August 24, 2020

Federation Chamber

From bushfires to pandemics, emergencies expose the precarious nature of our hard-fought wins. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the consequences of COVID-19 on women.

Women went into the crisis already behind. We are more likely to be in poverty, be underemployed or in casual employment, earn less money in equivalent roles, have less savings and less superannuation. We do the lion’s share of unpaid labour and we’re taught never to expect thanks for it.

From this starting point, things have become worse. The pandemic has destroyed paid work for many women, while increasing their unpaid work burden.

Yet the Government’s policy response to date has been absent and largely inadequate to this empirically demonstrated issue.

The essential workers in this pandemic, our frontline, are women. We make up the majority of health care, early childhood education, aged care and disability sectors. Sectors also characterised by casualisation, understaffing and low wages. In aged care it’s mostly women who turn up, day in and day out, doing their utmost in a system that’s largely broken. A system that is the epicentre of the worst COVID outcomes for our elders. A system that urgently needs repair. The findings of the Aged Care Royal Commission’s examination of COVID-19 found that this service was grossly lacking. This service in fact urgently needed action on the recommendations of the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety handed down in October 2019. A report with a damning one-word title: NEGLECT. Then if that report had been acted on immediately at that time, perhaps we wouldn’t see the deaths that we’re seeing right now in aged care centres across some of our most desperate areas in Melbourne.

Indeed, families all across Australia are asking, also right now, why did our Federal Government not act on what they knew from the interim report and why did they not urgently address the issues that would lead to a repeat of the experience of Europe? Why not act on the Newmarch House report? And why are they not urgently funding home care packages to keep our elders in the one place where they are safest right now – and that’s at home?

And we need to prepare other vulnerable sectors. Disability workers in my electorate still aren’t getting access to PPE unless there’s an outbreak or infection. This is unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable for the large numbers of women who work in that sector. We need to keep our workers and those they support safe.

The education of women and their families is also suffering. Women are postponing or dropping out university or TAFE places because they’re needed at home, or paying their bills takes priority over books.

For parents of school-aged children, supervising remote learning has rapidly become “women’s work”. Research has shown that male partners are reverting to stereotype, overwhelmingly leaving women to do the impossible: balance full-time work and full-time supervision.

For early childhood education, I am gravely concerned that the Government’s policies risk the viability of many providers in rural and regional Australia at the moment, when we need them most. The impacts on women from a lack of accessible and affordable childcare are obvious. And over 90 per cent of early childhood educators are women. Anything that threatens their job security is another blow for women’s financial independence.

In this place we are asked to pass laws that lay the groundwork for what our society looks like on the other side of the pandemic.

Will women be expected to shoulder the burden as our gains are wound back and inequalities become entrenched? Or will we chart a course for a future that protects our most valuable asset?

We need to ask, with each piece of legislation and with each government decision, how are women affected? How will this mitigate the impacts on women?

Last month I asked the Minister for Women for an analysis of the gender impact of COVID-19 and the Government’s policy responses. I again ask the Minister to release it before the Budget, so we can assess how the Budget responds to the gendered nature of this pandemic.

We need women leading decision-making and policy formation. We need to strengthen the sectors that employ women, and young women, in particular. And we need to strengthen and improve the working conditions for our female-dominated industries on the front line. Aged care workers, disability workers, support workers and NDIS workers.

We have the power – and we must have the wisdom – to take action now to mitigate the long-term consequences. Because we know if women suffer, then we all go backwards.

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