How to build an Abbott-proof fence
Julia Gillard on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty Images
As International Women’s Day approaches, with less than six months before the federal election, it’s timely to reflect on the spectre of an Abbott government and what this means for Australian women.
History shows Tony Abbott’s views on women’s lives are regressive. His minders, careful to shore up the women’s vote, have buttoned up his straight jacket in an attempt to limit a repeat of his more outrageous statements. But the mud has rightly stuck and women are understandably wary.
The global theme for IWD is ‘The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum’.
The Australian Greens have identified ten important priorities to keep the momentum on women's equity, in line with this IWD theme and to strengthen the Abbott-proof fence.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard still has time to do the heavy lifting and implement this diverse but achievable ‘to do’ list and the Australian Greens are ready to work with her.
1. Re-establish the Office for the Status of Women within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
Australia needs more than a backseat driver for women’s issues, we need a feisty and dedicated office responsible for women within the PM’s office. The first Office for the Status of Women was a success until former PM John Howard downgraded it by merging it with the Department of Family and Community Affairs and renamed it the ‘Office for Women’. Since that time – while the efforts of hard-working women bureaucrats within the office who continue to push gender equity are impressive - the spotlight on women’s issues has dimmed considerably.
2. Develop a clear and comprehensive plan to achieve Equal Pay
The gender pay gap currently sits at 17.5 per cent, widening from 15 per cent since the Howard years. The $2.8 billion the Gillard government allocated to implement Fair Work Australia’s decision for community workers is welcome, but far more is needed to pressure resistant states to budget for equal pay increases.
3. Back the Greens’ Better Work/Life Balance Bill
Flexible working hours help reduce the stress women face combining work, family and caring responsibilities. Greens MP Adam Bandt’s Better Work/Life Balance Bill expands the right to request flexible working hours and allows Fair Work Australia to rule on requests for flexible work arrangements.
4. Address tax and policy settings around superannuation
Part-time work, caring responsibilities and lower pay all help see women’s average superannuation payout sit at roughly a third of that of men. Offering paid parental leave with superannuation is one useful policy change. Tackling tax concessions on superannuation is another. These are costing the public purse around $30 billion each year, with almost half of the tax concessions going to the top 12 percent of earners who are predominately men.
5. Increase the Newstart Allowance by $50 a week
The government’s tight fisted increase of $4 per week for Newstart recipients is an insult. Greens Senator Rachel Siewert's bill to increase the maximum single rate of Newstart by $50 per week is a reasonable ask considering the single rate of Newstart is more than $130 under the poverty line. A tougher mining tax is one way to pay for this urgently needed reform.
6. Scrap Income Management
Evidence on the implementation of Income Management in the Northern Territory shows it is failing women and should be scrapped. Yet despite this the government is rolling it out in five new sites around Australia. Investment in jobs and services is needed, not this heavy handed paternalism.
7. Stand firm on women’s right to choose
Attacks on women’s reproductive rights are possibly the most feared outcome of an Abbott led government. DLP Senator John Madigan, who may hold the balance of power in the Senate after the election, is already attempting to whip up pro-life activism. Guaranteed access to safe and confidential reproductive health services, including abortion, is what most Australians want. PBS listing and the eventual subsidising of RU486 and Misoprostol to enable non-surgical abortion to be more widely accessible is crucial, particularly for women living in rural and regional Australia.
8. Extend protection against discrimination at work to domestic violence victims
An estimated 1.2 million Australian women have experienced domestic or family violence. More is needed to support these women to stay safe at work and keep their jobs. Extending protection against workplace discrimination to victims of domestic violence is overdue.
9. Increase overseas aid for family planning
The threat of interference by an Abbott government in how Australia spends its foreign aid is real. Family planning is key to reducing maternal mortality, which is the leading cause of death and illness for all women worldwide. We need a vocal commitment to continue and increase aid funding for reproductive and sexual health, with no strings attached, to avoid a repeat of the Brian Harradine years.
10. Ensure parliament reflects the real world gender makeup
2013 is the 110th anniversary of Australian women winning the right to vote and stand in elections, and the 70th anniversary of the election of the first women to Federal Parliament. Actively working to increase representation of women at all levels of government would strengthen and boost our democracy.
*This is an edited extract of a Senate speech Lee Rhiannon gave on 25 February 2013