Federal Budget 2021: Broad definitions, patronising rhetoric. Monumental moves on ‘women’s issues’ are still faulty

By Amber Schultz

Tuesday May 11, 2021

(Image: Adobe/Mangostar)

The government is making a monumental effort to appeal to women voters in this year’s budget — though struggles to separate women’s issues from problems that affect families, and frames reducing cancer rates as a win for a single sex rather than of a win for society.

The 2021 Women’s Budget Statement — this time released at the same time as the budget and in the same formatting, unlike last year’s women’s economic security statement — outlines advancements in women’s health, domestic violence, and family planning.

But framing many of these initiatives as addressing women’s issues is at best patronising and at worst horribly sexist. Women make up the slight majority of Australians — women’s healthcare should not be an anomaly and childcare should not be our sole burden. Pregnancy is largely a joint venture and support for families leads to support for both men and women.

Much of the government’s funding announcements were made on Mothers Day, reinforcing the  idea that gender equity is a gift to be thankful for.

Sprucing the cabinet reshuffle

The cabinet reshuffle in March was necessary to address allegations of parliamentary rape and Linda Renolds’ mishandling of Brittany Higgins’ allegations. Yet in the budget, the Coalition attempts to frame this as a win, with the reshuffle showing women “in visible positions of leadership” which maintained the “record representation of women”.

It’s spin at its worst.

New roles were announced, including appointing prominent anti-abortion activist Amanda Stoker to the position of assistant minister for women. But the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has failed to put its money where its mouth is: funding for the Office for Women — an organisation meant to deliver “policies and programs to advance gender equality and improve the lives of Australian women” — has been cut from $25.9 million last year to $18.8 million this year.

Framing child safety and equitable health as a win

The budget includes $354 million to address women’s health initiatives, nearly a third of which will go to improving cervical and breast cancer screening programs. While a welcome initiative, this is more of a correction to previously underfunded medical services.

The women’s health package also includes genetic embryo testing, along with funding for new medication to prevent women going into premature labour, assisted reproductive technology, and long-term reversible contraceptives.

But are these “women’s problems”? Excuse me if my high school sex education classes failed me, but last time I checked it takes two to tango. In a healthy heterosexual relationship, I would hope the father is just as excited to have a healthy baby as the mother.

Framing childcare subsidies — which don’t come into play until next year — as a win for women is also a problem. Rhetoric that childcare is women’s work is not only backward, it reinforces harmful stereotypes. There’s also nothing to attract more people to work in low-paid childcare centres, which again are roles predominantly taken up by women.

Construction was once again a key focus for economic recovery in the budget. This does little to increase women’s participation in the workforce. Investing in education would boost job creation for women at 10 times the rate of construction.

Look, it is an improvement

Credit should be given where credit is due: this is a huge improvement from last year’s budget, which was deemed a “blue budget for a pink recession”.

Last year it took Treasurer Josh Frydenberg 20 minutes to even mention women in his budget speech, whereas this year women were mentioned a little less than halfway through (after he covered employment, the economy, tax relief, housing and small businesses).

Substantial initiatives targeting women were finally implemented — in stark comparison to last year, when Morrison said women should be happy with the budget because we too benefit from road upgrades.

But let’s not forget that many of these key initiatives don’t come into play immediately, are ad-hoc measures, and support pilot programs more than they than commit to real, long-term changes. For example, more cash has been allocated for data collection on women than on emergency housing for domestc violence victims.

While the monumental effort to appear women-friendly is noted, for many of us it’s too late — the government has well and truly lost our trust.

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