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Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Opaque Budget Papers, but here’s the gender scrutiny

May 13, 2022 | Commentary, Policy, Democracy, Leadership, Equality, Research, Power, Gender, Activism, Money and Finance, Politics, Election, Feature

The National Foundation for Australian Women is an independent feminist organisation that carries a voice outside of party politics. As we near the Federal election, BroadAgenda’s editor Ginger Gorman put a series of questions to key NFAW members – Professor Helen Hodgson, Leonora Risse, Dr Kathy MacDermott and Honorary Associate Professor Sally Moyle – about their unique incisive Gender Lens on the Budget project. 

  1. What is the Gender Lens on the Budget 2022? Why did you feel a need for it? 

The Gender Lens on the Budget is a project that the National Foundation for Australian Women has undertaken annually since 2014 to analyse the effect that the Federal Budget has on women.

The NFAW voluntarily invests in this analysis because the government doesn’t.

Australia was once an international leader in the practice of Gender Responsive Budgeting, during the 1980s, when the Office for Women supported a proper gender impact assessment across all policies in the budget. But this practice has been diluted over time, and the current Women’s Budget Statement that is released as part of the Budget documents is basically a statement of selected policy announcements.

Gender Responsive Budgeting not only embeds gender equity into the budget process. It also supports more analytical robustness into policymaking which is an ingredient for more responsible and effective policy design.

With the upcoming election, the 2022-23 Budget was effectively a statement of the Government election priorities. So instead of trying to track and respond to announcements during the campaign, we set out our priorities ahead of time, then used these as a benchmark in our analysis of the Budget and the formal budget response by the Opposition.

  1. As you said on your website: “We know that at the 2019 election the Coalition attracted the lowest proportion of women’s votes since the Australian Election Study began examining voter behaviour in 1987.” According to your analysis, has this budget and election campaign done anything targeted to address this? 

There was no big picture reform offered by either the Government or the Opposition in the Budget, and this has continued through the election campaign.

We identified six key areas as priorities: Employment and the Care Economy; Tax and Superannuation; Climate Change and Disaster Management; Housing and Homelessness; Welfare Reform and Integrity, Gender and the Just Use of Power. Our analysis showed that there was little in the budget to respond to the issues that we raised.  There have been government announcements in some of these areas during the campaign, but these have been consistent with the direction mapped out in the budget.

The Labor party has made announcements addressing three of our priorities: support before the Fair Work Commission for equal remuneration for aged care workers and revised equal remuneration provisions for women more broadly; the establishment of a properly empowered Integrity Commission; and additional housing for older women and women and their children fleeing homelessness.

This year the Budget Papers were particularly opaque, with important tables missing and programs renamed – as if to deliberately avoid external scrutiny.

For example the Government announced an extension to the First Home Owners Guarantee. This program was divided into three programs, but the detail of each was set out differently making it difficult to compare the three programs. Each year the budget papers includes a line item for “Decisions taken but not yet announced and not for publication”: the cynics among us refer to this as the election war chest. This year’s budget went further, with specific programs included but without details, allowing them to be announced during the election campaign.

We should emphasise that gender equality policy should not be about attracting women’s votes. Gender equality is about designing and implementing policy that fosters a genuinely gender equitable society and economy, and that is a goal which can resonate with the values of women, men and individuals of all genders.

  1. You’re calling for future governments to introduce gender responsive budgeting. Why? What does this mean? 

Gender responsive budgeting is a process that ensures that Governments consider how policy can impact men and women in different ways. Programs developed specifically to assist women, for example women-specific employment policies or family violence interventions are important, but full gender responsive budgeting goes beyond these programs to examine the full suite of policies in the budget. This includes considering the gender impacts of programs that might appear gender-neutral. If these policies are designed without taking gender into account, they can have inadvertent implications for gender equality.

For example it is now well known that women accumulate less superannuation than men although the rules are the same, because of the underlying differences in lifetime work participation rates. In 2017 changes were introduced with the intention of helping women who returned to work after a career but most women returning to work do not earn enough to take advantage of the change, so those rules-actually are more useful to men who earn more.

Government’s Women’s Budget Statements identify the tiny proportion of funding that is aimed specifically at women. A Budget that is gender responsive would assess how the whole Budget promotes or impedes gender equality outcomes. We want to see governments allocating funding to reduce gender gaps and help deliver more equal outcomes between women and men.

  1. What would you have like to see in regard to the low wage structure in care sectors?

As evidenced through the COVID-19 pandemic, the low wage structure in care sectors is undermining the ability of providers to attract and retain staff, impacting quality and availability of care. One-off payments to some of these workers before an election may be an acknowledgement of the issues, but it is not the permanent, well-designed structural reform needed across the care sectors. The Aged Care Royal Commission identified low wages and poor working conditions as among the key factors leading to poor outcomes in the sector.

The care sectors are important to two of the drivers of economic growth – productivity and participation – because the services they provide free other workers up from unpaid caring responsibilities, and allow them to work in more productive activities. Higher wages and more secure employment conditions across the sector will address current and emerging skill shortages, and help address the systematic gender pay gap in Australia.

Government cannot outsource its responsibility for poor wage outcomes in a sector it largely funds and regulates. Regulatory reform and increased funding are needed to address low wage growth, sector-wide undervaluation of women’s jobs and the job insecurity that is used to pin them in place.

  1. And what about superannuation and the lower lifetime earnings by women? 

The challenge in addressing poor superannuation outcomes is that the main driver is the gender pay gap: as long as women earn less over their lifetime, they will have lower superannuation. Addressing pay rates for the caring professions and addressing bias and discrimination in hiring will help to close the gender pay gap.

Career breaks also contribute to the gender pay gap. Superannuation should be payable on parental leave payments, whether paid by the Government or employers.

Neither party is proposing to provide superannuation for those on paid parental leave; Labor has, however, made a commitment to support equal remuneration for underpaid aged care workers and women in the broader workforce.

Carer credits should be paid to top up the superannuation of people who have left the paid labour market to care for children, elderly parents and other family members.

There should also be reforms to the paid parental leave scheme to encourage more equal parenting, including by allocating a dedicate period of use-it-or-lose-it paid parental leave to fathers. This enables women to return to the paid workforce sooner and build a stronger workforce attachment across their working lives, as their partners are incentivised to share in unpaid care responsibilities. In its 2022-23 Budget, the LNP Government removed this feature of Australia’s existing paid parental leave scheme. International evidence attests that this is a regressive step for gender equality.

The ALP has announced that it will legislate for the principle of gender equity to be part of the Fair Work Act that guides the determination of minimum wages by the Fair Work Commission. This is a promising step towards recognising the ways that low wage rates of female-concentrated sectors are an outcome of gender inequities in our broader labour market, societal norms and the historical legacy effects of gender-differentiated pay schemes.

  1. Women are over half of welfare recipients in Australia. What questions need to be asked din terms of welfare reform and social housing? 

The welfare system is designed to disincentivise people from applying for income support. The net effect has generally been to condemn women of all ages on income support to poverty – older unemployed women, homeless women, sole parents and their children, young women in precarious employment, female renters, women leaving domestic violence, and women with disabilities who can’t access alternative payment.

The authors say women of all ages on income support, including older women, are condemned to poverty. (Stock image)

The authors say women of all ages on income support, including older women, are condemned to poverty. (Stock image)

The key lesson for Australia from the pandemic is that the structural changes needed for genuine welfare reform are readily achievable, but will only be supported when the government embraces a gender- equality approach that maximises women’s agency and safety.

Three areas where we need urgent reform are:

  • Jobseeker Rate: the rate of jobseeker needs to be increased urgently in real terms, and regularly reviewed to reflect increases in the cost of living.
  • Jobseeker Services: Jobseeker services are currently provided by disconnected and outsourced services, and the administration is unnecessarily punitive. Compliance systems should be based on reengagement, not penalties that cause severe financial difficulties or limit access to services as occurs in ParentsNext or income management.
  • Social Housing: Income support recipients are priced out of the private rental market, and Commonwealth Rent Assistance is inadequate, forcing income support recipients into precarious housing or homelessness. Commonwealth funding needs to be channelled into supporting social housing to provide housing security for those most at risk.

NFAW proposes the establishment of an independent social security commission, reporting to Parliament, with a legislated requirement to undertake gender analysis. Such a commission should be advised by a panel of people with lived experience of the system, and embrace a human rights approach to the social safety net. Our nation is the poorer when we condemn large cohorts of our community to poverty.

  1. Closely related is the issue of affordable housing. Why are women most at risk in the rental market and what can be done to address this? 

Women are amongst the most at risk in the housing system, with lower average incomes and less savings and superannuation, making it difficult for many to achieve safe and secure housing through the private housing market. Single older women are one of the fastest growing groups of homeless people nationally with women aged 45-55 nearly double the risk of homelessness compared to men, and older women who rent at more than two times the risk of homelessness compared to those with a mortgage. Women are also at higher risk of losing their housing due to domestic violence or relationship dissolution.

Housing affordability policies need to address the problems of supply of affordable housing for renters, as well as for those aspiring to home ownership. In addition to urgent review of the rate of Commonwealth Rent Assistance, specialist homelessness services must be supported by affordable, suitable housing across the housing system to enable women to prosper longer-term.

Assistance and access to affordable and appropriate housing along the housing continuum – from crisis care to social housing, from the private rental sector through to home ownership – is essential to support the well-being of women and children and mitigate the risk of homelessness, poverty and disadvantage. Accessibility to safe and affordable housing is also an important factor in measures to reduce and eliminate violence against women and children.

  1. What’s the gender dimension to climate change and why should governments be prioritising single women in this respect? 

Climate change has a clear gender dimension. Our annual Gender Lens on the Budget analysis has exposed how flood, drought and fire have brought heightened health risks to women in particular, increased their exposure to violence and increased economic insecurity. Specific cohorts including single mothers, older women and First Nations women are already vulnerable, and the effects of a disaster can exhaust their limited resources.

Women are more likely than men to suffer the adverse health consequences of extreme climate events, and women are disproportionally affected by climate change disasters. In Australia, disasters increase women’s economic insecurity: women lose or forgo employment opportunities on taking up additional community and care responsibilities, as shown after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, and the 2011 floods in Queensland and Victoria. The same pattern is already emerging as communities survey the aftermath of the 2022 floods.

Government response policies, while well-intended, tend to prioritise male-concentrated industries such as construction and trades, as focus is often placing on the rebuilding of physical infrastructure and facilities. The same scale of additional investment from government is not usually given to female-concentrated industries, such as nursing, mental health services provision, social work and community services, despite their importance and value to recovery and resilience efforts.

Disasters also increase rates of gender-based violence, including from the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires, a pattern replicated after the 2020 fires. Failure to take action on climate change and emissions abatement can exacerbate gender inequality and reduce women’s ability to adapt.

The NFAW Social Policy Committee is focused on the impact of Commonwealth government policies on the status and well-being of women and girls in Australia. The committee is strongly committed to evidence-based policy. Its members include women with extensive experience and expertise in government and academic circles.

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Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Ginger’s bestselling book, Troll Hunting, came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real-life harm predator trolling can do. She's also the editor of BroadAgenda and gender editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.

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