Originally published in Canberra Times on May 1, 2021

Last year, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivered what was described as a “Bloke’s Budget”, that targeted stimulus spending in male-heavy industries, while neglecting investment in industries that support women’s employment-including healthcare, education and social services – even though women bore the brunt of last year’s recession. But the fact is every budget is biased towards men in all sorts of ways. We just don’t like to talk about it.

The Prime Minister got close to acknowledging the problem, when he appointed a new Minister for Women’s Economic Security. But the first thing Minister Jane Hume did was assure everyone that the Morrison government will not be applying a “gender lens” to the May budget.

Phew, wouldn’t want that, would we?

But let’s, just for a moment, put on our gender lenses to examine the budget.

Men earn more than women. This is because men typically gravitate towards higher paying jobs like doctor, engineer or CEO, while women gravitate towards lower paying jobs like female doctor, female engineer or female CEO, as the joke goes. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the Morrison government, but it’s a fact the government clearly ignores when designing economic policy.

How do we know that? Because the Coalition government has legislated more than $300 billion in income tax cuts that benefit men twice as much as women. Australia Institute research shows the legislated stage 3 income tax cuts will cost $18 billion per year and that two thirds of this tax cut will flow to men ($12 billion) and one third to women ($6 billion), and mostly to high-income earning men and women. The bottom 20 per cent of taxpayers, the majority of whom are women, get nothing from this tax cut at all.

This observation has, in the past, angered the Prime Minister. When questioned about the Australia Institute’s research, Scott Morrison angrily responded that: “You don’t fill out pink forms and blue forms on your tax return, I mean, it doesn’t look at what your gender is any more than it looks at whether you’re left-handed or right-handed…”

He’s not wrong, but he’s deliberately missing the point.

Tell me, in the wake of the worst recession since the Great Depression, if you had $18 billion a year to spend to help Australians – would your priority be to put a little more cash in the hands of men with high incomes? Because that’s the Coalition government’s priority.

The income tax cuts don’t even start until 2024, so the government could scrap them in this budget and no one now would be any worse off.

What other bias can our gender lens uncover?

Well, women are more likely to work in part-time or insecure work and have a lower participation rate than men, and on average retire with far less superannuation than men do. This is, in large part, due to Australia’s childcare system, one of the most expensive in the OECD and a huge barrier to women’s workforce participation. The government knows the value of free childcare to boost workforce participation because it used it as a tool to keep mums and dads in essential services working during the height of the pandemic, if only temporarily. And it was a popular policy –

Australia Institute research shows majority support from both men (59 per cent) and women (58 per cent) when asked whether the federal government should make childcare free and universal, like it did at the height of the pandemic.

Reintroducing free childcare in this year’s budget would provide significantly greater employment, productivity and GDP benefits (and not just for women) than the income tax cuts, at a fraction of the price.

The gender lens also reveals that the gender pay gap and women’s broken work histories, mostly due to unpaid caring responsibilities, mean that the $41 billion cost of superannuation tax concessions skew towards men too, resulting in large gaps in superannuation balances between men and women, and making women more likely to end up in poverty in their retirement. Men get 72 per cent, or almost three quarters of the benefit of the $41 billion super tax concessions. Three quarters.

And let’s not forget other tax concessions such as negative gearing, the capital gains tax discount and excess franking credits, all of which – you guessed it – benefit men more than women.

Just like JobKeeper and other spending should now be tailored to support jobs in industries that will take the longest to recover, such as tourism, superannuation tax concessions and other tax concessions should be channelled into additional support for women with broken work histories and lower incomes prior to retirement.

Budgets are the clearest articulation of a government’s priorities. Last year’s budget, and every budget before it, has prioritised the preferences of men over the livelihoods of women.

And let’s be clear, there is no shortage of money. Since coming to office eight years ago, the Coalition has found hundreds of billions of dollars to fund tax cuts that flow predominantly to men, hundreds of millions for jobs packages for male-dominated industries, spent $100 million on the infamous “sports rorts” grants program, and found $500 million to controversially expand the Australian War Memorial. At the same time, the Coalition has argued it “can’t afford” to increase spending on domestic violence services, or to provide permanent free childcare.

Australia Institute research shows spending on education, healthcare or caring sectors would create more jobs for women – and men – than construction would create for anyone.

It’s a safe bet this budget will contain some measures targeted towards women. A cynic might suggest this has less to do with boosting women’s economic security and more to do with the Coalition grasping for anything to make up for its “women’s problem”.

Women who point out sexism are often accused of playing the gender card. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a “gender card” that women could whip out of their wallets and tap for equal pay, or a full-time job, or to secure crisis accommodation, or to top up the superannuation gap before they retire?

But there isn’t a gender card, or lens. There’s just structural inequality for Australian women that the budget is making it worse. It is well passed time to address it.

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