16 June 2014
Tonight I rise to object to the Abbott Liberal government's first budget. This is a budget of inequality: a budget that hurts women, the vulnerable, pensioners, seniors, parents, carers, low-income earners, children and students. It is a budget of broken promises and twisted priorities. It is a budget that is neither fair, nor just.
In a desperate bid to reshape public debate about his first budget, the Treasurer now prefers to talk about a budget of opportunity. Last week in his address to the Sydney Institute, the Treasurer said it is the government's duty 'to help Australians get to the starting line, while accepting some will run faster than others' and 'it is not the role of government to use the taxation and welfare system as a tool to "level the playing field".' But that is exactly what the people of Newcastle expect governments to do. We do not subscribe to the Treasurer's dog-eat-dog world view. Governments have a vital role to ensure that no-one gets left behind. That is the Labor view, but the Treasurer's statement exemplifies the ignorance of this government and shows how truly out of touch they are. It is not a level playing field and that is the reality. Being born a man or a woman, it makes a difference. Living with disability or without, it makes a difference. Being born as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or not makes a difference. Inequality often starts very early in life and then life's circumstances can hit us hard. Many of us are faced with events that are out of our control.
This is not a debate about class warfare, as the Treasurer has claimed; it is a debate about equality. In 2014, sadly, gender inequality does not exist in Australia. Compared to other nations, we are way behind. According to the World Economic Forum's Global gender gap report 2013, Australia rates overall as the 24th most equal nation between men and women. As a woman, you are more likely to have equality in Burundi, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Lesotho, Cuba, New Zealand and Latvia than you are in Australia. When wage equality is considered, we rank 55th, with women in Australia earning about 17 per cent less than men on average. When it comes to political empowerment, we rank 43rd, with only one-quarter of members of parliament being women and about one-fifth in ministerial positions. Not helping these statistics is the Abbott Liberal government's cabinet, with just one woman sitting alongside 19 men. We need to do better. It is not OK for the Prime Minister to promote himself as the Minister for Women, ignoring the 26 women in his government. We do need to do better and we should aspire to be Number One on equity, not languish embarrassingly down the rankings. We should have a woman as the Minister for Women, not a Prime Minister who is on the record as denying that women will ever be equal. We need to do more to improve equality for women, not introduce measures that will send us further down the list. Unfortunately, this budget brings little joy for women.
According to Marie Coleman, chair of the Social Policy Committee of the National Foundation for Australian Women, “this is a budget that will hurt practically every woman, whether they are a single parent, unemployed, in the workforce, studying or a homemaker. Very few remain unscathed.” The National Foundation for Australian Women, a non-politically aligned group, took to analysing the 2013-14 budget through a gender lens.
Their work was particularly important this year as the government, led by the Minister for Women, abandoned a standard practice from the last 30 years that saw a Women's Budget Statement prepared as an element of the official budget papers. The Foundation's analysis of the budget found it fails the fairness and equity test and that its measures disproportionally affect women. Perhaps this is why the government did not want to report on it.
The Foundation highlighted a number of examples of how the Minister for Women's first budget affects women, and I will go through some of those now. An unemployed single parent with one eight-year-old child loses $54 per week or 12 per cent of their income. Most unemployed single parents are women. A single income couple with two school-age children and average earnings loses $82 a week or six per cent of their disposable income. For employed women using family day care, an immediate price rise in the order of $30 plus per week per child is likely. The freezing of the threshold and indexation for childcare rebate and fee relief will quickly impact on all childcare fees. These increases may discourage workforce participation. The increase in childcare fees for parents on Jobs, Education and Training, or JET, Childcare Fee Assistance and the reduction in hours of JET subsidised care available will discourage participation in work and training for low-income women. Cuts to the National Rental Affordability Scheme will impact low-income women who do not own their own home but do not qualify for public housing. Cuts to legal aid and community legal centres mean women who are victims of domestic violence have significantly reduced access to legal advice and representation. And women will pick up more of the cost and stress as they generally take the role of 'health manager' for families, with the GP tax and the increase in prescription costs and pathology and imaging charges hitting hard.
Another area of concern is the cuts to higher education. Independent analysis shows that it will be women in our society who will be hit hardest by the changes to the HECS and HELP schemes, further broadening the gender gap. If the government gets its way and these proposed higher education changes are implemented, a female graduate who takes time off work or reduces her hours to have children will be severely hit by the increase in university fees and the high interest rates, which will see their debt continue to accumulate rapidly as they are earning less. A three-year accountancy degree, for example, will take 36 years to pay off for women who take time off work to have children, compared to 23 years for an accountancy graduate who stays in the workforce. This prospect of massive and sustained debt will deter many women from going to university and participating in the workforce. Government should be supporting women to study and attain high-paid and high-skilled jobs, rather than burdening them with rampant debt, if they do choose to study, or forcing them out of the university system altogether.
It is well known that women have far less retirement savings than men. The Australian Human Rights Commission states that, on average, a woman's superannuation payout is a third of the payout for men. The Abbott Liberal government has cut the low-income superannuation contribution, a great Labor initiative to help boost the retirement savings of low-income earners—and 60 per cent of low-income earners are women. This coupled with the delay to the increase to the Superannuation Guarantee will have a deep impact on women and their ability to retire with dignity. Additionally, the new indexation scheme for pensions will have dire impacts on retirement incomes—and 55 per cent of age pensioners are women.
I have received numerous calls and emails from women in my electorate who have shared their personal stories about the detrimental impact that Tony Abbott's budget will have on them. Changes to the age pension, superannuation, family tax benefit, higher education and training will all disproportionately affect Australian women. In 2014 Australian women have every right to expect their government to address gender inequality. Prime Minister, if you insist on being the Minister for Women then it is time you stepped up the mark.
You need to reconsider the unfair and inequitable measures in your budget and you need to take gender equity seriously. It is time you led the work to bridge the gender gap in Australia, not further prise it apart.