Despite the Australian economy bouncing back better and faster than expected, and our ongoing impressive control of the pandemic, there’s no doubt that COVID-19 has left women, more than men, economically disadvantaged.
Now more than ever, women are facing unemployment, underemployment, lowered incomes, less secure work, greater household and family demands, and an increased risk of domestic violence, compared to men.
After the previous budget when the government was criticised for channeling funding into male-led industries such as energy and infrastructure; bold statements made recently about needing to take care of women’s economic security; and this year’s budget coined a ‘budget for women’, I was expecting more money to go into the ‘care’ industries such as childcare and aged care.
These not only produce more jobs per billion dollars invested, they also support women back into the workforce.
In the 2018-19 ABS Barriers and Incentives to Labour Force Participation report, almost 50% of women cite caring for children as the main reason they are not working at all, or are not working more hours. Over the past 10 years since this data has been collected, caring for children has consistently been the main barrier to work for women.
Rather than returning to the free childcare offered during the peak of the pandemic, this budget only provides a discount for families with more than one child — only 25% of childcare users. Not only that, it provides for precisely 0% of help until it kicks in — in July 2022.
Aged care sector
Women are doubly affected here — firstly because the sector employs a lot of women, and secondly because when there is a lack of affordable and adequate aged care, it largely falls to women to become the carer of their parents or partners.
Although the Royal Commission recommended a $10 billion per year spend to fix this horribly broken system, Morrison thinks $3.5 billion will do. Doubtful.
Instead we heard about more new (male dominated) construction projects and more work in the electricity and gas industries. And tax cuts, which predominantly benefit higher earners — and so are of less use to females.
Back to the future
Once, the gender impacts of the budget would have been far more transparent.
Until the first Abbott-Hockey budget in 2014, a statement of budget measures that disproportionately affect women was published at budget time.
Although at times it was given different names, the first ‘Women’s Budget Statement’ was delivered with the Hawke government’s 1984 budget. In its foreword, then prime minister Bob Hawke promised that “within the overall economic objectives of the government” important budget decisions would from then on be made “with full knowledge of their impact on women”.
Much of the success of these statements was in raising awareness of the differential impacts of policies on women and men (and on different groups of women and men) that challenged the myth of gender neutral budgets.
And, because the gender impact of budget decisions had to be reported in the statements, sometimes these decisions were improved.
Since that first Abbott-Hockey budget in 2014, the emphasis has switched to the statement being a showcase of measures taken to positively affect women. But this is surely no substitute for the government undertaking its own analysis of the gender impacts of its budgets and policies to ensure they are improved.
After the current six-year program of tax cuts was announced in 2018, the Parliamentary Budget Office found that $92 billion of the $144 billion was likely to go to men. The then treasurer Scott Morrison belittled the calculation, saying: “You don’t fill out pink forms and blue forms on your tax return, it doesn’t look at what your gender is any more than it looks at whether you’re left handed or right handed or you barrack for the Sharks or you barrack for the Tigers.”
That approach is hardly going to help close the gender payment gap, improve economic equality, and make Australia a place where everyone in the population has equal opportunities to create a rich and fulfilling life.
COVID-19 has made the need for gender analyses more apparent. It has increased the care needs of households and demonstrated that the response to these needs — most commonly undertaken by women — is critical to maintaining the economy.