Memo to the female ministers defending the 2020 Budget

Memo to the female ministers defending the 2020 Budget

budget

Last week, the 2020 budget and the corresponding Women’s Economic Security Statement, which was released alongside the budget with a series of “targeted” measures the Morrison government claimed would help ameliorate the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, landed with a thud.

Within hours, Women’s Agenda contributing editor and advocate Georgie Dent wrote a scathing piece in which she claimed that women were the “losers” in this “historic” budget.

Despite the fact that the budget allocated more than $500 billion in spending, Dent pointed out that only a “woefully inadequate” and “shameful” $240 million had been put towards realising the aims of the security statement. And that represented 0.038 per cent of the total budget deficit, or a third of one percent.

Put differently, Dent highlighted that the supposed investment in women’s “economic security” translated into $40 per female worker, or $8 a year, until 2025. Given the pandemic has laid the groundwork for some pretty serious poverty for women in old age (as we have been reporting in a special series for Women’s Agenda), is that good enough? You be the judge.

The Morrison government quickly went into crisis management mode.

A staffer in the PM’s office called Dent first thing Wednesday morning to bully her into submission, telling her that her article was “factually inaccurate” and “no one credible” was making that argument.

Suffice it to say, that heavy handed attempt at crisis management didn’t go down well. Within hours, a tsunami of “credible” women and men united behind Dent on social media under the #crediblewomen banner, all making precisely the same point. It trended.  

Undeterred, the Morrison government had another go, this time dispatching a “Handbag Brigade”of female Liberal Ministers to defend the budget, including Senator Anne Ruston, Senator Michaelia Cash, and Representative Karen Andrews.  

That also didn’t go down terribly well. Exhibit A: Anne Ruston’s rather feeble attempt on the ABC to justify the budget by essentially saying that women will enjoy driving on all those new roads. What is it with this government, women and roads? I digress.

A collective snorting of coffee out of women’s noses could be heard around the world.  

For me, while I understand the inclination to laugh at Ruston’s road comment and leave it at that, the main thrust of the government’s argument is (only slightly) more sophisticated — and it warrants further scrutiny. 

Their argument is twofold.

Firstly, they argue that the budget is “not gendered” because women can, and will, benefit (they imply equally) from all the measures outlined in the budget, not just the “targeted” measures in the security statement. And thus, they claim, it’s unfair and inaccurate to focus on the security statement alone as indicative of the government’s commitment to women. 

Their other main argument is that the Morrison government is making a “record” investment in childcare, which we all know correlates strongly with women’s ability to do paid work outside the home, and, thus, invest in their economic security.  

Let’s look at each in turn. 

While it’s fair to say that some women will derive some benefit from the budget as a whole, it’s incorrect to claim that the budget is not — and should not be — “gendered”.

As the saying goes, “gender blind is not gender neutral”. The spending decisions that this government makes in relation to the budget will disproportionately benefit some groups as opposed to others, including men or women. Those choices matter.

This government can’t argue that the budget as a whole somehow “equally” benefits men and women because they have not done a gendered analysis, something called “gender responsive budgeting”, to substantiate that claim. Or, at the very least, they can’t argue that the budget, in its current form, won’t disproportionately benefit men, and if that’s the case that that benefit is justified.

That wasn’t always the case. Australia was the first country to institute such a requirement in 1984, but it was jettisoned by Tony Abbot in 2014 and the Coalition has since resisted calls to bring it back.

What kind of useful information might such an analysis thrown up? Take the investment in apprenticeships to help create jobs. In her interview with Karen Andrews on RN Breakfast, Fran Kelly pointed out that of the $2.8 billion spent on creating 180,000 apprenticeships, only 14,000 of those (less than 8 percent) went to women.

What’s more, in the forward to the security statement, Payne wrote that it should be considered alongside the budget and was “building on initiatives in the Government’s overarching JobMaker Plan for an economic recovery that creates jobs, increases women’s work choices, and addresses barriers to women working in the paid workplace.”

But on what basis can Payne make such claims about the JobMaker Plan or that it will deliver those benefits to women? Have they done a gendered analysis to prove it?

No. I know because I asked. The Minister’s office declined to comment on what basis those claims were made.

In regards to the claim about “record” levels of childcare funding: while the current level of funding for childcare is at a “record high” of $9 billion for the 2020-21 financial year, that claim fails to take into account some crucial context.  Australian families spend more on childcare than the OECD average, and public funding for childcare is lower than the OECD average.

So yes, it’s a “record” for Australia, but that’s starting from a relatively low bar. The current costs and accessibility of childcare in Australia are, and remain, a significant barrier to women’s employment.

The Morrison government’s attempts thus far to bully and/or handbag spin this budget into a win for women have not only proven laughable – they’re just not, oh there’s a word  I’m looking for, “credible”.

My advice. Don’t try again. Third time definitely won’t be the charm.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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