OPINION

Australian women needed bold budget thinking - we didn't get it

FAILURE: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg's latest budget represents another year of missed opportunities. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
FAILURE: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg's latest budget represents another year of missed opportunities. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

On the measure of supporting women to achieve economic and social equality, the 2020-21 federal budget was a dismal failure.

In the midst of the worst recession of a generation, with women bearing the particularly punitive brunt, the Coalition government allocated just $8 per woman over five years for measures targeted to 51 per cent of the population. In the biggest spending budget in history.

Frankly, it was a low bar the Treasurer had to clear when he handed down the 2021-22 budget. And there were some improvements. The return of the women's budget statement, for example, is welcome.

Australia was once a world leader in pursuing gender equity, and gender-responsive budgeting was a central plank.

Since the women's budget statement was abandoned in 2014, Australia's efforts to close the gender gap have slipped.

It now ranks 50th for overall gender gap according to the World Economic Forum, down from 12th in 2006.

The acknowledgement that investing in women's safety is important is long overdue.

While a doubling of spending on domestic and family violence is significant, it is still just a quarter of the funding that experts say is needed.

An additional $1.7 billion investment in childcare would be far better if it wasn't spread over three years and started immediately.

No family will experience fee relief until July 1, 2022 - and even then, 750,000 families will miss out.

Investments in women's workforce participation, education and training, in the aged sector and STEM sectors, and support for women to retrain and return to work, are positive.

But thousands of women didn't take to the streets in March because they want to inch closer to becoming a country in which all women can live and work freely and safely and reach their full potential.

It is time for leaps forward, and on that measure the 2021-22 budget represents another year of missed opportunities.

On Tuesday night, there was no movement on paid parental leave, despite strong and united calls for it from the Business Council of Australia, the ACTU, Chief Executive Women and hosts of others.

Despite Australian families having access the second-least generous paid parental leave scheme in the OECD.

The undervaluing of women's work accounts for 18 per cent of the gender pay gap.

But there were no initiatives to increase pay and conditions in feminised workforces; the caring economy, aged care, early learning and care, disability care, action that would represent meaningful action towards closing the gender pay gap.

An investment of $1.7 billion to help families with more than one child in early childhood education is not nothing.

But when it's spread over three years and won't come into effect for another year? It's not much.

It also does nothing for women who struggle to pay high out-of-pocket costs for one child in early learning, nothing for children in outside school hours care and nothing for the children of parents who can't meet the activity test.

It also does nothing for the female-dominated workforce that delivers early education.

If a man is not a financial plan, then why are the men in charge of the national accounts so unwilling to create an environment in which women can achieve economic and social equality?

I'm weary of short-term politics and short-term "solutions". I'm frustrated by political leaders reaching only for the absolute minimum standard required and then stopping dead.

It is time for leadership. It is time for unequivocal proof that the federal government takes the safety and economic security of all women seriously: meaningful reform.

Even before COVID-19 hit, women were far less likely to be financially secure than their male peers.

The fact that women over 55 are the fastest growing group of Australians who experience homelessness, and have been for several years now, illustrates how precarious the financial security of so many women in Australia was even before the pandemic.

And this is not due to a lack of education or financial literacy or confidence or skills or ambition or interest in work on the part of women.

It reflects the structural barriers that make it more difficult for women to maintain consistent attachment to paid work over the course of their lives.

We know what we need to do.

We have all the information we need to remove the barriers that are holding women back.

We know a more generous paid parental leave scheme with built-in flexibility for dads will make a difference in the lives of women and children.

We know structural reform to make early childhood education universally accessible, high-quality and genuinely affordable will represent an investment in our whole economy, in the lives of Australian women and most critically of all, in the education of our children.

No more missed opportunities. No more timid steps. No more minimum thresholds and no more low bars.

The women of Australia need bold, visionary thinking.

Our whole nation needs leaders who can show us what a bright future could look like and then take us by the hand and guide us there.

Georgie Dent is executive director of The Parenthood, a community of 72,000 Australian parents and carers.

This story Australian women needed bold budget thinking - we didn't get it first appeared on The Canberra Times.