The National government is no friend to women.
It cancelled pay equity research into social workers and school support staff within the first few months of its election to power.
It dissolved the Department of Labour unit that oversaw that research.
It reduced the Ministry of Women’s affairs into a tiny, cloutless office (that despite its meagre staff and budget still produces incredibly important work).
It has continued to ignore the Education Review Office’s recommendations to improve sexuality education in this country.
It appointed Pansy Wong as its first Minister for Women’s Affairs (her pet project was getting more women into trades. Not, you know, paying women more in the roles they're already doing).
It appointed Jo Goodhew as the next Minister for Women’s Affairs. She voted against the abolition of force as a justification in smacking, for defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and for appointing a strongly anti-choice doctor to the Abortion Supervisory Committee. And now they’re 'reforming' benefits that are primarily used by women.
These new 'reforms' are aimed at the poorest of families, aimed at mothers raising children alone. And they’re masked by the rhetoric of 'those who can work, should'. Because apparently, raising children doesn’t count as work.
For many sole parents in this country, if you want to raise your child full-time, then the DPB is your only option. Oh sure there’s parental leave, if you happen to be employed. Of course that’s providing you’re not self-employed, and you’ve been at your job long enough, and there’s no restructuring at your workplace. If you pass those requirements, then after the pitiful partly-paid three months that one parent is afforded by the parental laws, your job will be held for 12 months. Then you’re on your own. So you better have a shitload of savings.
For couples, on the surface our parental leave laws appear gender-neutral, with the ability for one parent to swap their 12 months' leave with the other. If you don’t, your partner gets two whole weeks unpaid leave to be with you.
But given that mothers are ideally their child’s source of food for the first six months, and not very many workplaces allow for infants to be present, mothers tend to be the primary carers at home. Even for couples, you either need to have savings, or one partner who earns enough to pay for you, your child, rent, food, utilities and everything else that comes with starting a family.
So our workplaces and social constructs tell us that women should stay at home and be caregivers, and our maternity leave tells us that you must have savings (or a partner to support you) to take the full allowance, and even more savings (or a partner to support you) if you want to raise your child full-time after that.
If you don’t fit that very narrow criteria, and need state assistance, our new welfare 'reforms' will ensure your family planning is decided for you. And if you don’t play ball, you’ll be punished.
The changes involve parents on the DPB being made to find part-time work once their child turns five, and full-time work once their child turns 14. Because remember, caregiving isn’t work. But the real kicker is that if you get pregnant while on the DPB, you have to find work when your youngest child turns one.
Don’t even think about expanding your family. Unless you want to be forced back into work. Work that might not suit you or your family’s needs. Work that might not fit your skills or experience. Just work, any work at all, because you’ve broken the rules.
Despite the fact that we’re at crisis point with a lack of jobs in this country, your expectation to find work trumps your family planning decisions. Because supporting families is not a good investment for government money, apparently. And you should have known better than to get pregnant while taking money from the government.
The government dabbling in family planning decisions extends to the point of the Ministry of Social Development investigating long acting reversible contraceptives for women receiving the DPB. I know this through a few sources, and it was also recently mentioned by Jan Logie.
On the surface this actually seems really great. It would be amazing to see the government invest more in sexual health and contraception.
Except, hold on, why are they only investigating providing this kind of support to people receiving welfare? And why is the contraception they considered providing, the kind that doesn’t rely on people remembering to take it? On top of new 'reform' to punish beneficiaries who breed, it kind of seems like they’re trying to stop poor people from having babies, doesn’t it?
Parents on the DPB (which, in case I haven’t made it clear enough, could be pretty much anyone who isn’t lucky enough to have a partner and/or loads of savings when they have a child) have the added bonus of raising the child alone if they don’t want to go back to work. If they meet someone and get into a relationship with them, they lose their welfare. Have I mentioned they also live on fuck-all each week? Oh and this all occurs within a society which is led to believe (often by right-wing politicians) that beneficiaries decide to have children as some life investment so they can milk this amazing lucrative system we have.
When people like the National Council of Women put out press releases that state these 'reforms' are a 'move in the right direction', and when people are iffy about the punishment part of the changes, but not welfare-recipients being forced to get a job when their child hits five, then we have work to do. If caregiving isn’t seen as legitimate work, then everyone is going to continue to have to meet that narrow, incredibly privileged criteria in order to have the family lives they want.
When are we going to start investing in our families? Really investing. Not just Working for Families schemes, not just minimal paid parental leave, not 'flexible, family-friendly workplaces' in principle, but tangible support for people who don’t happen to have investment accounts.
Support that doesn’t come with a close-your-legs-clause, or a time’s up countdown, or an allowance for only one parent to take time out of work. Support that says hey if we’re going to suddenly get really worried about this country’s children we should probably invest in them and their families, huh?
Coley Tangerina blogs about feminism and politics here.