Gender bias in Australia's taxation

Protest against the tampon tax. Australian states and territories say female sanitary products are non-essential — thus adding

From a distance, Australia's tax system looks gender neutral.

The tax return carefully avoids gendered words and the tax rules were purged several years ago of direct gender discrimination. There is no assumption that the male in a partnership is the primary breadwinner or that the female is the primary carer.

There is no assumption that one partner must disclose to the other all their financial affairs to enable a tax return to be sent on behalf of both of them, unless they explicitly agree to it. Single men and women are not treated differently for income tax purposes.

This equality is, of course, the result of many years of struggle and is not the result of natural justice being inherent in the tax system.

Indirect discrimination

From a distance, gender equality for income tax purposes has been achieved. However, on closer inspection, there is indirect discrimination in several areas. Far more carers are female than male so the only partial reimbursement of child care costs through allowances weighs heavier on women than on men. The allowance is also conditional on the child being immunised.

Family benefit supplements, rent allowances and all the other benefits that flow from Centrelink to carers, to the poorest people in society and to those unable to work, are not intended to reimburse the full costs of any outlay, but only to contribute towards those costs. As it is women more than men who are carers, the poorest and those unable to find work; it follows that the welfare system, financed by the tax system, is indirectly discriminatory against women.

Family the primary unit

From a distance, Australia is a secular country with the law free from religious oversight. Australia inherited its common law system from Britain, and Britain has the established Church of England as its official religious affiliation. Roman Catholicism is a very strong force in Australian society and in some states has prevented progressive gender equalising laws from being enacted or enforced.

These forces have meant that the law regards the family as the primary unit in society and that it is thus normal for the government, at federal or state level, not to interfere in family arrangements unless obliged by statute to do so. So the power relations inside the family are usually left uninspected and undisturbed.

Earlier tax laws assumed the husband was responsible for the finances of the family and obliged him to obtain the wife's financial information to put on his tax return. The assumption was she had to tell him everything but he was not reciprocally obliged to tell her anything about his own financial affairs.

Even today when a couple, married or not, opts for a single return instead of separate assessment, this imbalance still applies. It would only cease if it were impossible for one member of a couple to act for both in their financial and tax affairs — when a fully separate assessment would be the only choice available.

If a couple does choose to be taxed together, then another example of indirect gender discrimination is likely to arise. If he earns more than her, then her earnings are taxed at a higher rate than his because her earnings are added on to his before the tax calculation is done.

Of course this applies in reverse when she earns more than him, but she would also be the one doing the tax return for both of them or else the information imbalance described in the previous paragraph still applies.

Some people may decide to withdraw from work altogether if faced with a high effective tax rate, especially women with an employed partner and those people who receive a non-activity-tested income support payment.

Pink premium

From a distance, indirect taxes, particularly the GST, look gender neutral. Close up, we come across the case of the "pink premium". A good example is the smartphone where the pink casings cost more than the black. Women buy more pink and fewer black cases than men do, and the suppliers price the pink higher — so they have a higher GST on them as well.

A report by The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) revealed women may pay thousands of dollars more during their lifetimes for products ranging from razors and moisturisers to clothing and even toys.

The study looked at the gender-based pricing disparities of nearly 800 products with male and female versions, including toys and accessories, children's and adult clothing, personal care products and home health care products. It found, on average, women pay about 7% more than men. Women's clothing costs nearly 8% more than men's, while personal care products — hair care, razors, deodorant, lotion — cost women 13% more.

These discrepancies are mirrored in Australia and result from a common perception of corporate marketing offices that women will pay more for the same item than men, a continuing relic of 50s' advertising sexism.

In Australia there is the gender burden where some items attract GST and others do not. Despite strong opposition from the public and law makers, Australian states and territories have refused to remove the unpopular “tampon tax” on female sanitary products. Sanitary products attract 10% GST as they are treated as non-essential items. This is in sharp contrast to the tax concession for products such as condoms and sunscreen.

University student Subeta Vimalarajah created the petition, “stop taxing my period” but this has been a low profile issue nationally and the discrimination continues.

The work of gender equalisation in tax matters is part of the gender equalisation project across society and that work is nowhere near finished.

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