The Women's Budget Statement promises $3.4 billion to address inequality. Women's advocates see a 'really significant missed opportunity'.

  • Gender equality advocates have welcomed the $3.4 billion in Federal Budget funding for women’s economic and personal security, but say the measures should go further.
  • The Women’s Budget Statement promises to expand childcare subsidies, superannuation, and housing guarantees, with the goal of increasing government support for Australian women.
  • But at just 1% of the Federal Budget’s $589 billion in spending measures, some rue a “really significant missed opportunity” to address systemic inequality.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Gender equality advocates say new measures included in the $3.4 billion Women’s Budget Statement are a welcome start, but radically underestimate the structural issues hindering the economic and personal security of Australian women.

The 2021-2022 Federal Budget, delivered Tuesday night, was billed as a reset for the Morrison government’s approach to women’s economic and personal security, after a year of job losses, financial uncertainty, and troubling allegations of sexual abuse snaking all the way into Parliament House.

The document promises $1.7 billion in funding to expand subsidies for Australia’s child care system, $1.1 billion to improve the safety of women, and a suite of new measures Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said will address the retirement savings gap and boost female participation in the workforce.

Reactions are mixed.

“If this was a AFLW game, we will have got the government out of the change room, down the tunnel, and onto the pitch,” Helen Dalley-Fisher, senior manager of the Equality Rights Alliance, told Business Insider Australia.

“There’s a long way to go before we win the game — but they’re at least playing this time.”

Childcare

The Federal Budget promises to expand the Child Care Subsidy to provide coverage for more families.

From July 2022, the government will subsidise up to 95% of childcare spending for younger siblings, up 30% from previous levels.

And the $10,560 cap on subsidies will be removed, purportedly allowing 18,000 families to pursue more working hours without fear of excess childcare costs.

With an estimated cost of $1.7 billion over five years, the measures form the cornerstone of the Women’s Budget Statement, and account for half the funding assigned through the paper.

Advocates say the expansion of childcare subsidies will allow some parents to re-enter the workforce, including the women who overwhelmingly bear the burden of at-home child care.

“A $1.7 billion investment in the childcare subsidy is welcome recognition from the federal government that affordability in early education and care is an issue for lots of families,” said Georgie Dent, executive director of parents’ advocacy group The Parenthood.

“But unfortunately, is not sufficient to create the meaningful reforms that we need throughout early education.”

“Tinkering around the edges of the subsidy” is some distance from universal access to child care, which Dent says would unlock the economic potential of thousands of women currently disincentivised from re-entering the workforce by soaring childcare costs.

“The evidence is pretty unequivocal that investing in and expanding the provision of high quality early education and care as a platform for growth, and particularly for employment, is very clear,” Dent said.

The Budget also missed an opportunity to provide wage subsidies for Australia’s overwhelmingly female childcare workforce, Dalley-Fisher said.

“That could have acted as a stimulus in the economy,” Dalley-Fisher said.

“It’s an underpaid workforce, that needs a lot of support in terms of decent work, decent conditions and decent pay,” she added.

Home ownership

In keeping with the Morrison government’s stated position that home ownership is the key to financial stability, the Federal Budget unveiled a new housing guarantee: single parents, predominantly single mothers, will be entitled to secure a home deposit by providing just 2% of a home’s total value up front, with the government guaranteeing payment of the remaining 18%.

The measure will likely backfire, Dalley-Fisher said, with any new influx of loan commitments only serving to push housing prices further out of reach for vulnerable Australians.

“This might be a good initiative, if it was partnered with something that would take some of that heat out of the market,” Dalley-Fisher said.

The focus on private home ownership obscured the societal and economic value of renewed social housing funding, which could have put a roof over the heads of at-risk women while bolstering Australia’s broader recovery from the pandemic recession, she added.

“What’s really needed is somewhere safe, and affordable, and appropriate, where you can live while you get your financial feet back on the ground,” Dalley-Fisher said.

“And then, maybe, you can put together a deposit.”

Superannuation and paid parental leave

The Federal Budget marks a slight change for the Morrison government’s handling of superannuation.

Gone are ugly policy proposals encouraging women to access their super funds while fleeing domestic violence, and the emergency measure allowing vulnerable Australians to dip into their superannuation through the pandemic (the full impact of that policy will only be felt in decades to come).

In their place: removal of the $450 minimum monthly earning threshold on super contributions, allowing low-earners to access the Super Guarantee through insecure or part-time work.

“We welcome the the removal of the $450 threshold, because that that is a measure that will help people on low incomes,” Dalley-Fisher said.

“And we know that a significant number of those people are women.”

But the new policy will do nothing to top up depleted super accounts here and now, Dalley-Fisher said.

And with its decision not to apply the super guarantee to paid parental leave, the Federal Government missed an easy and relatively cheap to bolster the retirement savings of women, Dent said.

“The failure to expand or address paid parental leave at all is a really significant missed opportunity,” she said.

“We have got inadequate infrastructure to enable mothers in particular to combine caring with paid work.”

Domestic violence

When thousands of women marched on Parliament House to express their horror and exhaustion at Australia’s domestic violence crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that in other countries, such demonstrations “are being met with bullets”.

In the Budget, Australia’s national shame is met by $1.1 billion in new funding.

“On average, one woman is killed every nine days,” the Women’s Budget Statement notes. A quarter of women over 15 have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner.

To counter this, the Federal Government has assigned $164.8 million over three years to financially assist women affected by domestic and family violence.

That funding bloc will provide eligible women with $5,000 in aid, including $1,500 in cash, allowing them to attain vital accommodation, resources and support.

Hundreds of millions will go towards the family law system, while further funding will go towards supporting marginalised women, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, at-risk refugees, and those with disabilities.

The $5,000 funding packages “potentially could work very well,” Dalley-Fisher said. So too could the “really quite unexpected” $26 million in funding for women’s legal services.

But Domestic Violence NSW said that if the Federal Government were to adequately address domestic violence in Australia, more than a billion dollars in funding should be dedicated to the issue each year.

“We need to invest in a future where no more women and children are murdered due to domestic and family violence, Delia Donovan, CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, said in a statement.

“The Federal Government’s investment into women’s safety initiatives is positive – but we can’t stop here.”

The statement encapsulates what advocates see in the budget: a promising but reserved commitment to Australian women, that is limited in scope, scale and ambition.

If Tuesday’s announcement was a AFLW match, advocates now rue a missed chance to change the game entirely.

“There is no set of discrete small funding packages that you can introduce for women that will address the root cause of inequity,” Dent said.

“We will only dismantle the structural barriers that prevent women from achieving fundamental security through a structural level, and there was an opportunity to actually dismantle some of those barriers which would simultaneously boost the economy.”

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