Austerity? Australia?

The recently published book  Women and Austerity: The Economic Crisis and the Future for Gender Equality edited by sociologists Maria Karamessini and Jill Rubery traces the effects on women of the fiscal policies pursued in the USA, UK and the EU in the wake of the global financial crisis. The book also contains analysis of specific countries in the EU where the Great Recession cut deep and hard including Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal (the PIIGS)  – the countries where the austerity measures – cuts to national budgets – in order to repay loans as required by the IMF, European Central Bank, and European Commission (the Troika) had far reaching social and economic effects as we continue to see in the case of Greece.

The book covers the period from 2008. the depth of the recession, to the beginning of the recovery in 2012-13. An important point of the book is that there was considerable cross-national diversity both in terms of the policies applied and their effects. But the consensus of the various contributions to the book is that the fiscal policies as either expansion (as in the case of the USA) or contraction (as for the PIIGS) had far reaching effects on gender equity.

The contributions make clear that the Great Recession itself triggered or consolidated changes in employment that were highly significant in terms of gender equity objectives – mostly for the worse. These effects include a worsening gender pay gap, a strengthening of class based differentials in employment outcomes for women, widening occupational segregation and more precarious employment.  Many contributions also show how highly educated and skilled women have lost ground and it is ever harder for more poorly educated women to gain traction in the labour market. Single mothers have been further disadvantaged.  The contributions also note how the changes in employment following the GFC affected men in different occupational sectors and young people’s access to employment. However, the book makes a clear case that what happened in the GFC and the following austerity regimes have particularly set back women’s economic and employment advancement.

The book makes for an interesting read for an Australian audience. Australia of course avoided the worst of the GFC as a result of the sustained mining boom which held up government revenue and a swift fiscal stimulus applied by the new Labor Government in 2008. But the book raises many questions that are just as relevant in Australia as anywhere else. The timeframe is rather different and not especially related to the GFC. Rather we can see that there has been long term application of public policies in the name of budget savings – austerity measures – that have had considerable impact on women’s employment.

To summarise, there has been a long term contraction in secure public sector employment in Australia that has had particular consequences for women. It is a theme taken up in my last conference paper at the ILO. My paper shows that almost 40 per cent of women’s employment in Australia is directly or indirectly dependent on public expenditure. Governments have over the last 15 years sought to reduce expenditure in these sectors where so much women’s employment is concentrated resulting in both reduced opportunity and higher levels of precarious employment. In addition, I argue that the reduction in opportunity in the public sector has had flow on effects to employment conditions and opportunities in private sector employment for women. These effects are very similar to those described by the various contributors to the Women and Austerity book.

With the removal of Tony Abbott from the office of Prime Minister, those of us who had written about his government’s destructive social policy frameworks, were waiting cautiously for the first indications of the policy settings of the Turnbull government. This came in the second week with Treasurer Scott Morrison’s pronouncements on what he sees are the priorities in his term as Treasurer. He identifies expenditure reductions as the priority over tax reform, and he specifically mentions his former portfolio of social services as a site for potential savings. He sees tax reform as the second order priority in dealing with the budget and crowning all is ‘work, save, invest’ as the driving principal. So the extent to which the Coalition Government under Malcolm Turnbull will take a softer or harder line on budget savings through cuts in expenditure in core areas of women’s employment remains to be be seen.

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