Women to bear brunt of Budget cuts, hikes

Published on Wednesday, 14 June 2017 17:05

Since the government came into office in 2013, Australia has dropped from 19th to 46th in the Global gender gap report. We have a high and enduring gender pay gap. It is higher in my state of Western Australia than anywhere else in the country.

Mr Wilson (5:05pm) — I am glad to have this opportunity to ask some questions about the impact of the government's budget on women, particularly through the government's changes in higher education. The government has abandoned what was the bipartisan practice of producing an annual women's budget statement, which I think is a shame. What I would like to know is whether the minister has received any advice or has given any specific consideration to the impact of the government's higher education changes on Australian women. This is particularly important at a time when Australian women face considerable economic discrimination and inequity. We are kidding ourselves if we do not continue to recognise that.

Under this government, over the last four years, that has got considerably worse. Since the government came into office in 2013, Australia has dropped from 19th to 46th in the Global gender gap report. We have a high and enduring gender pay gap. It is higher in my state of Western Australia than anywhere else in the country.

The gap is present at every part of the life cycle, every part of the work cycle. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency report this year, 2017, said that the average gender pay gap for graduates is now 9.4 per cent in favour of men, so that is from the very get-go. Young women coming through with a university education and going into the workforce are, at the outset, 10 per cent worse off in terms of pay and conditions than their male equivalents.

Sixty-two per cent—nearly two-thirds—of the 180,000 new Australian graduates affected by the government change to the HECS threshold will be women. They will be potentially hit by both a HECS repayment obligation that cuts in at a significantly lower threshold and an increase in the Medicare levy. It is important to consider the context of this threshold change and its impact and where it fits in the income spectrum. HECS was introduced a year before I started university, in 1989. At that point, the threshold was $22,000 per annum. That was the equivalent of 73 per cent of average male full-time earnings at that point. The new threshold that the government has put forward, the $42,000 threshold, is less than half of average male full-time earnings. It is $12,000 to $13,000 less than median income. That is when it cuts in. It is not surprising, on that basis, that organisations like the National Foundation for Australian Women and the National Union of Students have criticised this change on the basis that it has significantly negative consequences for women.

The government has abandoned the sensible practice of considering the impact of budget changes on women separately and in aggregate, but I would like to know if the minister has considered that impact through changes in his portfolio and, if not, why not. The fact is: a female graduate on the minimum wage will have virtually no incentive to earn more or to work more. Has the minister considered the fact that, under the changes to the HECS repayment threshold, some graduates—most of them female graduates—would have more disposable income if they earned $32,000 a year than if they earned $51,000 a year? They would have more disposable income if they were paid $4,000 less than the minimum wage than if they earned $51,000, because of the marginal tax rates that this government is introducing. As Greg Jericho has written:

The proposed changes will see university graduates paying a lot more – both in annual repayments and total amounts due to increases in the cost of degrees. And the ones who will feel the extra payments the most are the ones earning the least from their degree.

It is worth remembering that this week the government has just hit young people earning less than the median income with a nice big tax hike, and two-thirds of those young people will be women. I would like the minister to explain why the government is introducing a change to university funding arrangements through HECS that will disproportionately impact women, that will discourage greater female workplace participation at precisely the time when we need the reverse, and that will make the existing gender gap in pay and overall material wellbeing for women significantly worse at a time when it needs targeted policy and programs to move it in the other direction.

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