When will women feature in this election campaign? They were barely there in 2001 the Coalition disguised its women’s policy under the title ‘Opportunity and Choice’, while Labor got around to launching its policy only two days before the election.
This time Mark Latham was persuaded to launch a women’s policy well ahead of time “ on 19 July. The title was ‘Choice and Opportunity’. Its centre-piece was the ‘Baby Care Payment’ announced in March. This is the payment that isn’t quite paid maternity leave and is means-tested on ‘family’ income, which means whether you get it depends on how much your partner earns. The government trumped it by providing a non-means-tested maternity payment in the Budget.
Labor has made some commitments on equal pay for women and its tax policy seemed an ideal time to address the problems created for women by the government’s family tax arrangements. The latter have created higher effective tax rates for women as second earners than in any other country surveyed by the OECD, except Iceland and the Czech Republic.
Labor’s tax policy does address the high effective tax rates imposed on second earners. But it also creates some problems of its own such as the replacement of the Family Tax Benefit Part B arrangements by a double tax threshold for single income families.
The double tax threshold is a form of income splitting and preserves the kind of disincentives for women’s workforce participation being addressed in other parts of the package. Tax should be neutral with regard to social choices, not a form of social engineering.
The Howard government has disguised the punitive rates of effective tax on second earners by disappearing women into the family, as though what’s good for the family is always good for women. The untruth of this proposition is what fuelled the women’s movement in the 1960s.
The Latham leadership is not listening hard enough to the women in its ranks. The launch of its childcare policy will be an important chance to turn that around. Labor has been extremely slow to capitalise on what ‘left’ parties know elsewhere that women are now the natural constituency for parties that promise greater social spending. It is women in particular who know they need help in the struggle to combine paid work and unpaid family responsibilities. They don’t need to ‘work harder’.
But Labor’s forgetfulness pales into insignificance compared with the Coalition’s amnesia. Howard’s determination to ‘govern for the mainstream’ and not to be distracted by ‘special interests’ has led to some extraordinary policy decisions.
The government that believes in family values abolished the Work and Family Unit in the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations in 2003. It was bowing to the views of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry that government policy was unnecessary – it should be left up to employers to provide family-friendly workplaces.
The same government has given policy access to groups such as the Lone Fathers’ Association and the Men’s Rights Agency. These believe that men should not be portrayed as the perpetrators of domestic violence women are just as violent. This was behind the government’s cancellation of the ‘No respect, no relationship’ advertising campaign just before Christmas. It also explains the government’s decision not to allow women’s services to tender for a national hotline linked to the current ‘Australia Says No’ campaign.
The government’s determination not to be swayed by feminist ‘special interests’ even extends to how Coalition members talk in parliament. The number of times the Coalition mentions the words ‘woman’ or ‘women’ has dropped markedly in the last two parliaments. Labor mentions have gone up, particularly in the Senate, while the Greens and Democrats are happier than anyone to single out the gender-specific effects of policies.
The Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, Kay Patterson, can’t say when the launch of the government’s women’s policy will be.
That’s up to the Prime Minister.
Emma Chiswick is a pseudonym.
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