Economics and finance, Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

19 May 2022

Despite national outrage over the issues of women’s safety and gender equality, women appear to have been sidelined during this federal election campaign, Blair Williams writes.

In 2021, over 100,000 women, victim-survivors, and allies took to the streets to demand better from the government in light of a torrent of parliamentary misconduct allegations, a lack of accountability, and persistent government inaction.

Outrage continued, with women not only fed up with the numerous sexual harassment, sexual assault and bullying allegations spilling out of the Australian Parliament, but also over the impacts of gender inequality, which only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Inaction on serious issues impacting women’s safety, wages, job security, superannuation, and parental leave resulted in Australia falling six places to 50th in the world in the 2021 global gender gap index.

Women are demanding the next government take serious action, but Australia’s political leaders are not doing enough during this campaign to reverse this disturbing trend.

On average, one woman is murdered every week by a current or former partner. One in three have experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by men they know, and one in two have experienced sexual harassment.

In recent years, two landmark reports have been developed to review women’s safety in workplaces across Australia, including parliamentary workplaces.

Led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, the Set the Standard report found that bullying and harassment were rife in Parliament House and identified multiple structural causes for this misconduct, including gender inequality, power imbalances, and a lack of accountability.

The report put forward a framework for change with 28 recommendations. Currently, however, only three have been implemented with several more in progress.

The Respect@Work report, again authored by Jenkins, found that one in three Australian workers had experienced workplace sexual harassment in the last five years, with the prevalence higher for Indigenous, young, disabled, LGBTQIA+, and migrant women.

To end these forms of gender-based violence, the next government must implement the recommendations of both the Jenkins’ reviews plus the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032 (the National Plan), in addition to increasing funding for sexual, domestic, and family violence services.

However, in the federal election campaign it appears that major parties have stopped short of prioritising these initiatives.

The Liberal Party have pledged $2.5 billion for the first five years of the National Plan, $2.5 billion less than the figure recommended by Fair Agenda. The Labor Party have committed to the Coalition’s funding and have also proposed additional funds for services in this area, while the Greens are promising $12 billion over 12 years to fully fund the National Plan.

Women’s economic security and wellbeing is another major issue and a key driver of gender-based violence. The previous National Plan (2010-22) recognised that economic security and independence are crucial for women survivors to rebuild their lives.

Yet women continue to earn less than men, especially those in ‘feminised’ industries, such as healthcare, aged care, and education. Women also generally retire with less superannuation, and are financially penalised for having children.

The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this difference, while the government’s persistently blue-collar budgets in response to a pink recession further added to the disparity.

Women have faced a ‘triple whammy’ where they were more likely to lose their jobs, disproportionately complete unpaid work, and were less likely to receive government support such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker.

During the campaign, the Greens and Australian Labor Party have centred ‘care’ in their campaigns, with so-called ‘teal’ independents pushing for ‘real’ progress on gender equality. The Coalition however has focused on male votes.

One of the biggest obstacles to women’s workforce participation and economic security is a lack of affordable and accessible childcare. Another is the lack of adequate paid parental leave, and one that pays superannuation.

During the election campaign, the Coalition pitched to make childcare cheaper by bringing forward childcare subsidies changes. The Labor Party promised to build on this by further raising the maximum subsidy cap and ensuring a universal 90 per cent subsidy to all families. The Greens aim to make childcare free for everyone, plus pay superannuation on parental leave, which neither major party has pledged.

Recent events have highlighted the desperate need for more women representatives, especially in leadership positions, to truly speak for the diversity of Australia and to better shape the culture and values of parliament, and serve its people.

For a more equitable future, it is imperative that the drivers of women’s economic inequality be addressed. Australian women may use their vote to see change at the top, so they are not left struggling at the bottom. Now is time for the next government to implement these recommendations and ensure women’s economic security is prioritised.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

This piece is published as part of Policy Forum’s new feature section – In Focus: Australia’s policy future – which brings you policy analysis and ideas that go beyond the sound bites.

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