The maternal state

The Age reported yesterday on the first women-only political party, What Women Want Australia. Rarely has entitlement feminism been so blatant; usually at least a see-through blouse of principle covers the naked self-interest. According to The Age‘s story:

Launching the What Women Want Australia party in Brisbane today, Justine Caines said women needed better representation and were sick of being paid lip service on key issues.

These included paid maternity leave, post-natal services, access to child care, education and the environment.

Though relatively few women have held senior political positions, much more than lip service has been paid to policies affecting women. Indeed, for all the talk on this blog and elsewhere about redistributing money between income deciles and between household types, one of the biggest things the government does is redistribute income from men to women.

The ATO’s statistics show that men pay more than twice as much income tax as women. Yet they receive back less than women in return.

Nearly 60% of the recipients in the Budget’s biggest expense, the old age pension, are women. The Budget’s second biggest expense, payments to families with children, is primarily to assist what has traditionally been the woman’s role in families. As derrida derider noted a couple of weeks ago, the FTB tends to be paid via Centrelink to the non-earner, usually the wife. The third-biggest expense, health, again benefits women more than men because they are a greater share of the health’s systems biggest users, the elderly, and because men are much less likely to see a GP. Females make greater use of publicly-subsidised education than males, and get better academic results.

This redistribution from male to female occurs because for all the social change of the last few decades gender roles have not changed that much – while more women work than before the proportion who work full-time has only increased slightly and women are still primarily responsible for raising children. As such, women still expect to be supported financially by men – though it seems that their husbands/partners do not provide enough money, so the ATO is sent out to bring in some more.

As regular readers know, I think this has already gone much too far. But at least when What Women Want lose their electoral deposit for securing too few votes we will get a little of our money back.

94 thoughts on “The maternal state

  1. Bravo!

    At least some well reasoned input on the debate.

    The extent of my input thus far has been smart arse quips about it being hard to find them on the Senate ticket between the “Homegrown Tomatoes Party” and the “Lower Tax on New Motor Vehicles Party.”


  2. The flip-side of the redistributive effects of policies such as payments to families with children is the higher effective marginal tax rates faced by secondary earners earning modest incomes. It is unclear whether this is an unintended consequence of the policies.


  3. Andrew Norton wrote, doing his best Benny Hill:
    Rarely has entitlement feminism been so blatant; usually at least a see-through blouse of principle covers the naked self-interest.
    What’s up, not enough commenters recently?


  4. 2007-04-23, Finland got cabinet with females in the majority (12F, 8M) unless some of the cabinet in this set of photos are in drag (at least one of them has a bad wig), after a centre-right coalition defeated the previous centre-left government. (Although the centre-right coalition includes the Green Party). With a Current account surplus: 5.7% of GDP, CPI (EU harmonized): 1.2%, 67% F workforce participation, 70% M workforce participation, the Finns aren’t doing too bad! Mind you, 40-odd% of MPs are Female, but they’ve had a quota system (hmm, not my ideal!) for a decade. Hasn’t hurt the economy, Nokia’s doing pretty well.

    BTW: re your males rarely going to fem Drs comment: I’m male, I’m old enough to need a regular prostate check, and my GPs happen to have been women for the last 20 years (my choice based on individual competence rather than gender) and a woman doctor understands the discomfort of invasive poking better than a male (particularly one under 40). Also, as she pointed out, females have tapered fingers, males have “blunt square-ended things”, so prostate examinations are more comfortable with a woman doctor!


  5. Care to refute any of Andrew’s arguments, Mr Logician Rubie?

    I have a big thing against parties that purport to represent one demographic whether it’s Grey Power or the Unity party (that party of professional ethnics that cropped up after Hanson came on the scene bleating on the behalf of other professional ethnics about how discriminated against they were) and now this … As if being born with a particular pair of genitals or a particular skin colour is a substitute for a coherent political philosophy


  6. On Mark Picton’s comment about higher EMTRs faced by second earners, the intriguing thing about this is that it is arguably a result of feminist intervention in the structure of tax transfer system back in 1994.

    Second earner effective average tax rates are generally no worse, and usually less, than first earners over the same income range where there are no children. Where children are involved, second earner EATRs are higher than first earner equivalents at lower incomes because of Family Tax Benefit Part B. (At higher incomes, second earner EATRs still tend to be lower than first earners)

    Family Tax Benefit Part B is a successor to basic Parenting Payment/Allowance, which itself replaced Home Child Care Allowance (HCCA). HCCA was a product of the Half Way to Equal report (from memory) and was spruiked as improving the lot of women.

    I’d hate to argue that women made their own position worse, but…


  7. Now spog, as you well know, most positive policies unfortunately have a downside somewhere – the important thing is whether the upside outweighs the downside, so to speak. I regard the change to paying partnered women as individuals rather than treating them simply as dependants of their husbands as overall a positive benefit, that may well have contributed to the upward trend in female labour force participation, especially among the wives of unemployed men.

    My response to Mr Picton was simply going to be along the lines that EMTRs are very seldom the intentional consequence of policy design. Indeed, I think it is dangerous to make policy that has the sole or main aim of changing EMTRs – that is how we got the current family tax benefit juggernaught after all.

    As far as Family Tax Benefit goes, I agree with you that it is a dog, not least because it has never had a clear policy rationale. But on the other hand, I also think that people get altogether too het up about high EMTRs. Given that the vast majority of Australians want income transfers targeted to people who really need them, high EMTRs are what you get.

    As to your unforgiveable last sentence, I think you’ll find that by and large the women who helped make the policy are not affected by the resultant high EMTRs, so it should really be some women making other women’s lives worse, shouldn’t it? 🙂


  8. Hello BG. Just knew you’d pop up in this one.

    My comments are about the origin of FTB B (from the old Home Child Care Allowance). I think that was a misguided piece of work that directly leads to a large part of the so-called second earner incentives problem. The payment of income support to members of a couple on a more individual basis that you are referring to is a different beastie altogether.

    As to whether that is good or bad…


  9. “while more women work than before the proportion who work full-time has only increased slightly”

    Andrew, many people (including Bob Gregory, who I usually respect) quote this fact as evidence that feminism has had little influence and nothing has really changed.

    For me there are three important points to bear in mind about women’s employment:

    First, while the female full-time employment rate has grown relatively little since the 60s, this is a period that has seen quite a precipitous drop in the male full-time employment rate, so that women are now a much larger proportion of the full-time workforce than they were.

    Second, the women who work full-time now are quite different to those who worked full-time back in the 60s and 70s. Then they were primarily young single women filling in a few years between school and marriage/children and mainly in relatively low-skilled jobs. Now, they are much more likely to be of prime working age, while many have not yet had children others are women with older children, and many more are working in high skilled jobs.

    Third, while part-time work has been the big growth area, there has been a steady improvement in the quality of part-time jobs as well. Almost half of all women working part-time now have access to paid leave (the statistical proxy for permanent employment status) and many part-time white collar jobs, which hardly existed thirty or forty years ago, are relatively high paid.

    I believe that feminism has made a huge difference to the lives of women (though I accept some of these changes might have happened anyway once women got control of their fertility and increased their access to education). I don’t live in constant fear that someone (who, John Howard?) will succeed in turning the clock back, now matter how much some people might like to.

    What I don’t like about a women’s political party (especially one that calls itself What Women Want) is that as Jason says, it assumes that all women are the same and have the same political objectives (sounds suspiciously like sexism to me). It also smacks of victim feminism, a phenomenon that I think does nothing to empower women as individuals. As with indigenous activism based on victimhood, the primary beneficiaries of programs that purport to compensate women for the disability of their position in society are women who suffer little or none of that disability.

    Most women are doing a pretty good job of looking after themselves and, as you pointed out, are already significant beneficiaries of many government policies. The fact that many still choose to sacrifice their own financial independence to one degree or another is largely a consequence of the range of choices that are open to women in Australia, not the fact that society is still conspiring against us as a group.


  10. “As to whether that is good or bad…”

    If we disagree on this question (whether it is better for female income support recipients to have an income of their own rather than rely on their unemployed husbands), I would be forced to conclude that this is probably because of the difference in our respective genders



    Justine Caines [from What Women Want] said women needed better representation and were sick of being paid lip service on key issues. These included paid maternity leave, post-natal services, access to child care, education and the environment.

    That’s funny, because none of my childfree female friends have ever wanted any of these things (apart from a decent environment). On the other hand, I know plenty of fathers who want these things, as, strangely enough, their living standards are affected by the largesse governments provide to their partners!


  12. Justine Caines is definitely not childfree – she has six kids and since she seems to work only in a voluntary capacity (perhaps she has been scared off by those high EMTRs?), I suspect she is very much a beneficiary of recent Government largesse. But it’s clearly not enough ..


  13. What Tom said. I’d also be interested in a more comprehensive analysis of the idea that income is redistributed from men to women – rather than from young to old, and childless to those with children.

    As for where this new party is coming from, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with marie claire and their “What Women Want” campaigns.


  14. Anna – Very few policies are expressly gender based; it is just that the group that generates most income tax revenue (full-time employees; high income earners) is mostly men while the groups or activities favoured by government are disproportionately female. Men are eligible, but they have lower needs and/or lesser preferences.


  15. This is just a variation of the doctor’s wives comedy we saw in 04. I like these parties because they’re so fun to watch as they contort themsvles looking for “injustice”.

    I believe their primary policy is that they’re demanding standing only urinals in all female toilets too.


  16. Jason Soon said:
    As if being born with a particular pair of genitals or a particular skin colour is a substitute for a coherent political philosophy
    Scratch a self identified libertarian, get an authoritarian marxist. Doesn’t take much apparently.


  17. Andrew wrote: “women are still primarily responsible for raising children. As such, women still expect to be supported financially by men” and
    BG wrote: “Most women are doing a pretty good job of looking after themselves ….. The fact that many still choose to sacrifice their own financial independence to one degree or another is largely a consequence of the range of choices that are open to women in Australia, not the fact that society is still conspiring against us as a group.”

    I’m going to be tiresome about ‘choice’ again, and the fact that not all choices are similarly ‘free’. A couple may decide to have children but it will be the woman who is pregnant, breast feeds the baby and therefore will probably have the greater emotional attachment and the caring role – out of the workforce.

    That’s why, not just women, as Andrew wrote, but almost everyone, expects mothers to be supported by fathers. I don’t see why women should bear more of the ‘cost’ of having children – perhaps Centrelink should just pay women their previous salary for 3 or 4 years after the birth of a child. Oh, and the opportunity of some free training/education in the year before they return to the workforce, to help them catch up to where they were.


  18. What is that award for the most sexist blog post? I think you may have lined up another one with this post Andrew. Congratulations!


  19. James – I’m not sure there is a dedicated blog section in the annual Ernie awards, but I was a co-winner with Paddy McGuinness three years ago for something I wrote for a newspaper.

    But this is a non-sexist post. Equal treatment for men!


  20. I’m sure that argument will go down as well with the organisers of the Ernies as it did with the Womens’ Officer in my Students’ Association!


  21. You are right, Russell, that mothers should be supported by fathers.

    However, your proposals are that mothers should be supported by taxpayers.


  22. Tom – not many men could support their partners by paying them the equivalent of the salary and career prospects lost to motherhood. But why should women suffer those costs because it’s only women who can bear children? It will have to be the whole community which compensates women for the financial loss of being out of the workforce, through having children.
    Which takes us back to unresolved differences on a previous thread: I think being able to have children is a basic human right (not something to be penalised for), whereas the right seems to think it’s all personal choice, like shopping.
    I’ll revise my Centrelink proposal to something simpler and more efficient: for performing the invaluable service of providing society with a future (ie children) women shall be paid $200,000 each for their first two children – nothing for any more.


  23. Andrew – I’m not arguing with your figures, and agree with what you’ve said in #17. What I’m getting at is that your analysis is making it a man/ woman thing, when really it’s a young/ old thing, and a childless/ parent thing – ie you’re missing a step.

    For what it’s worth I think the What Women Want party sounds like the “Liberals for Forests” thing in WA. A bunch of middle/upper class white women hijacking a few elements of a philosophy that suit them. I don’t disagree with their aims, but am not impressed with the limited policy focus. I won’t be voting for them.



    The problem with your ‘basic human rights’, Russell, is that you want to enjoy the benefits of exercising the right whilst having someone else to pay for it.

    As for your point that “not many men could support their partners by paying them the equivalent of the salary and career prospects lost to motherhood”, that’s true – but all it indicates is that having children is a high-cost activity – both in terms of the money needed to feed, clothe and house and in other ways cater for children’s needs, and also in terms of the opportunity costs of parenthood.

    But none of that justifies subsidising the child-laden at the expense of the child-free. One again, your policy is simply one of parents having their kids and eating out too, at other people’s expense.


  25. “you want to enjoy the benefits of exercising the right whilst having someone else to pay for it”, well not me personally in this case, but I do think that how the mechanism that allows people to exercise their basic human rights is financed, is not as important as making sure people can exercise those rights.
    Tom, do you really see nothing wrong with the fact that only women can have children, but having children and therefore being out of the workforce disadvantages them?


  26. JUDITH: [on Stan’s desire to be a mother] Here! I’ve got an idea: Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb – which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’ – but that he can have the *right* to have babies.
    FRANCIS: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother… sister, sorry.
    REG: What’s the *point*?
    FRANCIS: What?
    REG: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can’t have babies?
    FRANCIS: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
    REG: It’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.

    This discussion is symbolic of Russell’s struggle against reality.


  27. Russell – you talk about “the salary and career prospects lost to motherhood”

    Women (and a smaller number of men) only lose salary and career prospects if they choose to signifcantly downgrade their labour force attachment – ie drop out of work altogether for a number of years and then work part-time for a lot more. Anyone who chose to do this should expect to lose salary and career prospects, because in the end they have less work experience to offer their employer and they are therefore less valuable to the employer than someone who is similar in all other respects but has more work experience. How is this unfair?

    I don’t believe that mothers who take only a few months (even 12) out of the workforce and return to full-time work suffer a substantial salary and career detriment. While it’s true that as a result of having children they may not aspire to move as high on the career ladder as they might have without children, why is that free choice something that needs to be compensated by society? I have a significant problem with the brand of feminism that demands the right to do whatever it likes and be financially supported by others – that is acting like a child, not an adult.

    People who choose to work less already get compensated in many ways – they pay less tax, they get more in family benefits, etc. But you want them to be paid as much as they would be if they had remained in full-time work. As for your proposal that every woman should be paid $200,000 for each child, well if anything was designed to turn women back into baby factories that would be it! That looks to me like sexism masquerading as snaggy concern. Like I said, women are capable of making their own decisions and bearing the consequences – no one makes them have babies and if they do no one makes them stay home to look after them.

    Anna – I agree that it’s not particularly helpful to describe the current pattern of income restribution as male to female, rather than young to old, childless to parents (sorry, childfree to child-laden) , etc. However, it is What Women Want who seem to think everything is about gender, so I guess Andrew was just responding in kind.

    By the way, is it just me or does the What Women Want moniker remind anyone else of Women who Want to be Women? They were on about the right of women to be financially dependent too.


  28. A quick thought – I would think that women would want all kinds of different things as they’re individuals.


  29. Sacha – As James has started the trend of quoting from Life of Brian:

    Brian: You’re all individuals!
    Followers: Yes, we’re all individuals!
    Brian: You’re all different!
    Followers: Yes, we are all different!

    You are Brian, What Women Want are the followers.


  30. It may not be helpful to describe it as man to woman, but some of it is indeed that. Where else did the endearing term “wallet to purse transfer” come from?


  31. Spog

    I don’t have a particular problem with wallet to purse transfers, but neither would I make a fetish of them. I happen to think that women are better off in the long term if they earn their own incomes, rather than having to rely on direct wallet to purse transfers (a la the good old days) or the more indirect route via the tax/transfer system.

    It is interesting though that even though the mechanism exists in the Family Tax Benefit system for the wallet-owner to claim the FTB as an offset to his taxes and make his transfers directly to the purse-owner, very few seem to opt for that.


  32. I wonder how widely known this option is? And given the near-universal use of the direct payment option, it would surely be a brave or perhaps swinish man who swam against that tide.


  33. BG, Spog – Are there social norms surrounding family payments; ie that the are regarded as ‘for’ the child rearer and should be paid to that person?

    Echoes too here of the old practice, when pay was in cash, of it all being handed by the husband to the wife who would then give some back to the husband for his own spending.


  34. backroom girl wrote:
    It is interesting though that even though the mechanism exists in the Family Tax Benefit system for the wallet-owner to claim the FTB as an offset to his taxes and make his transfers directly to the purse-owner, very few seem to opt for that.
    What difference would it make, when (I assume) most couples share a bank account anyway?
    When we ditched living in Sydney a couple of years ago and became eligible for FTB, we were totally unaware of it. The tax office sent us a big cheque and carefully explained how we’d missed claiming something we were now entitled to (due to a big drop in income). The whole thing was bizarre to say the least (although we were very grateful!). That’s one of the pitfalls of doing your own taxes I suppose – knowing which side tracks to investigate in the ATO Etax software.


  35. Andrew

    Since the mid-1980s, it has certainly been the social security practice to pay money for the benefit of children to the mother on the assumption that that is the best way to ensure that children receive the benefit of transfers being made on their behalf. Note I said the mother, rather than the principal carer of the children – the mother is assumed to be the principal carer of the children (even for example if she is working and the father is receiving Parenting Payment).

    When Family Income Supplement (the forerunner payment of FTB) was originally brought in in 1983, it was paid to the (male) family breadwinner but this changed quite quickly to the mother. The old Department of Social Security did a survey of recipients a couple of years down the track which asked, among other things, whether payment to the principal carer was an important element. While quite a number of people said, a la David Rubie, that of course it didn’t matter, there was a minority who said that it was very important. In some of these cases at least, the husband was in marginal self-employment and the wives had the view that the money would have just gone to trying to keep the business afloat rather than to put food on the table, buy the kids things for school and pay for excursions, etc.

    But that was the 1980s and of course things have changed quite a lot, not least that whereas FIS was a very tightly targeted payment made to people who were indisputably ‘working poor’ the reach of FTB has extended much further up the household income distribution.

    But ultimately I would regard FTB (at least the Part A bit, which is for each dependent child) as the kids’ money, rather than belonging to either parent . You might want to argue this point when it comes to money that has been churned from Dad’s (and usually Mum’s) taxes back to Mum, but don’t forget that a large proportion of FTB still goes to people on income support payments. So regarding it as a redistribution from taxpaying Dad to welfare recipient Mum is probably a bit simplistic.


  36. BG: “no one makes them have babies and if they do no one makes them stay home to look after them”
    That seems to me about as extremist a statement as one could make. Are we uniquely a species that has no instinct to reproduce?
    and [women] “who chose to do this should expect to lose salary and career prospects” and status, and enjoy a lower standard of living, and possibly lose the chances to do the sort of work they would find fulfilling ….. Their partners of course won’t lose any of these things. Seems unfair to me – biology as destiny, when it doesn’t need to be.

    Interesting given your views on women’s freedom to choose to have children, that you say that granting women money for having 2 children would “turn women back into baby factories” as if they had no choice in the matter.



    Russell, your latest response overlooks the clear difference between having an instinct to do something and being made to do something. That woman have an instinct to reproduce does not mean they must: plenty of my childfree female friends have that instinct, but choose not to act on it.

    Personally, I have an instinct to have sex with lots of women, but whether I seek to act on that instinct it is still my choice and the consequences of that choice should rightly be sheeted home to me, so to speak.

    Of course, when I do have sex I use protection so that those consequences do not include having a child. Why I should then be made to pay for the actions of people who make a different choice remains unclear.

    Again, it seems that you simply want to shift the costs of the choices of the child-laden onto the child-free. And so far, the only argument that I can see that you’ve made for this is to assert that (a) parenthood is a human right (although, even if that were a useful concept, reproduction doesn’t appear on the UN list); and, further (and note that it is further), to impy that (b) people who do not exercise that right should subsidise the costs of people who do!

    Sorry, but I don’t see any of that as constituting a convincing reason as to why my income should be redistributed to parents.



  38. “Their partners of course won’t lose any of these things.”

    Russell, what I am really saying is that it is not inevitable that women bear the sole cost of having children, and that the amount of income and career that women forgo is largely up to them. These days, there are lots of different options open to people compared to the days when men went to work and women stayed home and everyone knew what was what. I find it a bit sad that you (and, I think, both WWW organisations) still believe that “biology is destiny” after all we have been through in the past decades.

    For example, as I pointed out, women can take a short time off work and put their children into child care. I have two children and have only had about two years off work in total – you may think this makes me a bad mother, but it was the choice I made. I have a responsible job and I don’t actually think of the income foregone while I was off work as a ‘cost’ that I should be compensated for – it was a consequence of the choice I made.

    Or, guess what, the father can share the burden more equally. I know men who have chosen to work part-time alongside their partners and share both the paid work and the child care. I also know men who have taken the primary carer role and who are primary carers after separation.

    Or you can do what most couples do and choose for the father remain the primary breadwinner and the mother to take on the primary carer/secondary earner role. Just because this is what most couples choose, doesn’t mean that it is biologically programmed.

    Or you can go the whole hog and have Mum stay home for the rest of her life. It’s not a choice that I could ever imagine making, but hey I guess it works for some people.

    Unlike Tom N, I’m not actually opposed to government transfers to lower-income families and, unlike Andrew N, I’m not all that offended that the net redistribution through the tax-transfer system ends up being from men to women, since men on average have higher incomes. But I do think that if women want to be treated like grownups, they need to act like grownups and stop expecting to be ‘compensated’ for the disability of their gender.


  39. I’m with you Tom N. None of this is to say that we don’t subsidise children’s health or education after they are born, to address the relevant externalities. However, this is a different thing to compensating people (ie parents) for the result of a free choice. Further, for all the talk that the child-free free-ride on parents who raise the next generation, I can’t help thinking both that (1) parents’ reproductive decisions are relatively inelastic to transfer payments and (2) the vast majority of the benefits accruing from the ‘production’ of children accrue to the parents and are un-taxed.


  40. Tom and Rajat – I think it is a bit too simple to just dismiss out of hand the possibility of paying extra money to low income families to assist with the extra expense involved in having children. While I agree that ideally people shouldn’t have children they can’t afford, clearly many people do whether by design or by accident. If you accept that adults have some right to be supported by the state if they are not able to support themselves (however you define that), then I don’t see why similar rights should not accrue to children whose parents are unable to fully support them. It is a cliche, but kids don’t ask to be born or get to choose the family they are born into. And I think you can only stretch the analogy of children as consumer durables so far.


  41. BG, I’m not sure if the acceptance of support for adults implies acceptance of support for children. Children are not entitled to a range of rights and entitlements that (most)adults have – vote, work, marriage, drive, etc. I don’t want to see children starving on the streets, but assuming they are being taken care of by adults of means or who are being supported by the state, I don’t see why that should happen. By the time the state pays subsidies for childcare, education and health, I question whether any further support is merited.


  42. But Rajat when you say “or who are being supported by the state” are you assuming that the amount of money that the adult gets includes an additional amount for children? Or do you think the State should just pay each adult $x and they should support themselves and as many children as they ‘choose’ to have out of that amount?

    If you accept that the amount that the State pays to people with no means of their own should be adjusted to take account of the presence of dependent children, then you are implicitly accepting that children have an entitlement to support if their parents can’t support them.

    Once upon a time, before the introduction of the family income supplement that I mentioned earlier, we had a situation where people dependent on income support got extra money for each dependent child, but people who had a job had to support as many kids as they had with only a little extra help from child endowment/family allowance. The result of that was that low wage earners with lots of kids had no financial incentive to work because they got more money if they were unemployed. The family income supplement was introduced for the precise purpose of trying to ensure that there would always be an incentive for someone to take a low-paid job, no matter how many children he (or she) had to support.


  43. And while subsidies for childcare, education and health are no doubt valuable to low income families, you can’t eat them or cash them in to buy something to eat.


  44. BG, I meant the latter – that adults should be left to support themselves and their children with whatever they, as adults (rather than as parents), earned or were entitled to. I know this sounds rough, and it would have to be transitioned, but I think it would radically and desirably change the way people think about birth control, abortion, adoption, workforce participation, and so on.


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