The ‘Lady Budget’ is a twee bundle of platitudes from a bygone error

When the federal budget is released this week, a special booklet will address the women of Australia. It will contain handouts and homilies especially for them. But 30 years after the first “Lady Budget” was handed down, today’s woman might hanker for something that better reflects the breadth of her contribution to the economy.

The Women’s Budget Statement, which was initiated by the Hawke government, originally served as a useful report on how policy and taxation affected women as they moved from being chattels to having chattels. When it was first introduced, employers were still wrapping their heads around the revolutionary notion of equal pay for equal work.

Teal MP Allegra Spender wants to reopen a policy debate.

Matt Davidson

Family structures were in flux and a wider range of life choices were starting to become socially acceptable. The Hawke government sought to replace the “outmoded assumptions of women’s marginality to the economy and the workforce” with an analysis of the impact on women of government policies “in order to develop measures to ensure social and economic equity and efficiency”.

The first Women’s Budget Statement analysed the impacts of all budget measures on men and women, noting the effects and inequalities in policies. For instance, as a fascinating potted history of the Women’s Budget Statement by academics Rhonda Sharp and Ray Broomhill describes, in 1984-85, the statement reported that cuts of up to $7.60 per week in personal income taxes would benefit 2.6 million women taxpayers. Also reported was the percentage of income tax women paid compared to men. It triggered “a major national debate on the reform of the taxation system in 1985” and the “subsequent release of the government’s white paper on taxation reform engaged women’s groups and researchers at a level not seen before”.

Gender responsive budgeting, as the initiative was dubbed, strove to make visible the effect that budget measures, from taxation to expenditure, had on women.

Sadly, this whole-of-budget view didn’t last long. In subsequent years, the executive summary of the report became the focus and the substance withered. In the last two years of the Keating prime ministership, the Women’s Budget Statement had become a political brochure. And so they continued in subsequent years, glossing over policy shortcomings, burnishing achievements and privileging intentions.

Which is a shame, as the breadth of the original Lady Budget is an approach suited to our times. Both parties have deemed tax reform politically unpalatable. But today’s working wench is even more affected by poorly designed taxes than the women of the ’80s.

The “women’s election” of 2022 has produced two different approaches to addressing the challenges of the modern woman. One is the Labor government’s Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, which delivered its list of recommendations last month. These prioritised increasing payments to women. The other is in the person of a teal independent, Allegra Spender, who wants to put root-and-branch tax reform back on the national agenda. To do this, she’s holding consultations on tax policy which will inform a white paper to be published in the middle of next year.

Spender’s purpose is, at this stage at least, not specifically female-focused, yet it has professional women pricking up their ears. Instead of compensating for an ailing system as the taskforce seeks to do, reforms to the way taxes are raised could reduce disincentives to work and unleash opportunity for women and the economy as a whole.

The benefit of a tax reform approach over taskforce approach is that it would clear out some of the ideological cobwebs that have accumulated in the transfer system over time. To the horror of our author-academics, a change of government to the John Howard-led Coalition shifted the focus of the Women’s Budget Statement to a “focus on individual ‘choice’, which characterises the neo-liberal policy approach”. The 1997-98 statement announced that the “government’s commitment to women has been reflected in its first year through policies which allow women to make real choices at different stages of their lives”. Since these choices recognised full-time child-rearing as an alternative to a career punctuated by childbirth, they are referred to by the academics as “familisation”.

As governments changed and the tradition of women’s budget statements continued, because of our child-bearing superpowers, women continued to be used as a political plaything. And so it was that, according to Sharp and Broomhill, “the return of the Labor government in 2007 placed women’s reproductive labour in a de-familisation policy framework”. “De-familisation” policies are structured to encourage women to prioritise full-time work over child-rearing, regardless of what their personal preference might be.

When he won government, Tony Abbott scrapped the Women’s Budget Statement entirely, while declaring himself minister for women. Labor in opposition, however, continued to produce Women’s Budget Statements. Eventually, feeling the sting of female disapproval, Scott Morrison brought them back in 2021-22. So the first Coalition Women’s Budget Statement after many years was as reactive and light-on as an opposition document.

Over time, the pamphlet has become increasingly twee. Effectively, the Women’s Budget Statement wraps up the political push-me-pull-me over female life choices in a bundle of platitudes located somewhere between the feminine hygiene and baby-wipes aisle, with a bit of grrrrl power rhetoric to make it seem less outdated.

The statements have become a useful chronicle of the way successive governments use policy and payments to push and prod women into living in accordance with their philosophical preferences, but they don’t reflect the integral part women play in the economy.

A broad discussion on tax reform could do a better job for us. If the major parties remain reluctant to discuss the topic, we can put some lipstick on it and call it the Lady Tax White Paper.

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