The Democrats present their support for a goods and services tax which excludes basic foodstuffs as a progressive stand against a conservative onslaught. They claim that their exclusions are a feasible solution to the problem of the inequity of the government-proposed tax "reform".
In an address to the National Press Club on April 20, the Democrats' parliamentary leader, Meg Lees, said that a Democrat-modified GST would be fair. But a closer look at what they have proposed reveals a very flawed model of equity.
During the October federal election campaign, the Democrats said all food should be exempt from the GST. Now they have settled for the Irish model of food exemption: fruit, vegetables, milk and other "basic" foods (such as bread, but not other bakery products) will not incur the 10% tax, but "prepared" foods will.
Prepared foods, for the Democrats, are not only what you get at takeaways and restaurants; the frozen pizza on the supermarket shelf will be taxed at 10%, along with your home-delivered style pizza.
The Democrats plan to force people to use chopping boards and baking dishes or face a 10% increase in their food bill raises questions about who will do the extra chopping and baking.
More women participate in the work force than ever before. Yet many still face a double shift: their paid part-time or full-time jobs and then the bulk of the unpaid domestic drudgery at home. La Trobe University history professor Marilyn Lake estimates that Australian women currently do around 70% of the unpaid work in the home.
Women who work all day only to come home to a second shift welcomed the advent of easy to make, pre-prepared meals, as well as the restfulness of the occasional takeaway or restaurant meal, finances permitting. The Democrats point out that the wealthy spend more money on restaurant meals than ordinary folk, but I don't know many ordinary working mothers (or others) who have not blessed the ready-to-heat-and-eat frozen packages just waiting to be reconstituted as belly warming meals, saving time and sanity.
The effects of the Democrats' proposal will be experienced more harshly by women. But the Democrats seem to ignore this. They even tout the proposed narrower exclusions from the GST as a good thing, bringing better nutrition and "more time spent with family" to the masses. Most of the world would benefit from better nutrition and fresher food, but at the moment this usually equates with more women spending more time slaving in the kitchen.
Great. Let's all gather around mum as she pops another batch of scones into the oven and hum "you ought to be congratulated" as she spreads the low-cholesterol margarine.
And why stop there? When you think about it, bread is a processed food. Women should bake all their bread at home. In fact, (why hold back?), let's have only wheat grain on the supermarket shelves, with some heavy discounts on portable milling equipment.
Seriously though, while the Democrats' proposal will increase the already grossly unfair burden that most women carry, the question of whether or not to include food, basic or otherwise, in a GST is the wrong question.
The real question, which the Democrats do not ask, is: why have a GST at all?
The majority of Australians are not convinced by the Coalition's arguments in favour of tax "reform". In the last federal election, the Coalition, campaigning primarily for a GST, received less than 40% of the primary vote. Yet, due to the unrepresentative electoral system, the Coalition retained government. In the 1996 election, half of the Coalition senators were elected on a "never, ever will we introduce a GST" platform.
There is no "mandate" for a GST and it is not too late to stop it. But to do so would require a campaign, and involvement in any campaign against attacks on working people requires time and organisation. If the Democrats and Coalition have their way, we'll all be too busy baking scones to ever campaign again.
By Margaret Allum