'Joshonomics': How gullible does the Treasurer think women are?

‘Joshonomics’: How gullible does the Treasurer think women are?

budget

Last week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was out spinning the spin, trying to sort out the Morrison Government’s so-called “woman problem”.

Unfortunately for the Treasurer, his bizarre, too-clever-by-half economic pitch to women voters that the Coalition’s economic policy is “delivering for women” – let’s call it “Joshonomics” — is easily debunked.

So this begs the question: how gullible does the Treasurer think women are?

First, there was the now thoroughly discredited press release put out on Monday claiming that young women were the beneficiaries of Coalition tax cuts. Frydenberg then had the cheek to add insult to injury and go on RN breakfast to further spin the spin, suggesting young women felt “rewarded for their effort”.

According to the “previously unpublished data” produced by Treasury, the Treasurer claimed on RN Breakfast that women were “enjoying the largest percentage decline in the amount of tax paid”. The thing is, that doesn’t necessarily mean they received the most in cuts.

The larger “percentage decline” came down to the fact that women are, on average, paid far less than men, with the early stages of the government’s tax cuts focused on low-income earners. The “previously unpublished data” didn’t show what proportion of the overall tax cuts went to women – just that women saw “the largest percentage decline”. That’s not surprising given women don’t, on average, earn that much to begin with.

Then on Thursday, the new ABS employment data was released, and once again we were treated to some more Frydenberg spin in the form of a lovely infographic entitled “Facts on Female Employment”. Please note my emphasis on the Treasurer’s use of the plural here.

But in reality, the graphic included a single cherry-picked fact: women’s workforce participation had increased to a “record high”. And, of course, it also included a jibe at Labor: women’s workforce participation rates were now higher than they were during the last Labor government. 

Okay fine. Women’s overall increased workforce participation is a good thing. I won’t argue that’s not the case.

The thing is, I and many economists I spoke to this week (including Leonora Risse, the Chair of the Women in Economics Network, and Angela Jackson of Equity Economics) will tell you that the women’s workforce participation rate is a — and only a — “fact” about female employment. And this figure alone doesn’t tell the whole story; it certainly doesn’t reflect the reality of women’s lives these last few years of the pandemic.

What’s more, it does not tell you, as Senator Jane Hume, ironically now the Morrison Government’s dedicated Minister for Women’s Economic Security, later spun, the extent to which the Morrison government’s economic plan is “delivering for women” and “delivering the choices and chances Australian women expect and deserve”.

The more salient figure to that end included amongst the ABS data released last Thursday, is the data on hours worked. There was a precipitous drop in hours worked of 8.8 percent overall, but that figure was far higher for women: 9.7 percent for women compared to 8.1 percent for men.

“That is the figure that tells you about women’s ‘choices’,” Risse tells me. How many women, Risse continues, felt that they had no other “choice” but to reduce their hours in order to shoulder the disproportionate burden of the caring and domestic work during the Omicron wave, as they did each and every time Australia faced a pandemic wave. Would they need to stay home with the kids if they, the children or their carers became sick? Would they need to care for elderly or disabled relatives if they were likewise impacted by the pandemic?

“It’s the hours worked that tells you the reality of women’s lives these last few months (through the Omicron wave)”, says Risse.

And behind the headline figure of “women’s workforce participation” sit a number of other important metrics and questions, which reveal the extent to which an increase in women’s workforce participation actually translates into an improvement in their overall economic security. And that’s what we’re supposedly shooting for, right? I’m looking at you Senator Hume.

Are women in full or part-time work? Australia still has one of the highest rates of part-time work for women (around 45 per cent, compared to 20 per cent for men) of any OECD country. Are women paid equitably? There’s still a 14.2 per cent gender pay gap, which increased this year. Are women concentrated in casual jobs with no sick leave, no holiday leave and little flexibility or job security? Yes, they are. Are they concentrated in female-dominated, undervalued sectors, like aged care? Again, the answer is yes. Are they respected and safe in their workplaces? Judging by Kate Jenkins [email protected] Inquiry, the answer to that question is, sadly, no. And do they have access to affordable childcare to work as many hours as they would like? Again, no.

“You can dress this up as everything is okay,” says Jackson, “But we know women in Australia are falling behind globally.”

Here’s another “fact” about women’s employment, let’s call it a truth bomb.

Australia’s ranking in the Global Gender Gap Index, which measures the gender-based gaps of 156 countries among four key dimensions (economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment) has been plummeting for nearly two decades, from 15th when the index was first published in 2006 to 50th  in the most recent index. But the biggest drop, it’s worth noting in the context of the issues I’m canvassing here, was of 58 places in the women’s “economic participation and opportunity” category. Almost all of that happened on the Coalition government’s watch from 2013 onwards.

“Rather than focus on the spin, we could act on what the pandemic has taught us about the need for structural reform,” says Jackson. I couldn’t agree more.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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