Howard's unrelenting assault on women's rights

Friday, March 2, 2007

Since the Howard Coalition government was elected in 1996 record numbers of women have entered parliament, yet women's rights are under massive attack without so much as a murmur of opposition from the female Coalition MPs and very little outcry from the ALP.

Anne Summers, in her 2003 book The End of Equality, pinpoints 1996 as when the main assaults started. But she also writes that the last three years of the Paul Keating Labor government also began to ignore women's rights. During the 1980s, the gender pay gap between women and men was narrowing. After the Keating government introduced enterprise bargaining, the gender pay gap started to increase again.

But it has been the last 10 years of attacks on the gains of the second wave of the women's movement that have had a devastating impact. Howard has abolished, or enfeebled, all government agencies charged with protecting women's entitlements and collecting statistics on the status of women. The government has also slashed funding for services such as child care that helped women achieve economic independence, and introduced taxation policies that have penalised couples where mothers worked and rewarded couples where the woman stays at home.

Other Howard government policies that have had a devastating impact on women's rights include Work Choices, welfare cuts and cuts to higher education including TAFE colleges. Howard hasn't been able to abolish the Medicare rebate for abortion, although he has introduced church-run, anti-choice pregnancy counselling. The government was also defeated by a cross-party alliance of women MPs who sponsored a bill to allow access to the anti-abortion drug RU486, despite entrenched opposition from Howard and his health minister Tony Abbott.

Rather than abolish the Office of the Status of Women (OSW) outright, Howard has made it politically impotent by slashing its staff by half. The OSW is responsible for advising the government about the impact of its policies on women. The government has also abolished $1 million of grants to women's organisations, although, after protests, it restored 50% of these. Women's organisations that do receive funding have to agree not to make any public comments on women's services and rights without first getting written permission from the prime minister or the OSW. But while cutting funding to women's organisations, the federal government began to fund the right-wing anti-women Lone Fathers Association.

Funds slashed

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), which has statutory responsibility to take action on complaints of discrimination on the grounds of sex, race or disability, has had its funding cut as well. Before the Sex Discrimination Act, there was no federal protection for women against discrimination in employment, education or elsewhere because of their sex, marital status or because they were pregnant, and no protection against sexual harassment. In 1996, the Howard government cut HREOC's budget by 40%, slashing its staff by one-third. At the same time, the human rights branch of the attorney-general's department had its staff cut from 21 to five.

The government forced the sex discrimination commissioner, Sue Walpole, to resign and didn't replace her for 14 months. In 1996, the government also slashed HREOC's powers, stripping it of the ability to conduct public hearings, and took the complaint-handling powers away from the individual commissioners for sex, race and disability discrimination. Public hearings under the three acts since then have had to be conducted in the Federal Court where proceedings are much more formal and very expensive.

The $1000 Federal Court filing fee and the $120 million cut to the legal-aid budget meant there was little chance of low-income complainants getting their cases heard. The complaint handling powers were transferred to the president of the commission. As a result of stripping the commissioners of their powers, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of complaints of sex discrimination from 2000 a year to just over 300.

In 1997, the government abolished the Women's Bureau in the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. For 30 years the bureau had tracked trends in women's employment and had been a strong advocate for equal pay. The department supposedly still publishes some statistics on women, but they are difficult to track down and the detailed information on employment, including women's employment, that used to be collected by the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey is no longer available. The last such survey was conducted in 1995. The 1996 budget abolished the Women's Statistics Unit in the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Child care

Howard's first two budgets drastically cut funding for child care. Operational subsidies for community-based centres were abolished, which led to fee increases. The budget also cut the childcare rebate, reducing the amount payable to families earning more than $70,000 a year. The childcare assistance payment was changed from fortnightly in advance to fortnightly in arrears, its indexation was cancelled and it was capped at 50 hours of work-related care per week. The next budget restricted the number of long-day care places to be funded to 7000 a year for 1998-99.

It became far more difficult to afford child care. The effect of these cuts forced thousands of women out of the work force. A cut of $850 million from child care between 1996 and 2000 forced many centres to close down or greatly increase their fees. In those five years, women's employment participation in Fairfield and Liverpool fell from 49.9% to 47%.

In 2000, the government resumed funding the expansion of the childcare program, but the rate of spending was below the amount spent in 1993-94. The government's childcare assistance was structured so that only those on extremely low incomes receive more than minimal help. To qualify for the maximum payment, a family's combined income cannot exceed $31,755, less than average weekly earnings.

Summers found from the focus groups she commissioned that very few women who were in jobs could afford child care. Most relied on families or organised their work so that the two parents worked opposite shifts, only seeing each other to pass on the children. One working mother in the focus groups said that she felt equal with men until she had children.

Under the Family Tax Benefit Part B scheme, single income families where the wife earns less than $1824 a year can receive up to $56 a week for children under the age of five. This scheme doesn't take into account the primary earner's income when calculating the payments, as occurs with all forms of family assistance going to two-income families. Single-income millionaire families can benefit from this scheme. Even the government's own figures demonstrate that a single-income family on $70,000 a year is considerably better off than a two-income family with a combined income of $70,000 once childcare expenses are taken into account.

The only family benefit that can be accessed by two income families, Family Tax Benefit Part A, begins to cut out when the combined income reaches $31,755.

The "baby bonus", the most insidious of the government's policies, was introduced instead of a national paid maternity leave scheme. It enables mothers to have refunded the tax they paid in the year before giving birth up to a maximum of $2500 a year. To qualify for the full amount, they must stay home for five years.

Under the Welfare to Work law, sole parents currently on the pension must seek 15-25 hours of work per week once their youngest child is seven. New claimants whose youngest child is six to seven must seek at least 15 hours of paid work per week and undertake a mutual obligation activity comprising 150 hours over six months each year. Newstart Allowance cuts out at a much lower amount of private earnings than the Sole Parents Pension. Sole parents cannot refuse a job if it meets the government's five minimum conditions.

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