In 2014, after 40 years of production, the Commonwealth government stopped producing the Women’s Budget Statement as part of the official Budget papers. The absence of gender-based analysis which defines the ways in which public policies affect women and men differently through the systematic use of data is a travesty on a number of levels.
It means policies are not being designed or tested with regard to equity. If the aggregate impact of measures on women isn’t being assessed it’s highly unlikely it will be prioritised. The absence of hard data also enables the false notion that the Budget affects all Australians equally to prevail.
This gap, however, has been dutifully – and voluntarily – filled each year since 2014 by the National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW). A team of 36 subject matter specialists work – voluntarily – to produce the NFAW Gender Lens in the weeks after the Budget is handed down. The Gender Lens provides the most expert, detailed analysis of the budget’s impact on women compiled outside government. And it’s done by a team of volunteers.
I’ve referenced that three times in three sentences deliberately. The fact it’s up to a team of women, all of whom juggle other jobs and various caring responsibilities, to work around the clock in the days after the Budget is delivered to undertake the critical economic analysis that the Commonwealth ought to be doing to ensure the impact on women is known, is telling and shocking.
When you consider that – on average – each of these women will be undertaking two-thirds of the unpaid care work in their respective domains and may well be earning 14% less than their male peers, the fact they are willing and able to do this critical, substantive work as well is testament to their commitment and prolific work ethic.
As an aside, if the team behind the NFAW Gender Lens are not among the most extraordinary ‘lifters’ in all of Australia I’d be fascinated to find who is. And if we’re talking about ‘having a go to get a go’ as the Prime Minister has implored us all, these women – and their work – deserve a go.
The group’s first recommendation is an excellent starting point: establish a Women’s Ministerial Forum to guide the spending of the new National Federation Reform Council (including the National Cabinet) on employment, social services, education, taxation and other issues.
They also recommend that Expenditure Review Committee routinely co-opt expertise on gender responsive budgeting to inform its decision-making and that submissions to ERC be required to incorporate a gender lens.
So, what did they find?
Despite the Treasurer’s admission in this Budget speech that women’s employment was worst affected by COVID-19 the budget itself stimulates male-dominated jobs and industries, and tax cuts also favour men.
This year’s COVID-19 Budget is different in many ways, not least in that as the pandemic progresses, the government has shown its willingness to respond quickly as the impact of interventions plays out.
This professional analysis provides a recovery plan based on the disproportionate negative impact of COVID-19 on women.
Overall our experts believe the budget is a lost opportunity to maximise employment growth, to invest in social infrastructure with the greatest multiplier effects and to address the structural problems in female dominated areas that COVID-19 has exposed.
The infrastructure and tax cut measures reflect the government’s long-standing commitment to traditional, historical responses to economic downturns that have overlooked the pandemic’s very different impacts.
Prior to the budget the phrases “pink-collar recession” and “she-session” were used frequently. Economists, welfare groups and business leaders agreed about the negative impact COVID19 had had on women.
Many had pressed the government to use stimulus spending to invest in social housing, support for the caring professions, child care, aged care and disability care, as well as the female-dominated sectors also hard hit in the wake of COVID-19. These recommendations were made not just because of the loss of employment, but also because COVID-19 exposed the opportunity to reform a number of systemic issues and would likely provide a greater increase in employment.
Business assistance, skills development, tax cuts and infrastructure investments to “rebuild the economy and to create jobs” were all central to the Budget. But NFAW’s critical assessment is that the measures taken together may not stimulate enough aggregate demand to lead Australia out of recession.
The areas targeted in the budget — construction, energy, transport and manufacturing — are all male dominated and received a combined $27billion. But before COVID-19 it was the service sectors that dominated employment growth rather than those traditional male sectors.
During COVID-19, the majority of job losses were experienced by women and more women than men left the labour force. The issue of withdrawal from the labour force is critical when the reason is structural rather than cyclical. This is key because increased female participation in the labour force has been vital to economic growth in recent decades. Not all those women who left the labour force have returned in the last few months.
The Women’s Economic Security Statement initiatives were welcome but overshadowed in the face of a nearly trillion dollar spend.
“We are particularly concerned that it doesn’t address the critical contribution essential workers made and the stark shortcomings COVID-19 exposed – carers, nurses, cleaners, teachers, early educators, and shop assistants – mostly women who are underpaid, undervalued often with precarious employment conditions,” the authors wrote.
They also say COVID-19 has exposed the effect of marketisation/privatisation on the provision of human services such as in aged care, childcare and disability. Profit has too often won out over quality of services.
A care-led recovery is sound social and economic policy
Independent analysis by the Centre of Policy Studies, commissioned by NFAW, provides an alternative scenario whereby government investment in the care sector could lead to an expansionary effect on overall demand and reset the economy at higher levels of activity.
NFAW’s chair of social policy, Prof Helen Hodgson, said investing in the care economy works three ways: it increases labour market participation, improves employment conditions for carers, and, importantly, it addresses female economic disadvantage by reducing the wage gap.
And investing in care would pay for itself, with increased labour market participation working to stimulate the whole economy, offsetting the outlay cost.
Workers in Aged Care, Disability Care and Child Care are among the lowest paid workers in the Australian economy yet work long hours to support community needs. The report demonstrates the case for the care sector’s desperate need for adequate funding to improve the quality of care, create more jobs for women and grow the economy through increased workforce participation.
“We were told that the 2020-21 budget is ‘all about jobs’, but an analysis of the 2020 budget through a gendered lens shows that most of the jobs and tax cuts are in male dominated areas, including apprenticeships and traineeships, construction and manufacturing,” Professor Hodgson said. “The female-dominated care sector was largely overlooked. Government investment in physical infrastructure such as roads is an effective instrument for economic stimulus, but the economic benefits flow to men. This modelling confirms government investment in the care sector would deliver economic stimulus, with women the main beneficiaries.”
The investment model included increased capacity based on estimates of unmet demand and wage increases for personal carers and childcare workers all providers of a vital fabric of our communities.
Over 900,000 Australians who currently provide unpaid care to the elderly, disabled, or children aged under five report that they would like to work more hours in paid employment. At least two-thirds are women. The independent modelling also showed that providing the additional funding needed to enable these workers to work an extra 10 hours a week in paid employment would have a significant economic payoff.
Increased labour market participation would stimulate the whole economy, so that the increased economic growth would underpin greater revenue, offsetting the cost to the Government. The net cost to the budget when the policy is fully implemented would be less than 20 per cent of the direct cost of the additional service delivery.
Older jobless women have largely been ignored.
Women over 55 are the fastest growing cohort of the homeless. Over 60 per cent of Commonwealth Rent Assistance recipients are female. Women are the majority of long term unemployed. Older female recipients often face substantial barriers to employment, including age discrimination. Improved economic conditions may have less effect on the employment outcomes for older JobSeeker recipients. A third of women retire with no superannuation and early access to superannuation has made this worse. Employment opportunities for Indigenous and for women with disabilities are largely ignored.
The 2020 Budget is a missed opportunity to improve the lives of older women who face the greatest difficulties: single, older renters totally reliant on JobSeeker or pension payments; those who are homeless; a significant proportion of those on the long waiting list for home care packages; and those locked out of employment. It is also another missed opportunity to begin resetting policy to disrupt the structural accumulation of poverty across the life course that reaches its peak with disastrous consequences for so many women in later life.
There was little to no response to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females in the budget.
The government should constructively engage with the Coalition of Peaks to determine COVID-19 recovery responses and funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Efforts need to be made to reorient funding away from mainstream services that are unable to demonstrate culturally-responsive evaluations and evidence for effectiveness for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and allocate it to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations who can demonstrate effectiveness.
Reducing Violence Against Women and their Children
NFAW strongly supports ongoing Commonwealth Government funding of $340m to implement the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022; one-off funding of $150m to help women stay safe in the early period of COVID-19; and additional funding in this budget of $130m to expedite and improve the handling of family law matters in the Federal Circuit Court, including the safety and security of two Federal Circuit Court Buildings.
NFAW is very concerned that the Commonwealth’s broader COVID-19 Recovery Plan may increase rather than reduce violence against women. The Commonwealth Government’s plan requires savings from the health and education sectors being transferred to the Budget priorities of male-oriented apprenticeships and construction. It will concurrently reduce employment opportunities for women in the health and education sectors and exacerbate gender inequality which has long been associated with increased levels of violence against women. This rebalancing of gendered work could result in a less equal Australian society, reduced employment for women, and increases in intimate partner violence. NFAW has commissioned modelling showing how this rebalancing might work generate additional economic growth such that GDP in 2030 would be 1.64 per cent higher than it otherwise would have been.
If the Government remains committed to this strategy, NFAW requests the Government work with community leaders and experts in gender equality and violence to best manage the negative impacts of increasing gender inequality, including increased rates of violence against women.
NFAW has other specific concerns, in the context of violence against women and their children, relating to the implementation of new English test for partner visas, halving of the investment in Respectful Relationships education in schools, no increase at all to the funding of Domestic Violence Units and Health Justice Partnerships, and no new measures to help victims of family violence into secure and affordable housing.
Women’s safety at work
The Government should commit and take action to implement all of the remaining recommendations from the Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces.
Impact on Migrant and Refugee Women
Migrant women should be included in economic support and recovery packages in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, regardless of their visa status. Of significant concern is the lack of measures in the Budget to support safety and wellbeing (including financial wellbeing) of women on temporary visas.
Early Childhood Education and Care
The focus of the 2020 Budget was to support Victorian Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) services to remain open and viable during the pandemic and allow families of essential workers and vulnerable children to access ECEC. While families across Australia are being supported until 4 April 2021 through an easing of the Child Care Subsidy activity test requirements, there are no other new measures to support families with the cost of ECEC, or to better remunerate early childhood educators.
The government should systematically consider gender budgeting when preparing infrastructure budgets, which means giving balanced attention to the policy role of social infrastructure investment.
The full list of NFAW recommendations are comprehensive and sophisticated and illustrate the scale and nature of initiatives and policies that would make a meaningful difference in the lives of Australian women. The analysis confirms what many economists, researchers, academics, journalists and business leaders concluded as soon as the Treasurer handed down his history-making big spending budget: it fails to deliver for women.
But it doesn’t stop there. It illustrates a compelling alternative that ought to be considered.