“An article of faith”: Experts praise a budget where women are vital

Ministers, Senators, MPs, policy makers, advocates and thought leaders gathered to consider what the budget does for women.

By Sally Spicer


Ministers, Senators, MPs, policy makers, advocates and thought leaders gathered to consider what the budget does for women.

By Sally Spicer

The night after the federal budget was handed down, at a sold-out dinner at the National Portrait Gallery, something rare happened.

A panel of experts, all representing different interests and priorities, gathered on stage and agreed with each other. The federal budget, they concluded, was a winner for women.

“I was hoping we would treat women’s equality as an economic issue, not a social issue,” outgoing Business Council Australia Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott AO told Future Women’s Budgeting for Women’s Success event.

“And I think it does that.”

For Sam Mostyn AO, it was the way the budgetary decisions were devised, specifically the commitment to embedding a gender perspective in government decision-making.

“I’ve carried around the [October 2022] Women’s Budget Statement as an article of faith,” confessed Mostyn, the Chair of the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce and one of Australia’s most powerful voices on women’s fiscal security.

“And to see the second one within six months, almost doubling down on that, and $22 billion in terms of supporting women in our economy… There was a strategic shift. It’s a wonderful recognition that we matter.”

Senator Katy Gallagher, the Minister for Finance, Women and the Public Service used her keynote address to touch on “the shift”, which she says began with Labor’s first budget in October last year. She believes the fact that 55 of Labor’s 104 caucus members are women has made all the difference to the party’s policies and priorities.

“There’s been a feeling [in past budgets] that women’s equality has been an add on,” Minister Gallagher said.

“Like an after-dinner mint. We’re ensuring that policy for women is elevated to the centre of government decision-making.”

Chiou See Anderson, the President of the National Council of Women Australia and a member of the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, agreed.

“When we develop policies for women, it actually affects everyone,” Anderson said.

On welfare payments, which were modestly boosted as part of the government’s $14.9 billion cost-of-living relief package – the consensus of the panellists was that more needs to be done, but that this is a welcome start.

“There are people who thought it didn’t go far enough,” Anderson said. “But until we start the journey we’ll never get anywhere.”

Speaking from the audience, Cassandra Goldie, Australian Council of Social Services Chief Executive Officer shared her thoughts.

Goldie praised some really important things in the budget, while also stressing the need for additional support for vulnerable people.

“Fixing the Single Parenting Payment is really important. We should be providing support for people who need support at the right time, in the right way, respecting dignity. This is about people’s agency,” Anderson said.

The value of that agency was echoed by La Trobe Financial‘s Chief People & Marketing Officer Antonietta Sestito, who emphasised the importance of women controlling their own financial futures.

Jamila Rizvi, FW’s Deputy Managing Director and panel host, asked Jennifer Westacott AO, to reflect on how public conversations around gender equality have evolved in her time in the top job.

In February, Westacott announced plans to step down from the Business Council of Australia in the next 12-18 months.

“From where I started [in 2011], it is a whole different world,” she said.

“It has become about economics. It has become about the nation’s potential.”

As for workplace culture in the Australian Defence Force, panellist Major General Sue Graham said it has also improved in recent years.

Major Graham cited the work of recently retired Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who was in the audience.

“In her work with our services… The organisation I joined and the one it is now is a completely different organisation,” Graham remarked.

On an evening where multiple panellists praised the symbolism of a federal budget that integrates women’s equality, there was also discussion of practical barriers. In particular, the difficulty in changing minds.

“We’re not changing our social norms,” said Westacott, who is also Chancellor of Western Sydney University.

“I graduated engineering faculties the other day. And I was really depressed because they were still 95 percent young men. And when you’d see a woman come up to get her degree, you’d want to give her a hug.”

Mostyn agreed that community attitudes are not advancing quickly enough – noting that gender segregated workforces are something Australia is “particularly bad at”.

“We got so used to the idea that women are carers, that they do things out of the goodness of their heart, that we expect them to hold up this economy,” she said.

“Why would you go into a profession where you are disrespected, you don’t get enough money?”

At its core, the evening was about progress. The progress made and unmade – the symbolic steps forward, and the practical ones still to come in budgets, workplaces, homes and classrooms.

“This is the foundation,” said guest Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, who fielded a question from her seat over dessert.

“But this isn’t the end, this isn’t mission accomplished.”

Mostyn added her thoughts.

“You can’t do this in one budget or even one decade,” she said.

“But you can start with today’s budget and then start looking at the horizons of what we do next.

“A core test of fairness,” reads the foreword of the Women’s Budget Statement, “is whether we are a gender equal country.”

One budget from one government can’t fix everything. But the experts agree that we’re on track. That we’ll get there – with a little faith.

With thanks to our Major Partner La Trobe Financial and support from The Mandarin