockdowns
As has been well documented, women lost more jobs and hours of work than men during the lockdowns of both 2020 and 2021 (fortunately many of these jobs quickly returned). Women also took on more of the unpaid work during lockdowns, including home schooling.
And then there were those who were unable to work from home and had to keep fronting up for work in the caring sector. These women (and they are overwhelmingly women) working in childcare or aged care have been exposed to the risk of catching COVID, while dealing with anxious families, not to mention wrangling personal protective equipment.
The physical and emotional workload, particularly for those in aged care, has escalated during the pandemic. Wages have not.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has put forward new ideas to tackle social media trolls and bullying.(ABC News: Tamara Penniket)
In March, the aged care royal commission highlighted the need to boost wages to both improve care and attract more staff to the sector. It called on the government to work with employers and unions to bring a case before the Fair Work Commission. The government gave a "retention bonus" only to aged care nurses in the Budget. There was nothing for personal care workers.
As for a wage increase, a case before the Commission drags on. Unions are seeking a 25 per cent pay rise. No decision is expected before the election and there's been no commitment from either the government or Labor to help fund any increase.
As the population ages (the fertility rate, by the way, has fallen to an all-time low), the demand for qualified aged care workers is only going to intensify.
The government gave a nod to this in its initial response to the damning royal commission report, announcing $92 million to "boost the aged care workforce". So far, there's no evidence any of that has been spent. It's not like there aren't innovative ideas out there.
Female voters are already being targeted
Two weeks before Christmas the Prime Minister spoke to the Sydney Institute about some of the lessons learned during the pandemic. He said COVID had underscored what matters most to Australians: "Our health, our families, our friends, our jobs, our livelihoods, our communities," he said, along with "our national sense of fairness". Scott Morrison suggested Australians aspire to "be able to care for others".
Yet when it comes to delivering some "sense of fairness" to the (mostly) women working in the care sector, it seems Scott Morrison expects "can-do capitalism" to solve the problem.
Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese promises to make childcare cheaper for working families.(AAP: Dean Lewins)
Anthony Albanese is treading carefully, too. Bill Shorten promised at the last election to top-up the pay of childcare workers. This time Albanese is making no such commitment, for fear of being portrayed as a reckless spender.
That's not to say the two men battling it out at this election aren't acutely conscious of the need to win over women. Albanese promises to make childcare cheaper for working families, and Morrison has put forward new ideas to tackle social media trolls and bullying. Both policies are framed as enormously important to families, which no doubt they are.
But it's unlikely to be enough.
Scott Morrison and his government enter the new year with a fresh iteration of their "women problem" — and it bring serious campaign trouble.
The key to this election may lie beyond the usual frame of economic management and national security. Policies aimed at women and families could prove pivotal.
Support for kids to get back on track physically, mentally and educationally after lockdowns. Plans to boost the pay of workers and attract more staff to the care sector. Strategies to close the gender pay gap. A greater effort to tackle family violence. And, of course, addressing the mistreatment of women in the workplace, which became such a prominent issue in 2021.
Female voters are already being targeted by the "voices of" independent candidates — all of whom are women — running against Liberal men in seats like Wentworth, Goldstein and Kooyong. But they could also decide the outcome across a string of marginal seats.
Far from a "khaki" or "high-vis" campaign, Morrison and Albanese need to work out how to win over women.
David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9:00am on Sunday or on iview.