Women’s Health West has been looking closely at the federal and Victorian budgets for 2014–15 and we are concerned that many decisions will have a disproportionate impact on women, and will increase health inequity in Australia. It is essential that budgeting takes gender equity into account, and that decision-making reflects the different experiences, needs and concerns of women and men. This article highlights several positive commitments from state and federal government, and also outlines the potential negative impacts on women’s health, wellbeing and safety in key areas.
Violence against women
The federal government will honour important past funding commitments in the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022 and the $5.2 million committed over five years for the Foundation to Prevent Violence against Women and their Children.
Disappointingly, there is no new federal funding to prevent violence against women, and the $4 million cut from family courts will cause delays to family hearings and compromise the welfare of children and safety of women experiencing violence.
In Victoria, we were excited to see just over $42 million in new funds committed to the family violence sector. This will increase our capacity to offer crisis response and counselling to women experiencing family violence. What is most significant about this new money is that it is the first time that crisis response to police referrals has received direct funding.
While new state funding is welcome, it still falls short of what is needed to meet the needs of women and children escaping violence.
The $7 Medicare co-payments announced in the Federal Budget will cause additional financial stress for low income women and men. This will have a greater overall impact on women, who experience higher rates of disability and mental illness and are more likely to need to visit their GP regularly. More women than men are sole or primary carers and responsible for the health care of children and family members who are elderly or who have a disability. Census data shows that 84 per cent of single parent families in the western region are headed by women.
We were frustrated by the announcement of a $367.9 million cut to federal preventative health spending over four years, and the plan to close the National Preventive Health Agency.
The Victorian 2014–15 Budget, however, outlines several positive spending announcements for public health services (see the VCOSS State Budget Breakdown 2014-2015 for more details). This good news is tempered by significant gaps in action to redress health inequity and no increase in funding for prevention work.
Considering the recent work of the state government to engage with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities, and the development of a Victorian LGBTI Health and Wellbeing Strategy, we are concerned that no new funding has been committed to initiatives in this area.
Housing and homelessness
Australia has taken a step backwards in our national response to housing and homelessness.
No ongoing funding will be allocated to the National Rental Affordability Scheme and there is no certainty beyond 2015 in the joint funding agreement between state and federal governments to redress homelessness and increase housing affordability.
This will have a disproportionate impact on women escaping family violence, who make up 32 per cent of people seeking specialist homeless services across Australia. Women and other disadvantaged population target groups rely heavily on the availability of social housing and affordable private rental accommodation.
We applaud the Victorian Government’s commitment of $124.4 million over four years to the National Partnership on Affordable Housing, but it is unclear how the services will continue to meet the needs of people experiencing housing stress and homelessness if long-term federal funding is not secured.
The absence of new funds for social housing is a significant gap in the State 2014–15 Budget.
Income support and entitlements
This year’s Federal Budget contained a strong message that government was making ‘hard decisions’ in welfare spending to encourage greater participation in employment. Our concern is that spending decisions included in this budget will exacerbate poverty and inequity, but not adequately redress the barriers to workforce participation. Such barriers include the lack of affordable childcare options, workplace stigma and discrimination, and the lack of accessible work options for people with a disability.
It is also clear that changes to income support payments will have a disproportionate impact on women, who make up the majority of single parents and primary carers. For example:
- An unemployed single parent with one eight-year-old child will lose 12 per cent of their weekly income ($54 per week)
- Single parents earning two-thirds of the average wage will lose between 5.6 and 7 percent of their disposable income
- The Family Tax Benefit B will be replaced with a $750 annual payment. This means a loss of over $3,000 per year for some parents and a shift away from fortnightly payments. This loss of fortnightly payments is likely to increase the homelessness risks for sole-parent families who do not receive child support.
Unemployed young people will experience greater financial hardship following new restrictions involving six-month delays in Newstart payments and which, once accessed, only last for a six-month period.
This has dangerous implications for youth homelessness, young families and women leaving violence. For example, we know that many women stay in unsafe situations because of financial insecurity. Women experience additional barriers to maintaining regular work due to ongoing violence and abuse.
As a positive example of support for participation in employment and education, we welcome the federal government’s commitment to rolling out the full National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Vocational education is an important pathway for supporting women from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in employment, so the absence of gender equity considerations in this area of the Federal Budget is extremely disappointing.
To save $1 billion over four years, several programs that primarily support women have been cut, including a program to support single and teenage parents and a workplace English language and literacy program that supported mainly newly-arrived and refugee women.
In a backward move for gender equity, savings will be partially redirected to a new initiative to support participants in trade apprenticeships for male-dominated industries, which represents only five per cent of all students enrolled in vocational education.
The Federal Budget also outlines plans to deregulate fees for higher education, which would remove limits on the amount that universities can charge students for tuition, and plans to increase interest on student loans from approximately 3 per cent up to 6 per cent.
These decisions will have a disproportionate impact on young Australian women. Women participate in higher education at a rate 1.4 times higher than men, but earn on average only 58 per cent of what men with a bachelor degree would earn over their lifetime. This disparity is affected by the 17 per cent gender pay gap, time that many women take out of the workforce to care for children, and the systemic undervaluing of female-dominated industries.
Community legal services have warned that the funding cuts announced in the Federal Budget and over the past year mean they are likely to close their outreach offices. This means there would be fewer lawyers available to provide legal support and advice, including court support to women who have experienced family violence.
Services and programs affected include the Legal Aid Commission, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Family Violence Prevention Legal Services and the Community Legal Service Program.
Our examination of the budget suggests there are a number of decisions that will increase inequity and disadvantage in Australia. However, many of the decisions outlined in the Federal Budget are yet to be finalised, as they must be drafted into legislation and put to a vote in the Senate. Work toward a fairer go for Australian families is already underway, such as the #BusttheBudget rallies. And if you share your story about how the federal budget will impact on you and your community, Fair Agenda will share it with key senators before they vote on the proposed changes.
In Victoria, the state election in November presents an opportunity to call on all parties to prioritise women’s health, safety and wellbeing. We suggest you contact your local member of parliament and let them know that this is your priority too!
From February to June this year, Women’s Health West spoke with women across our region about how they get involved in community and how they would like to engage with us in the future. Many women told us that they would like to be more involved in influencing social and political change, so watch this space for activities in this vein.