OPINION: Most Australians are aware of the Coalition’s signature policy on paid parental leave. But how are the parties addressing the other issues that concern Australian women in this election?
A recent survey of the members of Women on Boards found that paid parental leave was rated as the issue of least significance behind pay equity, women in leadership, childcare, superannuation, anti-discrimination laws and affordable housing.
During this election campaign, the National Foundation for Australian Women hasassessed the election policies of the major political parties on issues that impact on women. Most of these policies are not gender specific, but have a gendered impact because of the way women balance work and family life. These issues include superannuation, income security, disabilities, education and aged care.
We haven’t endorsed a particular suite of policies. We have measured the position of each party against our core principles and encourage women (and their partners) to make their own assessment of how the parties compare, based on their own circumstances.
Many of the issues women face are the result of the broken work patterns that stem from juggling work and child rearing. Gender-blind systems – such as education, superannuation and aged care – just do not recognise that women’s experiences of the system are shaped by their gender.
No party has properly addressed this problem. The Coalition, for example, proposes paying superannuation on paid parental leave, but will remove the low income superannuation contribution recently introduced by the Labor government to benefit all low-income workers, of which a disproportionate number are women.
Childcare is still the barbecue stopper. Many parents are still unable to find suitable, affordable care, which limits their capacity to participate in the paid workforce. But we also need to consider the other participants in the childcare system and ensure childcare workers are paid a decent wage, which requires additional investment in the system.
The National Foundation for Australian Women has been calling for increased investment in the out-of-school hours care sector, and welcomes the additional fundingpromised by Labor. The Coalition proposes to refer the matter to the Productivity Commission, deferring any help.
We have been waiting for one of the major parties to announce that it will reconsider the changes to the parenting payment that have seen substantial cuts to the income of sole parents, most of whom are women, when their youngest child turns eight.
We endorse moves to encourage parents into the workforce, but the changes that were implemented this year actually impacted most severely on sole parents who were working part time. Many mothers of school-aged children, whether single or partnered parents, work part-time to juggle work and family commitments. Moving these parents from the parenting payment to Newstart, with a stricter income test, meant that they keep less of their earnings and can be financially worse off.
We agree that workforce participation is the best protection against poverty, but it depends on the availability of childcare and anti-discrimination laws that protect women from discrimination on the basis of their caring responsibilities or pregnancy. Family tax benefits, paid parental leave and other family-based benefits need to be designed so they do not discourage workforce participation but assist families that need financial help.
Our issues papers have highlighted some of the aspects where women face economic and social disadvantage. We have asked the major political parties what they plan to do to reassure women that their concerns are being heard, and in many cases we have been disappointed at the lack of progress.
The policies that impact on women’s lives are interconnected, but fundamentally reflect the role of women in society.
Helen Hodgson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Taxation and Business Law, UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.