Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2018


Goods and Services Tax: Sanitary Products

8:00 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

For 18 years, menstruating Australians have been unfairly taxed on their periods. The tax on our sanitary products provides marginal economic value to the states. But, in doing so, it places a toll on women and trans people simply for having the anatomy that we do. And what's the most ludicrous part? Australians can enjoy tax-free condoms, lubricants, incontinence pads, sunscreen, nicotine patches and, incredibly, even Viagra, while women and some trans and non-binary people are forced to fork out 10 per cent more for a product that we use regularly out of necessity. We know that the tax disproportionately affects low-income women and transgender people, who are already at greater risk of living below the poverty line and experiencing homelessness. We know that menstruating Australians are faced with choice and decisions as to whether to spend $6 on a pack of tampons or pay for other necessities like food.

Why is it that half the country are systematically and financially punished for bleeding? It's the result of Liberal Prime Minister John Howard and a cabinet, mainly of men, deciding that tampons, pads and other sanitary items were non-essential. Menstruating Australians have been given excuse after excuse as to why the tax on our biology can't be lifted. We've been told the states will be left short-changed, as if the Australian economy hinges on the taxation of our monthly periods. It is $30 million out of the $67 billion GST take. We have been warned: 'Where will it end?' as if the removal of this sexist tax is the gateway to the collapse of the GST. We've been told that it's not a priority and that not enough people care about this. I call bull on this.

It's time to remind the government and the state treasurers about the huge groundswell of public support, advocacy and community campaigns that have kept the pressure on successive governments to remove the GST from sanitary products since the year 2000. The campaigners and advocates I mention make it blatantly clear that government ministers must have had their ears stuffed with cotton wool—or maybe tampons!—if they seriously think that Australians don't think that this is an important issue.

So let's go through the history books. It's 1999. The new goods and services tax act swings through the parliament. Women and other menstruating Australians are faced with the news that they can have GST-free sex but will have to endure GST-added bleeding. The year 2000 arrives. A group of young feminists, dressed as menstrual avengers—and I love this—confront Howard and his cabinet ministers on a trip to regional Australia, showering the tampon tax conspirators with red-stained tampons and pads. Shortly after, the voices of thousands of menstruating Australians are taken to the parliament, and their tabled petition calls on the Howard government to stop taxing their biology. It's 2006. People around the country are still waiting for the archaic policy to be removed. Another online petition to Howard and the then health minister, Dr Michael Wooldridge, gets underway. Wooldridge decides to not cut us a break, and it's probably not a surprise. He was, after all, the MP who originally justified the need for sanitary products to incur GST by arguing that he wasn't expecting shaving cream to be exempt, even though, as a bloke, he would like it to be.

It's 2007. Reports surface that the new Labor government will end the tampon tax. All Australian state and federal governments are Labor. What a perfect opportunity to get rid of the tax. But the year rolls on, and menstruating Australians are left waiting. What happened, Labor?

It's 2013. People who menstruate are still forced to cough up that extra $30 million a year for sanitary items. Sophie Liley, a student from the women's department of the University of Western Australia, keeps up the pressure, with her viral 'Axe the tampon tax' campaign. The #BloodyOutrage hashtag trends on Twitter, and Australian women tell our first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and her Labor government: 'This tax is really cramping my style.' Over 70,000 Australians sign on—70,000 and counting, because, yes, that petition is still live, five years on.

Then 2015 arrives. Another student activist, Subeta Vimalarajah, from the University of Sydney, forces then Liberal Treasurer Joe Hockey's hand during a live post-budget Q&A episode. Subeta asks the Treasurer:

Mr Hockey, do you think that sanitary products are an essential health good for half the population?

Faced with a question that's only got one sensible answer, Mr Hockey flounders and agrees that the tampon tax has got to go. Australian bleeders collectively rejoice. Five out of the eight state and territory treasurers publicly declare that they will agree to lift the GST. There's no question that the change will pass in federal parliament. My Greens colleagues, defenders of all Australians' right to menstruate fairly and more affordably, stand ready to support any move to axe the tax at any moment. In a move that speaks volumes, the then PM and Minister for Women, Mr Tony Abbott, betrays women again, back-pedalling on Joe Hockey's commitment. Outraged protesters dressed as tampons storm the lawns of Parliament House. The Greens and other tampon tax repealers are offered free hugs. It is an eye-catching stunt that seizes the media's attention. And 2015 continues. 'Stop taxing my period' dance rallies and university protests are held across the country as Australians stand up to the sexist tax.

Cut to 2017. My Greens colleague Larissa Waters spearheads another attempt to force the federal parliament into action, this time with an amendment to the GST bill in the Senate. But none of Labor, Liberal or the Nationals will come to the table, and once again the sexist tax is left intact.

In 2018, this year, the Greens joined with Share the Dignity, a charity that works to distribute sanitary items to women and girls who are on low incomes, homeless, at risk of or experiencing domestic violence. In June, together with Share the Dignity and their supporters, I presented 125,000 signatures to parliament. A giant tampon outside Parliament House helped us communicate a message: 'End the tampon tax, period'. That very same day, we debated the Greens bill to scrap the tampon tax once and for all, forcing Labor to come through on their promise. With the support of key crossbenchers and Labor, the bill passed the Senate. Passing this bill was powerful. It proved that long-running, hard-fought campaigns can achieve great things when activists, advocates and lobby groups join forces and run those sustained grassroots community campaigns.

Then, two weeks ago, the Liberals finally caved in, agreeing to take up the matter with the states. So I've written to every state Treasurer to make sure they commit to axing the tax unconditionally, and the signs are currently looking pretty good. But the pressure is on Mr Scott Morrison, the federal Treasurer, to take real action and to make sure that he secures the support of the states. The question is: will he and his state Liberal government mates stick to their word? Australians say time is up. Time's up on this sexist, unfair tax on our biology.