The Labor Government’s commitment to stick to its election script will come under pressure. It will be pressed to raise climate targets and to move quickly on its commitment to put in place an effective integrity commission. In our view, action in these areas is integral to any meaningful government action for women. There is, however, also a specific Government Plan for Women that needs to be implemented, and the Government will be pressed to act on that plan generously by progressive backbenchers.
NFAW, in common with other feminist NGOs that engaged with these concerns during the campaign, will be taking an active interest in the rollout of the Government’s Plan – its priorities, timing and consultation practices. On a brief overview, we argue that:
- Urgent action is required on the two cases already being considered by the Fair Work Commission — the Minimum Wage Case and the Work Value Case in the Care Sector. The Government must ensure that the Commission has received its submission calling for minimum wages to rise to match inflation by early June. Closing written submissions in the Aged Care Work Value Case are also due in early June, and the Government has committed itself to support an unquantified wage increase.
- Early action is needed on two major consultative mechanisms — the referendum to establish a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament, and an Employment Taskforce (considered below). There is also to be an independent Women’s Economic Security Taskforce to help the Government on budget decision-making, which will need to start work soon on Labor’s new budget (as will the Strengthening Medicare Taskforce). A National First Nations Women’s Summit will also need to be called to begin work on the response to the landmark Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) report.
- Work on some legislative packages could begin straightaway, as Parliament should sit before the end of July. There are commitments to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to implement all the recommendations of Respect@Work and to amend the Workplace Gender Equality Act to require large companies to publish their gender pay gaps. The proposed equal remuneration and secure work amendments to the Fair Work Act should also be able to proceed quickly, together with the prohibition of pay secrecy clauses. All of these matters have already been scrutinised in recent Parliamentary Inquiries, as has the proposed criminalisation of wage theft, including non-payment of superannuation.
A second tranche of legislation should include broader systemic changes beyond the existing election commitments. Reserve Bank analysis shows that historically low wages have not been a simple product of labour supply and demand, but rather “a deliberate design feature of our economic architecture”. The foreshadowed Employment Taskforce of employers and unions should try to find a way to rebalance the industrial relations regulatory framework so that wages for the low paid can move again and at least keep up with the cost of living.
At a later stage there will also need to be legislation to address the outcome of the promised reviews of sexual assault legislation and paid parental leave.
- The new government has committed itself to tabling a budget before the end of the year, which means that the Women’s Economic Security Taskforce Budget will need to begin its advisory work as soon as possible. There will be design issues and choices to be made in relation to significant budget commitments to end violence against women, address homelessness and housing, reduce the costs of childcare, and begin the reform of the Aged Care sector. There are also important smaller ticket items, including the funding for women’s working centres, a one-stop shop for reporting and addressing harassment, and training initiatives targeting women.
Most importantly, though, the Women’s Economic Security Taskforce Budget will need to press for comprehensive gender analysis of all major government revenue and expenditure measures. These reforms will cost money, and we need to know how the funding measures will affect women, noting that the Government has committed to not increase taxes. This is the input side of gender responsive budgeting. Labor has committed to implement the output side of GRB through an annual Women’s Budget Statement to assess the impact of all significant new budget measures on women and to examine how the allocation of public resources affects gender equality. Since 2014, when the Coalition Government ceased the practice of releasing a Women’s Budget Statement, NFAW has done that job. We believe that the government would best meet its commitment to a Women’s Budget Statement by handing its preparation to an independent statutory body, preferably the Parliamentary Budget Office.
No time to rest
More broadly, Labor has made an election commitment to look beyond a set of measures targeting women to a strategy of governing for equality. It proposes to do this by means of a National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality to guide whole-of-government actions. The strategy is to emphasise women’s economic security and independence; leadership, representation and rights; balancing family and care responsibilities; and health and wellbeing.
Anyone who has been in this sector long enough has seen national strategies come and go with only the faintest of impacts. We will all need to engage with this one persistently to make sure it works.
Thankyou for your ongoing support of NFAW as we step-up the work to engage with and build our voice with the new Labor Government on important issues that matter to women in Australia over the coming months.
Kathy MacDermott & Helen Hodgson of Curtin University Law School (@CurtinUni).