Like the budget before it, the 2021-22 Budget held out the promise of structural reform to address gender equality. Disappointedly, it delivered yet another missed opportunity for doing so. Those examining the fiscal entrails of this latest effort look for a way forward.
Engaged citizens committed to lasting and embedded frameworks for gender equality hoped for three structural reforms — a commitment to reintroduce gender analysis in policy formulation and implementation; reforms to promote more even sharing, caring and working roles within families and households (more supportive and incentivised paid parental leave, especially for fathers and partners, more affordable access to early childhood education); and a material investment in preventing domestic violence while assisting victims to rebuild their and their children’s lives in safety.
Some gains were delivered. The announcements leading up to budget night included changes to the childcare rebate, lifting the maximum rebate to 95 percent for those with two children in care. The further $1 billion towards the National Plan on Reducing Violence Towards Women and their Children is a welcome addition to an historically underfunded area. Boosts to very low-income earners’ superannuation earnings, subsidies for single parents to gain a deposit for a home and, of course, the additional $17.7 billion towards improving aged care are all important. And the Government did include a Women’s Budget Statement as part of the suite of official Budget Statements, for the first time since the Abbott Government ceased the Statement in 2014.
Yet, the most significant missed opportunity, is highlighted by the National Foundation for Australian Women’s (NFAW) yearly “Gender-Lens” analysis of budget measures. This yearly round-up illustrates the value of applying gender analysis to policy. The NFAW Report breaks up the budget analysis into categories including machinery of government expenditure, revenue raising, social infrastructure, physical infrastructure, climate change and energy and housing, social services, early childhood education and care, schools, VET, Higher Education. The report highlights the impacts of employment policy through paid parental leave, work and family, working from home and STEM on women. It examines health, aged care, reducing violence against women and children, and applies gender analysis to international aid.
There is no doubt that budgets are reflections of the priorities and philosophy of the government and as the NFAW report identified: “Women hoped that after the year of COVID, which showed up the flaws in so many of our systems and structures, we would see some real reform that would recognise the role that women have in the Australian economy, and in society; we hoped government would take steps to address the systemic issues”.
Those systematic issues, the hurdles preventing true gender equality and unlocking the mechanisms for overcoming them, are central to the objectives of our work at the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation. Indeed, they are the focus of our forthcoming inaugural symposium Equals Now. From 16-17 June 2021 we are gathering academics, public policy makers, civil society and interested and engaged citizens to examine the existing research and practice that may help us work towards gender equality. We have chosen three specific areas that identify the frameworks within which we need to connect gender equity issues – the private sphere, the economic sphere and the public sphere. Evaluating the gender norms and expectations and their impacts within and across these fields is fundamental to achieving embedded structural change.
For instance, we will examine the gender norms that need budging in the home and in the traditionally identified ‘private’ spheres that impact on women’s public leadership. What can be done in the home to shift and challenge those norms? We will hear from fathers working in this area in a panel called “From Homer to Bandit – Fatherhood towards 2030.” How can we improve government’s role in assisting in the sharing of the load of unpaid care work that COVID has so clearly amplified is disproportionately carried by women? The budget should have directly addressed how child-care and paid parental leave fits in this paradigm to enable gender equality.
The links between the economic structures in society and equality are stark. When it comes to gender this has been evident in the context of the gender pay gap, the gender segregated workforce and the tax system. Public policy generally is simply not alert enough to the differential impact of policy, including fiscal policy, on different groups in society. Equals Now engages with work being undertaken in these areas and will consider what reforms are needed to embed equality in our economic structures to enable people’s lives to be lived to the full and to enable women to equally share the power?
The work of the 50/50 Foundation and our inaugural symposium is critically focussed on the need to share political power. What legal, and political and governance structures need changing to assist in the project of embedding equality in all public leadership in Australia? Some of the discussions highlighted in the program include — “The malapportionment of men in Cabinet in Australia”; “A new model for job sharing to increase gender equality in the workforce, particularly in the senior levels of management”; “Job sharing in Parliament” and “Expanding women’s representation in senior internal political leadership roles.” Changes to ensure equality in leadership are a step towards equality in all spheres – and the same can be said in reverse – ensuring equality in the home and in all economic decision making will enable shared power. This is a win for everyone. A society that fosters and enables equality will benefit everyone. It’s a fundamental plank of fairness but also makes good sense economically. Failure to embrace this measure in the 20-21 Budget highlights the extent of the missed opportunity it represents.
Professor Kim Rubenstein and Trish Bergin are Co-Directors of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra. For more information and to register to participate in person or online at the conference see Equals Now Symposium 16-17 June 2021, University of Canberra