and ain't I a woman?: It goes far beyond tampons
The recent row over whether tampons and sanitary pads should be GST-free has divided the Liberal Party along gender lines, confused Australian Democrat leader Meg Lees, who didn't know that tampons were currently sales tax-free, and enabled the ALP to posture as being pro-women. Among ordinary people, most women and many men are angry, not only about the government's intention to slap a GST on tampons and sanitary napkins, but also about the trivialisation of the need for these products by the federal minister for health, Michael Wooldridge.
When Wooldridge likened the need for tampons with the use of shaving cream, he alienated many women — although his anti-choice stance on abortion and his refusal to even consider the recommendations of a 1997 National Health and Medical Research Council report on the provision of contraceptive choices such as the morning-after pill had already won him few female friends.
The government was forced to apologise for Wooldridge's lack of tact, but there are no signs that it is backing down on this issue, despite the Tasmanian government spokesperson for women, Fran Bladel, advising the PM that the application of the GST on feminine hygiene products could breach sex discrimination laws and generate legal action. She said that a class action by women against the Commonwealth of Australia is possible if the government chose to discriminate in this way.
While the ALP, Democrats and even many Liberals are condemning the government's stance on tampons, none are using this to question the discriminatory nature of the GST, especially for women, in a wider sense. The government's lap-dog, the Democrats, certainly wouldn't mention this officially. Despite their deputy leader, Natasha ("Don't blame me, I voted against a GST on books") Stott-Despoja's claims to be an ardent feminist, the Democrats' votes were crucial to getting this unfair tax passed in the first place.
The ALP has no desire to rock the boat too much over any GST issue either, because in reality it doesn't oppose the tax. Kim Beazley makes lame protests that, although he doesn't agree with a GST, if the ALP wins government it won't be able to overturn the tax because it will be too late.
And the female Liberal parliamentarians have no interest in going beyond this "safe" issue because they wholeheartedly support a tax on the poor for the benefit of the wealthy.
Taxing sanitary products is appalling, given that women do not have a choice about whether to use them, but the Coalition/Democrat GST has far more in store for women.
Prior to the last federal election, and Howard's victorious claim to have a mandate for a GST, despite a majority of the population voting for anti-GST candidates, this column presented the arguments about why a consumption tax will hurt women in particular.
Lisa Macdonald quoted 1997 research prepared for the Australia Institute, in which economist Julie Smith evaluated the impact of the New Zealand GST on women, five years after its introduction. The NZ model, which includes some compensation for low-income earners and families with children, and some exemptions, is similar to that being planned in this country.
Smith found that the major losers under a GST are those on low incomes and sole parents. In Australia, women are the majority in both these categories — in 1999, 93% of sole parenting payments were paid to women (Australian Bureau of Statistics).
Consumption taxes disproportionately affect the poor because those with lower incomes spend a far greater proportion of their money on basic consumer items like food, housing, clothing and transport; therefore, proportionately, they pay a higher tax overall. The government's proposed tax reductions will in no way make up for this discrepancy, especially as other recently introduced tax changes are similarly geared to benefiting corporations and individuals on high incomes.
Women have every right to be angry about the GST on tampons, but it doesn't stop there. As the majority of the poor, women have a whole lot more to be angry about in relation to the GST.
All those who will be worse off — and that's the majority of people, including working-class men — should keep fighting the implementation of this pro-wealthy tax, even if it is introduced. If we act together, we do have the power to force the withdrawal any anti-people legislation (and much more beyond that).
By Margaret Allum