Why ‘block the budget’ is a feminist demand

The budget is an economic attack on women. Photo: Peter Boyle.

The federal government’s budget is a huge economic, social and ideological attack on women. At its heart are government spending cuts aimed directly at depriving working-class women of the means for economic independence.

A report released last week by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) said low-income households headed by women will bear the heaviest burden under the changes proposed in the budget.

NATSEM modelled the impact of the $7.5 billion in budget cuts on family benefits — even without the $7 GP co-payment — and concluded that a sole parent of two school-aged children would lose 14.8% of their disposable income by 2017. This type of family will be the hardest hit of all family types.

NATSEM researcher Ben Phillips told Fairfax media: "If you're a single mother who's working 20 hours a week on the minimum wage, your income is only around $15,000 to $16,000.

"You don't have a lot of opportunities to actually earn more or to work more hours, you have children to look after, so it's a difficult position."

“Difficult” is an understatement. Life for single, unsupported women with children in Australia will literally become impossible from July 1 if this budget is passed.

The Coalition government, just like its Labor predecessor which also cut income support to sole parents, says the answer is: get a job.

In fact, more than 70% of single mothers already work — mostly in insecure, low-paid, part-time and casual jobs.

ABS statistics on “underemployment” (people who have some work but say they want more hours) show vastly disproportionate levels of underemployment for female parents. Evidently, single mothers want to work — in fact, they need to work.

But where are the jobs? In particular, where are the secure, part-time jobs with the pay and conditions that enable sole parents to properly care for their children?

Certainly not in the traditional female occupations of teaching, nursing and clerical work, because those jobs are being lost as a result of the savage cuts to health, education and the public sector.

The fate of single women with children under this budget is a clear warning to all low-income women: you cannot survive alone. If you want any economic security for your children, you must have the economic support of a husband.

Read any single parents’ discussion group on social media and you will find hundreds of comments from women desperate to leave bad, and even violent, relationships but unable to do so for fear of destitution.

Then there are the women who have returned to abusive men just so they could feed and clothe their kids.

But this misogynistic budget goes further. Women will pay more for tertiary education because their large debts will take longer to pay off and incur more interest. Older women, who have far less superannuation than men and earn a third of men’s lifetime earnings, won’t get an age pension until they are 70.

At every stage of life, women’s unequal position in the economy is leveraged to produce compounding inequality.

And then there are the dozens of cuts to social programs and community organisations that stand against the oppression of women.

More than half a billion in cuts to Aboriginal organisations including the vital Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, health centres and housing groups, hard won by Aboriginal activists over decades and so vital to Aboriginal women.

Millions in cuts to Community Legal Centres including the network of Women’s Legal Services that guide thousands of women each year through the trauma of the family court system.

Every day brings a new revelation from the fine print — death by a thousand cuts to pro-women programs and institutions.

But there is $20 million for a “stronger relationships” program that will hand out money to church-based counsellors to help couples strengthen their marriages and $245 million for school-based chaplains. Secular counsellors in schools have been defunded.

And what is the response of the Labor Party? Scrap the warplanes and the company tax cuts? Swap the infrastructure expenditure from freeways to public housing? Abolish the subsidies to mining companies and tax the super profits of the banks?

No. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen says Labor will vote against a few of the worst excesses of the budget and pay for the shortfall by scrapping Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Paid Parental Leave scheme.

This scheme was a desperate bid for “the women’s vote” at the last election, similar to the hastily cobbled childcare policies politicians often wave around just before polling day. It has some pluses — paid for by a little levy on business and pitched as a workplace entitlement rather than welfare.

It is also a “contingency” in the budget and therefore unlikely ever to be implemented.

Nevertheless the fact that it is the only budget expenditure Labor wants to remove indicates that there is a lot of work to be done, by feminists and our allies, if we want to force the opposition to block the budget and not just tinker at the edges.