“Soft hearts” versus “hard hats” is how the National-Liberal Party Coalition government has been selling its 2021 Budget, announced in May. Last year’s focus was construction. This year, it’s apparently women. This is meant to appease women outraged by the sexual violence recently exposed within Parliament. Two months earlier, more than 100,000 protested across the country. Demands on the government to act have not diminished. The $3.4 billion announced for “women’s economic security, safety and health” has placated some feminists. But those studying the detail aren’t impressed.
This $3.4 billion is 3.6% of the budget’s $96 billion in new spending and taxes. The $57.6 million toward family violence services for First Nations women pales against the $464 million to increase immigration detention and the $474 million to upgrade military training facilities in the Northern Territory. The $1.1 billion earmarked for women’s safety, which includes domestic violence, is an increase of $250 million per year over four years. But this will be cut by 99%, to just $2.3 million, in 2025-26!
Misogyny in suits. The government’s handling of the rape and assault allegations — one involving its disgraced, now ex-Attorney-General — has been deplorable. And its obstruction of justice through denial and counterattack just goes on.
When it comes to family violence — frontline workers say that 2020 was the worst year they’ve seen — the government’s duplicity is breathtaking. In March this year, Superannuation Minister Jane Hume told women to use their superannuation retirement money to escape! Even if this were acceptable, one in three women retire with no super, and half of women 45 to 59 retire with $8,000 or less. Public reaction forced the government to shelve the idea.
In the previous month, the Coalition pushed through legislation, with the support of men’s rights champion One Nation, which effectively abolished the Family Court. Set up in 1975 as a specialist court to protect victims and survivors of domestic violence, its merger with the Federal Circuit Court reduces it to a shadow of itself. This flies in the face of voluminous and irrefutable evidence submitted by community legal and support services and judges that the Family Court urgently needed more resourcing to deal with the growing backlog of cases. Driven by far-right and religious forces, the move was calculated to keep the nuclear family together, no matter what.
What the pink decoration can’t hide. No matter who governs in Canberra, budgets are designed for business needs, and this one aims to prop up an economy in seriously deep crisis. It expects women to mop up capitalism’s mess, as free labour at home and cheap labour in the workplace. Examples are the child and aged care components in this so-called “women’s budget.”
The largest slice of the $3.4 billion goes to the childcare industry: it will get an additional $1.7 billion over the next four years, starting in July 2022. But its meagre offerings will benefit only a quarter of families. Early childhood education and care will remain out of most parents’ reach. The shortage of workers — the result of low pay and poor conditions, made worse by COVID — is becoming so critical that 8.4% of centres (nearly one in ten!) have to apply for a waiver of the required staffing level.
Although outside the budget’s “gift” to women, funding for aged care is also an issue for the many who care for family members. The $17.7 billion, to be spread over five years, is one-third of what the recent royal commission into aged care stated is needed to raise the industry’s inhuman conditions. Women, both as residents and caregivers, will continue paying the terrible social and financial cost.
The budget does nothing to address the plight of precarious workers. For women, desperation is especially acute. Sixty-five percent of female wage earners work in lower paid, highly insecure industries, such as hospitality, retail, healthcare and social services.
COVID has made this even worse. Sixty percent of new jobs are casual, 62% filled by women. Women’s pay, when measured across all jobs, is 31% less than men’s.
Jobkeeper was a government supplement payment to employers during COVID as a way to keep the unemployment figures down. It enabled one million workers — 3.5 million at its peak — to hold onto their jobs. In the industries most reliant on the subsidy, these workers were overwhelmingly women. Jobkeeper ended on 31 March 2021, not to be replaced.
Budgets serve a misogynist system. Women work in low-paid jobs, and for nothing at home. In this social engine room, each isolated nuclear family plays its part in reproducing capital. Women’s role is pivotal for the economy’s ability to squeeze as much as it can from its workers.
Profit comes from workers’ labour. The less industry pays its workers, the more it can pocket from the value of the goods they produce. The baseline for wages is the overall cost of workers’ survival needs — such as food, education, heating, clothing, health and general care. Women provide for these needs, keeping their working family in good order. They also breed and raise the replacement workforce. All of this for free.
In 2016, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency estimated that the value of unpaid care work done by women was approximately $650.1 billion. In 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers calculated the childcare component to be worth $345 billion.
By mythologising this domestic work as a labour of love, capital justifies women’s exploitation in the workplace. Caring, hospitality, retail, nursing and teaching are examples of how abysmally low wages and job insecurity are explained away as “women’s work.” This sets a low standard of wages and conditions for all workers.
These are the conditions which place women in insecure, potentially dangerous, situations. The budget does nothing to assuage the violence. It feeds it.
Women’s hearts are in the fightback. On March 15, the March4Justice (M4J) galvanised women around the public scandal of sexual harassment and rape in federal Parliament. Protests in cities and towns across the country directed anger at the Morrison government for its passive-aggressive response.
Liberal feminists organised M4J. Based on the belief that women can win equality under capitalism through legal reform, the demands were limited to the implementation of the 55 recommendations of the Australian Human Rights Commission into workplace sexual harassment, which the Morrison government had ignored for over a year; a federal Gender Equality Act; and investigations into all cases of gendered violence. The mainstream media gave its full attention, and Labor Party leaders joined the Canberra event on the lawns of Parliament. Australian Council of Trade Unions President Michele O’Neil, a featured speaker, stuck to this narrow agenda. The day ended, and that was that.
But those marching were, and still are, very angry. So many women want to upend the status quo, because they know the problem lies in the system. Radical Women keeps meeting women eager to pinpoint what drives women’s oppression and work out what it will take to end the violence. Most angry and ready to fight are those first in misogyny’s line of fire — non-binary and gender non-conforming folks, women who are queer, trans, immigrant, First Nations and sisters of colour and with disabilities.
These are up-and-coming leaders for a movement that is capable of striking at the problem, with bold demands and in-your-face organising. They come from diverse communities and unions — solid bases for a militant fightback.
All women, regardless of immigration or relationship status, need:
- Fully resourced culturally appropriate services, including places of refuge, that help them escape to safety;
- The right to self-defence and the burden of proof placed on the authorities, not the victim
- Secure and permanent housing. Build more public housing now!
- Free, quality public services run by workers which centre their needs: 24-hour childcare; aged care, disability services, public transport and education for all.
- Economic independence: equal pay and a living income for all.
If you want to explore these possibilities and organise, get in touch with Radical Women (RW). We’d love to meet you!
Photos accompanying this article show Radical Women in action at M4J.