Women, no longer a political target for the Coalition?

by Eliza Littleton

Last year’s budget was widely seen as an olive branch to women following the government’s mishandling of bullying and sexual assault allegations in Parliament. This year, the anticipated pre-election budget cash splash included small measures that could constitute an attempt to win over female voters, with $2.1 billion of spending allocated to women’s safety, health, and economic security. However, this funding is spread so thin across so many initiatives, it falls short of addressing key underlying causes of gender inequality.

The largest component of funding in the women’s budget statement is slated to “improve outcomes for women’s safety”, with $1.3 billion dedicated to implementing the new National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-32. Funding under this plan will be directed towards additional domestic violence accommodation, extending Escaping Violence payments, and improving access to legal and health services. These are all services in desperate need of more funding – particularly in light of surging incidents of domestic violence amid the pandemic – but this falls significantly short of a commitment to “end violence against women and children”.

The separation of domestic violence from the lack of affordable housing, over representation in poor quality low wage work, and inadequate funding for women’s health services ignores structural issues, orchestrated through the decisions that governments make about how our society and economy is organised.

Take for example the government’s attempt at reforming the paid parental leave (PPL) scheme. Under the new scheme, the existing 18-weeks of PPL usually taken by mums will now be combined with the 2 weeks reserved for dads or secondary carers, to be split between parents in any way they choose.

On its own this policy sounds marginally better than what currently exists, but evidence suggests this will entrench women as primary carers. We know this because in countries with non-transferable leave schemes, like Sweden and Iceland, uptake among men is high (90%), whereas in countries with flexible leave policies like Denmark only around 25% of men take leave to care for their children. This is intuitive – families with children are already financially stretched, and often have to make the decision for the lower income earner to take up caring responsibilities.

Adding insult to injury, offering PPL at minimum wage will continue to thwart the economic independence of women, keeping them working in low wage sectors. If the Coalition government was serious about addressing the underlying causes of poor labour market outcomes for women, it could have re-offered free childcare (as it did for a brief period during the pandemic) and extended paid parental leave to 6 months and made it non-transferable.

The Coalition has missed an opportunity not only to address root causes of gender inequality, but to show women their experiences are understood by government.

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