Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Women's Economic Security, Child Care

3:07 pm

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Women (Senator Payne) to questions without notice asked by Senators Pratt and Bilyk today relating to the economic impacts of COVID-19 on women.

The questions asked of the Minister for Women, Senator Payne, today were going to issues around women, and particularly the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on women and some of the particular issues that are being drawn to the attention of all of us. Many of us knew these previously, but I think the coronavirus pandemic has shone a torch not only on the value of women's work but also on some of the disadvantages that women experience in the labour market. We know that women have lower participation rates and lower earnings and that they have lost more jobs—in April alone, I think 500,000 people lost their jobs and 55 per cent were women. We know that more women feature in the underemployment figures and that, in terms of lost hours of work, women experience a greater loss. We also know that women are over-represented or disproportionately represented in industries that have been smashed by the coronavirus restrictions—food, retail, entertainment and accommodation. We know that women are over-represented in insecure work and in work that pays lower incomes. All of these areas have been hit hard by the coronavirus restrictions.

On the value of women's work, women are and have featured prominently in the essential frontline workers—nurses, healthcare workers, early childhood educators, teachers and aged care workers: 87 per cent of nurses and midwives are women; 87 per cent of aged care workers are women; and 96 per cent of early childhood educators are women. We have relied on these roles to keep the community cared for. In retail, in supermarkets, as cleaners, again, you will see more women than men. Key jobs that perhaps have not been recognised for their value have been shown to be so important during the coronavirus pandemic. The Minister for Women told us that the Prime Minister and the government acknowledged the disproportionate impact that the coronavirus pandemic and the consequential restrictions that were put in place have had on women. That admission from the government begs the next question: if that's the case, why are they making decisions that have a harsher impact on women? I'll come back to that.

I think one of the issues is the way they have designed programs such as JobKeeper to exclude people that might have more than one job and be working in highly casualised industries with high turnover. That will exclude women. We know that women are doing more of the caring and unpaid work at home, taking on the added responsibilities of caring for children and perhaps elderly parents. That has come to hit women hard as well.

HomeBuilder is another example. The government has ignored Treasury advice around social housing and the benefits of that. We know 62 per cent of tenants in social and public housing are women. We know that more women require social housing. This government, in its response on the housing front, has ignored that very important area. Addressing that would also bring broader benefits to the community.

And then there's child care. Why was child care the first industry that was kicked off JobKeeper? With the snapback—the fiscal cliff—that's coming in September, why was it child care that was removed, if we're trying to get women back to work? We know child care remains one of the biggest barriers to women's full participation in the labour force, and yet this government chose to remove free child care and kick the workers off JobKeeper, putting in place a transition arrangement which the minister acknowledges is less than what they were getting before. That is going to disproportionately affect women.

3:12 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to join the debate in terms of the Labor Party's question time tactics. I want to focus on Senator Pratt's question. As we reflect on the current state of play, as we reflect on last year's federal election and we think about how out of touch the Labor Party are, as was demonstrated again by the Australian people overwhelmingly rejecting them, we think about the kinds of issues and attacks that the Labor Party launches on the government, which demonstrate how out of touch they are. Senator Pratt's questioning, attacking Minister Michael Sukkar, an outstanding minister in this government doing an outstanding job, reminds us just how out of touch Labor are, attacking a program that is designed to support tens of thousands of jobs in the construction industry. The attack is: 'There are a lot of men who work in construction.' That appears to be Labor's attack when it comes to the construction industry. If you want an example of why they continue to sit on the opposition benches, perhaps we can reflect on their disdain for the housing industry and their inability to look beyond the very, very important issues in the housing industry. Their critique now about the HomeBuilder program, a program that's so important to so many Australians, is: 'Well, a lot of men work in the construction industry.'

We'll come back to some of those issues, but I'd like to compare and contrast that approach with Minister Sukkar and the coalition government, in terms of being in touch with the electorate and the community. I'm reminded that Bill Shorten actually launched his 2019 campaign in the seat of Deakin, which is Minister Sukkar's electorate. Labor were coming to get him, because they had a plan which the people in the outer suburbs of Melbourne were going to embrace. They were going to make so many gains in Victoria. Why were they going to make those gains? It was because the Labor Party had a plan that reflected the values of Australians.

Let's think about what some of those plans were. Central to their election prospects, which of course the people overwhelmingly rejected, was Labor's housing tax. There they were in question time again today attacking a scheme that defends jobs in the construction industry simply because there are too many men in the construction industry. What did Labor want to do to the construction industry? They wanted to gut the construction industry. One of the reasons that Labor were rejected at the last election was their housing tax. Just reflect for a moment on where we would be if the Labor Party had come into government and implemented that housing tax ahead of the COVID crisis and the hit to the economy we have had. They would have had the absolute double whammy of being whacked from pillar to post. I'm reminded about how seriously they are taken on some of these issues by Tim Richardson, who says he's concerned about federal Labor's intervention because they've won one election in the last 25 years. Maybe it's because of policies like the housing tax.

Labor talk a big game on women, but, when it comes to actually acting, we've had the record in terms of women's workforce participation. We have delivered in a way that the Labor Party couldn't. Almost 900,000 jobs were created for women by the coalition. I'm reminded of what the Labor Party voted against in their protection racket for the CFMEU and the misogynous thugs in the CFMEU. They say, 'Now we're acting on John Setka.' In 2015 they voted against a motion that simply condemned Luke Collier for abusing female FWBC inspectors. Shaun Reardon made threatening late night phone calls to a female staff member of the building industry watchdog. A CFMEU official spat at a female inspector when she was called out to the work site to inspect a union blockade. They talk a big game. We've seen it in Victoria this week. As soon as you go beneath the underbelly, as soon as you go beneath the veneer, we see what they actually do, and they're on the record here defending the CFMEU, excusing their disgraceful behaviour. We're not going to be lectured to by this mob on the other side.

3:17 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, for 2,509 days, this backward-looking government, as exemplified by the last contribution, has completely failed women. While we live in hope that they might stop phoning it in from the 1950s, there is no indication that anything has changed during the most serious period we've been through economically, the first recession in 29 years, while we have been dealing with COVID-19. They have failed mothers by snapping back to a childcare system that is expensive and complex. They have failed older women, leaving them to face poverty and homelessness in retirement. They have failed young women in insecure and low-paying jobs by making so many of them ineligible for JobKeeper.

We know what those opposite think in their hearts about working women. They think that women's economic lives don't matter and that they would be better served in the home, as we heard from Senator Rennick just this week. But, unlike so many of those opposite, we don't hanker for a world where women are locked at home behind white picket fences. Unlike Senator Seselja, we don't think that women's and men's interests stand in opposition to one another; we think that both ought to be considered and that this is an absolute imperative in the public policy debate.

Labor want something more for Australian women. We want our daughters and our nieces to have every opportunity. We want them paid what they're worth on the day that they enter the workforce and every day subsequently. We want them to retire in dignity. If they decide to have children, we want them supported to combine a career with their parenting responsibilities. Is any of this at all laid out in any way in the government's plan for women or for the response to COVID-19? We wouldn't know very much, because the government rarely talks about women. Indeed, invited to do so today, we've just had five minutes from Senator Seselja where he could barely find it in himself to even mention the word. They show almost no interest in the economic lives of women.

It's not surprising, in some ways, that their policy settings have so little to offer Australian women when we think about the government's Expenditure Review Committee, which is comprised entirely of men. There is not a single woman sitting in that most important decision-making body. I recall on one occasion when I raised the issue of the unfair impact of tax arrangements on Australian women, then Treasurer Morrison responded with the patronising reply, 'We don't have pink forms and blue forms at tax time,' and that there was no need to consider the impact of their tax proposals on Australian women. The Liberal men of ERC may think that women's economic lives are a joke. I can tell you that that is not how we see our lives. Survey after survey indicates that women want so much more. Tragically, the first thing they want is respect—respect in the workplace and, I dare say, they'd like some respect from their representatives here in Canberra.

The COVID-19 period would have been a good opportunity for the Liberals to change direction, to come to grips with the very great differences between men and women's economic lives and the need for a policy that responds to the lives of women. The ABS has released data showing women have lost jobs since March at 1.3 times the rate that men have lost jobs, but we don't see any specific response to that or any indication that it matters. Part-time work and casual employment can be conveniently flexible, but often the result is that women are taking these jobs so they can balance their work and family lives. When it came to designing a response in COVID-19, what did the government do? They constructed JobKeeper in such a way that so many people in casual work were excluded, and so many of them were women.

There is an opportunity now to create something better. We don't want a snapback to an unfair world for women. We don't want a snapback to a world where women earn 14 per cent less than men. We don't want to snap back to a world where women retire with 47 per cent of the super balances of men. We don't want to snap back to a world where women's career possibilities are constrained because child care is not available or affordable. We don't want a snapback to one of the most gendered labour markets in the world. This crisis presents a perfect opportunity to actually build something better for Australian women, and it's a shame the government appears entirely uninterested. (Time expired)

3:22 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is an extraordinary strawman that the Labor Party continues to put forward. I guess we should be used to it at this point.

Senator O'Neill interjecting

Senator O'Neill, we should be used to it at this point. In the face of an unprecedented economic and health crisis, we've seen from this government a comprehensive response across the economy. What we get from the Labor Party is the usual politics of identity, politics of division. They cherrypick some information. They spin it in a particular way. They choose their dataset very carefully. They ignore the overall economy. They ignore the comprehensive measures that this government has put in place to underpin our economy, to underpin economic growth, to get the economy moving again, to get Australians back in work, to get all Australians back participating in the workforce, to get small business back up and running, to protect our families, to give people a chance to be the best they can possibly be. We get this politics of identity, this cherrypicking of information.

Absolutely, I will knowledge that the ABS stats show that women in the workforce were impacted very, very hard by the crisis that confronts this government. But does the Labor Party ever raise the fact that the latest ABS stats also show that jobs for women recovered at 1.4 per cent whereas jobs for men only recovered at 0.4 per cent. Do you ever talk about the identity politics of that? Of course you don't, because it doesn't fit into your narrative. It doesn't fit into this politics of identity that you are seeking to continually drive. Senator Seselja rightly pointed out that almost 900,000 jobs were created for women by this government in the six years before the coronavirus impacted our economy so remarkably and with such great venom.

This government has a strong and proud record of supporting women's participation in the labour market. Prior to COVID-19, the March 2020 labour force figures showed near record high employment of women in the economy—almost 6.2 million women employed in the Australian economy. The labour participation rate for women is at an almost record high of 61.3 per cent, 2½ percentage points higher than when the coalition took office in September 2013. From September 2013 until just prior to COVID-19 impacting our economy, almost 900,000 jobs were created for women. Does the Labor Party ever quote these sorts of statistics? Of course they don't. They're too busy playing the politics of identity, the politics of division, and cherrypicking information to suit their particular narrative.

The latest Labour Force Survey figures show that seasonally adjusted employment for women fell by 325,000. Of course, this is the impact of the COVID crisis. This is an impact across the economy that this government is only too well aware of and is seeking to comprehensively address. Let me give you one more example. Today Minister Birmingham talked about the need to open our borders to get the tourism and hospitality sector up and running again. That will disproportionately impact, in the positive, women—because women are a greater percentage of the workforce in that particular sector. Does that factor into Labor's narrative? Did they come out in support of Minister Birmingham? Did they jump up and down and congratulate him for his words at The Press Club? Of course not—because, again, it doesn't fit into their narrow world view. We want to get the whole Australian economy—we want to support all Australian working families—out of this economic and health crisis and get the economy back up and running again as quickly as we possibly can.

3:27 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a shock it is that we've got all blokes on that side speaking on this issue when we've been asking them to verify the fact that they have failed women during this massive crisis facing Australia. COVID-19 is an experience that many of us could not have imagined and the burden of care has fallen heavily on the women of this nation. I am proud to be an Australian woman in the Labor Party. There are many of us. We are varied and we are very different. We bring our perspectives to this place in many, many more numbers than you guys. On this side of the chamber, we've got a few more women here in the Senate. But you couldn't line up one woman today to stand up to answer our questions about women being affected by COVID. You left it to the blokes again—your usual standard—

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Deputy President, on a point of order on quotas—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

That's not a point of order, Senator Smith. Please resume your seat. Please continue, Senator O'Neill.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We've heard this bleating and moaning from these poor men opposite, who are denying even what the minister said in the other place. The women have been hardest hit through COVID-19—and that is quoting—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Neill, please resume your seat. Senator Smith.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

For those people who are not able to watch on television: one-third of the Labor senators opposite are men—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Smith, are you raising a point of order? If you're not, please refrain from interrupting. Senator O'Neill.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I can tell I've hit a raw nerve, because Senator Smith is actually one of the more exemplary senators on the other side and I can see I've even upset him. So I consider that quite effective in arguing the point that this government—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Neill, please resume your seat. A point of order, Senator Smith?

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was just going to comment on Senator O'Neill's accurate reflection on me!

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Smith, that is not a point of order. Senators have the right to be heard in silence. People jumping up and making spurious points of order fits into the category of not being respectful to the senator making their contribution. Please continue, Senator O'Neill.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I've heard of mansplaining, but I think we've got 'man-interrupting' going on here against a woman speaking her mind, an Australian Labor woman speaking to the reality of Australian women who are at this very time making decisions in one critical by-election in the seat of Eden-Monaro. They've got a choice between sending another bloke to Canberra like this lot or sending a great woman in the shape of Kristy McBain, and I encourage them to do that. The problem with this government is that it simply does not listen to the voices of women and it does not understand the challenges of being a woman in Australia and, if its members are going to call being a woman in Australia and standing up for women 'identity politics', then they need to go back and learn a few understandings about what identity politics actually is.

Minister Ley in the other place declared that women have been hardest hit through COVID-19. And what I'm worried about, as an Australian woman standing up for women impacted, is that this government has lined up a set of policies by which we are set to snap back to unaffordable child care. Right around this country, women are talking to me. They're talking to their partners. They're sitting at dining room tables figuring out how much they can actually manage in terms of putting food on the table or paying for child care because this government has so mismanaged the whole childcare sector. They are dudding aged-care workers, not providing them with the promised money that they announced. We see this time and time again: a series of announcements from this government and then a failure to deliver. They're taking away from childcare workers. They are refusing paid parental leave. These are the priorities of this government.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis—in response to great, passionate advocacy by the unions of this country, the big businesses of this country and the Labor Party, and when we begged and pleaded with this government to provide wage subsidies—it finally came through with jobseeker. Yes, they came through with it, but who did they take it away from first? They took it away from the women of Australia. They took it away from the childcare workers, the most female dominated industry in this country. Women in Australia need to remember that this government does not stand up for them. The Liberal-National government have failed Australians.

It's a matter of international record. In the World Economic Forum's The Global Gender Gap Report 2013, Australia was 23rd in the rankings in terms of women's economic capacity. After seven years of this blokey dominated LNP government that's out of touch with the women of Australia, the reality now is that we've slipped all the way down to 44th of 153 countries. And after what the government has done in response to COVID, I have no expectation that our position will rise. In fact, I'm sure it will get even worse. We know that this government has failed Australian women. As the Labor Party, we are very concerned that child care will not be accessible to women, that they won't be able to get back to work and that there will be barriers to their participation in the economy and the society. We are concerned that Scott Morrison's snapback will actually be a job crusher for the women of Australia.

Question agreed to.