Politics

Matt Kean makes a bold bid to bring women into workforce

Forget going teal. The NSW government is seeking to become the first in Australia to place women at the centre of its long-term economic agenda in a massive program that seeks to combine human capital investment, female economic empowerment and election-year priorities.

Today’s NSW budget from Treasurer Matt Kean combines additional spending fuelled by extra revenue with an intergenerational agenda that elevates female economic participation as the key driver to achieve fiscal sustainability over coming decades, while also offering short-term cost-of-living relief and the beginnings of tax reform.

Tucked away in the “revenue” chapter of the budget papers is the long-term agenda of the government:

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Over the long run, as outlined in the 2021-22 NSW Intergenerational Report (IGR), NSW revenues are expected to grow at a slower pace than they have historically. If this outcome is realised, there would be an increasing long-term ‘fiscal gap’, where revenue growth fails to keep pace with the growth in expenses. The IGR estimated this gap at 2.6% of gross state product by 2060-61.

In contrast to the federal Coalition’s final budget, which refused to address a comparable fiscal gap in Commonwealth finances, Kean wants to address this by driving increased female participation.

The IGR showed that supporting women’s economic opportunities would have the most significant impact on the fiscal gap, where women’s workforce participation increases to be equal to that of men. This is a key driver of the package of reforms outlined in this budget.

With a goal of making substantial progress towards closing the difference between male and female participation over the next decade, Kean’s budget has a long list of major and minor investment initiatives, some already announced, such as $3.7 billion in childcare and preschool funding and the transition to universal pre-kindergarten over the rest of the decade.

NSW will also provide two weeks’ additional paid parental leave for NSW public servants with no distinction between primary and secondary carers, to encourage men to share more of the early childcare load, more support for women to return to work after extended time out of the workforce, more funding for female entrepreneurs, and fertility treatment leave for public sector workers.

But the NSW government will be one of the biggest drivers of female employment itself, with big increases in spending in traditionally heavily feminised health, care and education sectors. The 3% pay rises in the next two years for public sector workers will be well below inflation (but significantly above previous public sector pay caps) and the $3000 bonus to healthcare workers will flow primarily to female workers — while its commitment of billions to expand the NSW health workforce by 13,000, with a particular focus on regional health services, will also go mainly to female health professionals.

Hundreds of millions in funding to recruit and retain childcare and early childhood workers will flow similarly.

The budget estimates that between 26,000 and 95,000 NSW women are either entering the workforce beyond current predictions or moving from part-time to full-time employment. By design or coincidence, it builds on one of the few positive legacies of Scott Morrison’s time in federal politics: the substantial increase in female participation driven by increased healthcare funding from 2015 onwards.

The glossies that usually accompany budgets are mainly vehicles for government spin, but the “women’s opportunity statement” accompanying this budget, the product of a Women’s Economic Opportunities Review commissioned earlier this year, is a long, detailed and almost academic document identifying the causes of lower female participation, lower superannuation, the gender pay gap and particular disincentives faced by Indigenous women, women with disabilities and those from diverse communities — and the logic of how the government is responding.

Its agenda is to increase participation, support women in small business, curb workplace harassment and domestic violence, improve pay and remove gender gaps in the workforce and invest more in women’s health needs.

The budget is an example of what Kean and the NSW Liberals do best: marry good policy with good politics.

After the defeat of a federal Coalition government partly due to the federal Liberals’ complete lack of comprehension of gender and workplace issues, it’s an inevitable case of product differentiation. But the investment runs much deeper and longer than the next NSW election in March 2023. If successful, it would see one of the most substantial economic and social reforms of recent decades.

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Peter Fray

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief

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