‘Women’s issues’ and the inbuilt policy gender biases

| September 2, 2013

The paid parental leave plan Tony Abbott is offering has been met with outrage by some. Social and political researcher Eva Cox argues that we have still a long way to go before we can discuss such policy without sexism.

The current election followed shortly after the demise of our first female Prime Minister, whose departure raised a series of questions on misogyny and sexism in the political sphere. This change inevitably raised questions on whether gender would emerge as part of election strategies and affect policy options. Part of this interest arose as the Gillard government had been targeting Tony Abbott’s sexism record as evidence of his unsuitability to be prime minister. However, one election issue has shown that sexism still affects some areas of policy debate.

In 2002, a proposal for parental leave lost out on the perceived inequity between paid workers and non-eligible mothers, so Howard and Abbott offered the baby bonus instead. A decade later, Abbott had an epiphany and came out with an even more generous version than most feminists were pushing for. This version is paid at a single rate, (the minimum wage) to eligible recipients for 18 weeks; the Coalition proposal is for 26 weeks as normal pay replacement plus superannuation, up to an annual pay cap of $150,000. The Greens, interestingly, offer the same as the Coalition, except they cap annual income at $100,000 pa. All offer the minimum wage as a starting point for those earning less. The difference between the salary cap of the last two versions suggests that a sensible debate on lowering the cap even further would have been perfectly reasonable, but that was not to be.

Abbott has, accidentally or probably deliberately, offered a policy option that has been high in feminist agendas for many years. He obviously chose it to counter the view he was still anti women having paid jobs. He had form in this area as he had declared in the previous debate only a decade ago that there would be paid parental leave ‘over my dead body’.

So his conversion was a spectacular clear about face. Abbott has been very committed and even makes all the right noises about it being a workplace entitlement, not welfare! Not only was his version much more generous than the current ALP model. The extra tax and overall costs seriously annoyed big business and many neo liberal and conservative Coalition members. The opposition to this policy from almost all was spectacularly wide and very sexist.

The media and political response have unfortunately illustrated how far we have to go to have some equity in the ways that policies which mainly benefit women are treated. I cannot think of any other policy that has been greeted with this level of outrage. My claim of sexism is based on the way objections immediately focused on the relatively few high earning women who may still be child bearing, and shrieked against the privileging of these.

Put the reaction up against the lack of public criticism of recent changes to superannuation that allow older high income earners, mainly male, to contribute $35,000 per annum to their super fund un-means tested. This concession reduces the tax take as it allows them to avoid an initial $10,000 plus income tax each, plus being undertaxed on its later earnings. Imagine if this ‘concession’ had been offered to those (women) who had taken time out for child rearing to offset their lower lifetime earnings!

The ALP and some feminists tried to split women’s support by claiming Abbott offered more only to rich women, which was not true as all recipients would be better off. This sudden eruption of class war rhetoric is obviously designed to turn women against women. The ALP  immediately started comparing women bankers with shop assistants, and then objected to taxing big companies like Woolworths who would raise grocery prices, which sounds very neo-liberal!

Labor also defended its stance that all women should get the same amount for paid parental leave by claiming it was welfare, not a workplace entitlement. It then contradicted this by claiming its own scheme was superior because it was paid through employers, not directly by government, to make a connection. They then undermined this claim by offering to pay their super version directly to small business! They fail also to explain that if this payment is ‘welfare’, why have they cut the baby bonus that offered money to those workers who did not qualify for paid parental leave, or those who were not in paid work?

The alliances became bizarre. On the one side there was Abbott, The Greens, NSW unions, me, Jane Caro and others feminists; on the other was the ALP and minister Macklin in bed with the Institute of Public Affairs, the most neo-liberal and conservatives part of the Coalition, the Nationals, and many economists, some feminists. Slowly, more feminist groups have emerged to support the Abbott pay model, albeit with reservations, as the argument that this was to be a workforce entitlement.

This claim was part of the feminist agenda, as adding parental leave to other strategies would make parenting more normal in workplaces. While there are now many more women with children in paid work, they are still generally not seen as potential leaders and ideal workers because workplaces assume the ideal paid workers shouldn’t have family responsibilities. A single ‘welfare’ payment doesn’t make the workplace connection clear.

There are also problems of inequities in the current scheme, such as the entitlement of public servants and those working for big firms to receive up to 14 weeks replacement pay plus super on top of being entitled to 18 minimum wage pay from the government. The Abbott scheme would put both entitlements together, so all would get 26 weeks plus full super, which could be seen as much fairer than allowing double dipping with some getting 32 and others only 18 weeks and no super.

There is no doubt that much of the reaction on the remnants of the left and many feminists initial responses to a better designed scheme was because it came from Tony Abbott. Far too many of the objections were personalised which is not the way to decide good policy. Take out the names of the proposing parties and we should have had arguments about the policy payment (welfare or income related) and the level of cap, plus paying super. We have a long way to go before we can discuss such policy without sexism!

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Eva Cox

Eva Cox is Professorial Fellow Jumbunna IHL at the University of Technology in Sydney. Eva is a public commentator, community change agent, feminist, Boyer Lecturer 1995 and active social and political researcher. She has taught policy, advocacy and research methods, run research consultancies, worked as a public servant, political adviser and consultant. Her professional expertise is policy and research issues. She has written widely on a range of political and social issues.