The signs were looking hopeful. Days prior to the October 6 budget, the Treasurer hinted at things to come, that female voices were finally penetrating the male ear. Accounting for the majority of employees in the hospitality, retail, accommodation services sectors, hit hardest by social distancing and lock-down measures caused by the pandemic, the Treasurer appeared to be saying to women that the government understood their needs in the "road to recovery" budget.
But fast forward to the evening of the budget, it was starkly confirmed that the Prime Minister's touted record number of women in cabinet (a touch under 32 per cent) just isn't enough to pierce the ear wax of a government either unable to hear or dumb to listening.
There is no doubt, the Treasurer announced a budget like none seen before in Australia with the sheer scale of government expenditure supporting economic recovery. By and large it has been welcomed by business, higher income earners, the manufacturing sector, construction companies and communication providers, with young people given specific programs to help them to either retrain or to be more attractive for employers to hire. And, indeed, the concurrent release of a second Women's Economic Security Statement sounded promising. It extended many of the niche programs from the 2018 statement to support female entrepreneurs, encouraging women to take on STEM careers and it also included some sound new investments in areas such as the Respect@Work Council and upgrades to the Australian Bureau of Statistics gender data collections. These are worthwhile investments, totalling $240.4m over four years.
In any ordinary year, this might have passed the pub test as a "tick - policies in place for women". But this year, with such enormous largesse being showered on high income earners, big business, construction and manufacturing - with the majority of beneficiaries men - the lack of real investment for those most in need of support has shocked and appalled many across the community. In light of the scale of the crisis for women, the 0.036 per cent of the total budget spend to flow specifically to women defies the proclaimed "we're all in this together."
How did this happen?
The Minister for Women, Marise Payne, who doubles as Australia's foreign minister and who one would expect to carry both influence and profile, held numerous roundtables leading up to the budget. She heard directly from the peak women's alliances representing women from all walks of life - First Nations women, migrant women, women with a disability and women advocating for women's economic security and equal rights. She, and her cabinet colleagues, received submissions and evidence in abundance from a wide spectrum of citizens. Many called for similar policy reforms - to social housing, to help restore women's workforce participation, reforms to childcare, aged care, paid parental leave to name a few. How did this fail to make any meaningful difference to the final budget document? Perhaps Payne and her female cabinet colleagues had listened but the government as a whole had not heard.
Certainly they lacked numbers to change the pitch of the likely discussion. They may also have lacked the policy framework to drive home the discussion. For under current frameworks, those developing policy do not systematically contemplate different policy impacts by gender. This has not always been so. In the 1970s and 1980s - the Helen Reddy and Elizabeth Reid era of vocal, active women' and men's voices for change, Australia was a world leader in promoting gender analysis of policy. Reid was the first in a long list of advisers within the federal bureaucracy monitoring and lobbying for childcare funding, women's health centres, crisis refuges and equality in the workforce and political representation. Susan Ryan (first female Labor cabinet minister and minister assisting the prime minister for the status of women and Dr Anne Summers (first head of the office for the status of women) with many others, ushered in some of the most important gender equality reforms including the Sex Discrimination Act (1984), the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women in Employment) Act 1986 and increases in spending on childcare. These women were leaders and had access to power over policy decisions.
So, the government is without the right ear-piece and translation services to comprehend what to a female cohort is a crystal-clear message. But what is lacking most of all is women's voices in the upper reaches of government and within the echo chamber of corporate opinion that provides the comforting voice of agreement and confirmation that the world is as it was - male-centred and tone deaf. With relatively few women in government decision-making circles, the implicit knowledge of the lived experience of women across society is not being taken seriously. A previously strong policy architecture comprehending the place of women in society and the economy as central to policy development, has diminished over the past 20 years. As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Australia was last reviewed by the UN Committee monitoring its performance in July 2018. The UN delivered a scathing critique of Australia's failures to advance gender equality and to protect and promote the rights of women and girls. While noting improvement in marriage equality and the introduction of paid parental leave it issued over 90 recommendations for improvement.
The 2020 budget demonstrates the road to gender equality has not only diminished but now faces serious threats of reversal. With women disproportionately represented in the JobSeeker queue, a significant cohort of women will have lower lifetime incomes, lower superannuation at retirement and increased insecurity without policies to support them. The government's claimed surprise by the vocal ire of the multitudes of women publicly expressing their shock at the overwhelming bias towards men in this budget expenditure, indicates how women's voices and concerns have not been heard by those making the final decisions. More women from all walks of life must be represented at the leadership and economic decision-making table. A gender analysis of policy, both before and after its implementation to understand the likely and actual impact of policy must occur.
During this government's term there has in general been a reduction of the proportion of women in the most senior leadership and decision-making forums. In December 2019 the Prime Minister sacked four departmental secretaries - three of whom were women. At the same time, he also reduced the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet to five men with the Minister for Social Services, Anne Ruston, only being added in June this year. If three of the six members of the ERC had been women right from the start and with 50 per cent of cabinet places being filled by women, perhaps the hopeful signs in the lead up to the budget would have resulted in a more balanced range of stimulus, including investing in the care "industries" that have been essential to Australia managing this pandemic and to a more equal recovery for all - because it would have resonated more with their own lived experiences.
- Trish Bergin and Professor Kim Rubenstein, Co-Directors, 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra