How the Australian budget process is failing women

How the Australian budget process is failing women

Ching! Ching! Can you hear it? The promise of cash flowing to women?

It’s budget day in an election year and you can bet that women across Australia are about to be offered money. Some hastily cobbled together financial incentive to sway the women’s vote.

This is how it was with the Baby Bonus, paid parental leave and the promise of fully subsidised nannies. All policies affecting the hip pocket of Australian women, all pledged just before an election.

But women’s economic needs demand more frequent and intense intervention than an election cycle can deliver: so problematic is our lot, we literally cannot afford to wait every three years for election eve scraps.

We need a gender responsive budget, a gender responsive treasury and we need it yesterday.

Because Australian women are falling way behind the rest of the world in economic independence and financial wellbeing. A fact all the more tragic given Australia ranks #1 in its education of girls.

How have we allowed a population of incredibly intelligent and productive women go to waste?

It’s because we dropped the ball on gender responsive budgeting.

Australia was once the global leader in applying a gender lens to its economy. When Dr Anne Summers led the Office for the Status of Women in 84/85 during Bob Hawke’s Prime Ministership, she designed a world-first pilot program resulting in a Women’s Budget Statement – a 300 page analysis of the Australian economy and its impact on women.

The Gender Budget Statement examined the effects of tax, spending and economic policy by dis-aggregating data by gender. It sought to make women visible as individuals, rather than as members of a household and to take into account the different economic contributions of men and women, including both paid and unpaid work. It was radical and ground-breaking. Feminist economic theory at work.

Australia’s initial leadership saw gender budgeting take off across the world. From the UK to the Philippines; Morocco to Belgium, some 90+ countries followed Australia’s lead and began reporting annually on the impact of the budget on women.

And then in 2014 Australia stopped producing a women’s budget statement.

It wasn’t exactly a shock, though.

After a high watermark in the early 90’s, commitment to gender responsive budgeting has been eroding for two decades. The initial flood of femocrats in Canberra who came in on a wave of women’s rights activism and gender advocacy, were washed away again by backlash.

Having fought hard for inclusion in the economic narrative, women wrongly expected for gender budget statements to not just be maintained, but for women’s budget initiatives to deepen over time.

Accountability and reporting on revenue and spending is only one part of the economic equation. With the right resources and policy commitment, an economic gender lens should result in expert tweaking of fiscal policy so that the effective marginal tax rate of Australian women – ridiculously high thanks to a poorly structured and funded childcare system – is reduced. This work would greatly reduce the financial burden on women’s hip pockets.

But we’re not undertaking this analysis or having these discussions. Like so many gains made by second wave feminists, progress was illusory and temporary. The #MeToo movement has shown us the necessity of eternal vigilance in gender policy.

The failure to maintain gender responsive budgeting in Australia has had a very serious impact on Australian women. As the commitment to gender responsive budgeting has drifted away, so too has the economic prosperity of Australian women. We have slid from a high of 15 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap List, to 39. Behind New Zealand, all the Nordic countries, the Philippines and even Afghanistan.

Without gender responsive budgeting, thorny issues impacting on a woman’s hip pocket will never be resolved. The high cost of childcare, the gender pay gap, superannuation & retirement penalties for being a woman – all of these require consistent and persistent data collection, analysis and reporting. All of these require women – as economists or otherwise – at the centre of policy development.

When the Federal Government ceased producing a gender budget statement, it was a women’s NGO, the National Foundation for Australian Women that stepped in to fill the void. NFAW started producing its own gender budget statement – without government funding or access to all of the relevant data. Women economists, like former Treasury official Angela Jackson now of Equity Economics, provided advice pro bono.

Labor has pledged that it will reintroduce a women’s budget statement if elected. This is a welcome development.

But to date the machinery of government – Treasury and the Office of Women – has proven ineffective in maintaining a gender lens over the budget. Particularly in the face of a revolving door of governments each with wildly different views about the role of women in the Australian economy.

Gender responsive budgeting must be independent of election and budget cycles. It must be straight forward sex dis-aggregated data collection and distribution coupled with detailed, expert and independent economic analysis. Scant, ad-hoc reporting washed over with political spin does not a gender budget make.

Labor’s promise should result in a significant boost to capacity within Treasury and the Office of Women, but for it to be truly effective over the long term, it must also include a funding boost to the non-government sector.

If a gender lens on our economy is to be sustained beyond the fickleness of election cycles and the whims of political parties, it needs accountability both within and outside government. Only parallel, independent reporting – preferably protected by some form of national gender equity legislation – will ensure gender stays at the heart of Australian economic modelling. We need this if there is to be any chance of changing the fortunes and futures of Australian women.

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