Address to the Australian Education Union on women's economic security

2.04pm | October 08, 2016

I wanted to start by thanking you all for the important work you do as delegates. I hardly need to say that the work you do as educators is important. But that work depends on the extra work you have all taken on to safeguard the working conditions of yourselves and your colleagues. Your advocacy has power. Not just your advocacy in the workplace but also the work you do about the broader policies and social forces that affect your profession. We’ve just come out of an election, and I know many of you would have done a lot of just that kind of work and I’d like to take this moment to thank you for it.

Your job isn’t done. The hard work of changing minds doesn’t disappear once the writs are returned. If anything it becomes all the more important.

 Today I want to make the case that retirement policy is one of those issues you should try to change minds about. Something you might talk to your colleagues about, write to your local member about and door knock about.

Retirement for an Australian woman is less secure and more precarious than for an Australian man.

I want to start today by talking you through some of the reasons that is, and the findings of our inquiry into women’s retirements. I then want to talk to you about some of the policy fixes, and and the opportunities as I see them in this term to make some progress.

I spent much of the past year leading the Senate inquiry into Womens Economic Security in Retirement.

It has been an amazing experience – I have had the opportunity to hear so many different women’s stories, and have had the benefit of tremendously helpful and detailed submissions from union’s such as yours. The report is all the better for it.

My starting point in initiating the inquiry was the glaring difference in superannuation balances between women and men. We might have a gap between men and women’s pay, but between men and women’s super we have a chasm. Infamously, women have superannuation balances on average half the size of men’s. The issues run much deeper than superannuation, however. They are fundamentally about dignity and quality of life for women as they work and as they age. Single women over fifty five are the fastest growing group in poverty in Australia at the moment. That is a terrible coda to a life of work and unpaid care.

There are two key issues that have led us to be in this situation.

Firstly, we are still learning to deal with women in the workplace

Women’s superannuation balances are not the problem, they are a symptom of the problem. Women’s retirement outcomes are a product of their working lives.

Sometimes I think we fail to properly acknowledge just how momentous the entry of women into the workforce really is. It is one of the most substantial changes of the past few decades.  Women’s participation in the workforce has risen by almost 40% in the last 35 years.

Just fifty years ago, women, including my mum, were still required to resign as permanent teachers when they married. 

Since then, we’ve experienced enormous economic growth as a consequence of women’s march into the workforce.

Despite this, we have an oddly conflicted approach to the women’s work. Sometimes it is framed as an opportunity for women to seek economic and social equality. However it’s also regularly framed as a problem – a burden forced upon families. This is reflected on the policy front. On the one hand, Australia is committed to lifting female workforce participation. On the other hand, we still see some trying to make it more difficult for women to work.  The most striking example is the ongoing back and forth about the nature and purpose of paid parental leave, but there are plenty of others.

Our failure to resolve these conflicts has real implications for women’s economic security.

In 2009 a House of Representatives inquiry into pay equity and women’s workforce participation found 4 important characteristics:

  • The Australian workforce is highly gender segmented – men and women work in different industries and different occupations or roles
  • Women are also in insecure employment – often working casually.
  • Their work is likely to be interrupted by breaks in paid employment.
  • Women have not fared as well as men in enterprise bargaining or individual contracts. They appear to be employed in workplaces or situations where they have little bargaining power.’
      

The elephant in the room with all of these issues is the heavy burden of caring responsibilities – a burden that usually falls upon women. There is so much frustration about the lack of good quality, secure, part time jobs for working parents.  For many women, workplace flexibility feels like it’s a one way street, with few courtesies extended back to female staff.

The link of all of this to retirement security is pretty straightforward – women:

  • Have lower wages
  • take more breaks from paid employment
  • and have fewer opportunities for advancement over the course of their careers.
       

The result is that their total income over their lifetime is lower than men. And so women find themselves:

  • with less savings,
  • with less superannuation,
  • and with less housing security
       

The maths is devastatingly simple.

If the first broad problem is womens working lives, the second broad problem is the way in which those lives interface with our retirement system.

It is said that our retirement system rests on “three pillars”. Each of these pillars operates differently for the average man than it does for the average woman.

The first pillar of course is the aged pension.  When it was introduced in 1908, it reflected our reputation for innovation in social and political rights. It’s been a central feature of the Australian settlement for more than a century.

Women were eligible for the first Commonwealth pension, and it remains very significant for women now.  At the moment, women comprise 60 percent of recipients of the full aged pension. It’s estimated that thirty five percent of retired women have no superannuation whatsoever. So the aged pension is the only source of income for these women. If we look at this through the gender lens, what this means in practice is that the pension is so important. It operates as one of the key mechanisms for our system to recognise a lifetime’s worth of unpaid women’s work. We have to strenuously resist attempt to wind it back.

Pillar 2 is superannuation. I’ve already talked about the ways that women’s work patterns impact on their ability to accumulate super. It is important to remember that this is not a legacy problem – it is not the case that older women today only have smaller superannuation balances because of the bad old days. Young women today will continue to face the same problems when they retire, because they face the same problems when they work. Women continue to earn less, have fewer career advancement opportunities, take time away from their careers for caring responsibilities, and often return to work part time.

Pillar 3 is voluntary super savings. It is difficult to accumulate wealth when you are earning less. And figures seem to bear this out. Research published earlier last year found that, single Australian women have on average a third less wealth than single men.

It doesn’t end with the three pillars. We also need to think about the broader social safety net – particularly the relationship between health and aged care.  If we want women to feel safe and secure, they need to be able to have confidence that services and care will be secured through a properly funded health and aged care system.

We also need to consider housing, especially since it seems that significantly fewer people will fully own their own homes at retirement. There is some evidence that this is already a particular problem for women–some reports I’ve seen show that in the last few years the number of retirement aged women accessing specialist homelessness services increased by more than a quarter.

The clearest message we’ve heard about housing is that home ownership (or lack of home ownership) is the single greatest predictor of poverty for those surviving on the old age pension. It intersects with all sorts of other social issues.  One of the witnesses at the inquiry was a home care worker. She told us some awful stories about how a lack of housing security interacts with health and aging – older women who are faced with the all of the costs (and physical difficulties!) of moving frequently because of problems finding long term rental accommodation, or women who feel unable to ask their landlords to install ramps so that they can easily access their property or rails so that they can feel secure in the shower.

So what can we do to solve this?

With a problem this complex, there are no simple solutions.

Our report made 19 recommendations in total. The recommendations were pretty comprehensive, ranging from some targeting big and complex policy questions like:

  • reducing the gender pay gap;
  • increasing women’s workforce participation;
  • valuing unpaid care; and
  • reforming of superannuation tax concessions;
      

right through to more targeted recommendations about

  • The method of indexing the age pension; and
  • Increasing financial literacy.
      

We didn’t expect all 19 to be implemented immediately. What we wanted to do was bring together the different pieces of the puzzle so that we had a roadmap for the reforms we should be aiming for over the coming years.

I want to finish by talking about the key opportunities as I see them.

  1. At the heart of this problem is the gender pay gap.

As a majority female profession, you are at the coal face of this struggle. The simple fact is that jobs that are usually performed by women attract less pay than jobs usually performed by men. The Gillard government started the ball rolling in working with unions to fight for equal pay. As you would know, many of those fights are still winding there way through the courts, and there is so much more work to be done. But it is work that everyone in this room is helping with.

The work that you and your union do in improving wages and conditions not only improves women’s working lives right now – it lays the foundation for a more secure retirement.

As you know, the application of the Fair Work Act to gender pay is still in its infancy.

It strikes me that in this parliament, while we're in Opposition, Labor should think hard about whether we can put equal pay on a stronger legislative footing. I think it would require some hard policy thinking - and it's a question I often ask my union sisters about. That's a project I think could be undertaken in collaboration with our unions, and it's one I'm very interested in.

  1. 2.  It seems that one of the real political fights in this parliament is going to be superannuation

After much internal disagreement, the coalition have proposed a superannuation reform package that is being considered by parliament right now. The government has spun this as a package for women, but if we’re honest there’s not much here.

It is important to get this right – men retire with double the superannuation balances as women partly because twice the amount of superannuation tax concessions as women.

What the government has proposed doesn’t go nearly far enough.

The most useful measure they’ve proposed is actually a recycled labour initiative – the Low Income Superannuation Contribution (or LISC). Due to a quirk in how the super and tax system operates, many low income people can end up having to pay more tax on their super than they do on their income. The LISC was a way of fixing that. It had widespread support from unions, industry and experts.  Two thirds of the people who accessed it were women. And the Abbott government cut it, effective 2017.We have now forced the Turnbull government to back down. They have been shamed into keeping it- albeit under a different name. It’s a victory – but it’s not really progress.

At the other end of the income spectrum, there are proposals to limit the massive tax concessions that go to very wealthy people with very large superannuation balances, who of course are predominantly men. The Coalitions measures are a step in the right direction - but they don't go far enough. Labor has proposed measures which go considerably further.

The other measures show how out of touch the coalition are with the needs of ordinary women. One of the key policies, for instance, allows women to make catch up super contributions to make up for the period of time spent out of work. That is, if you have been out of work and you wish to put more than $25,000 voluntarily into your super, you'll be allowed to do so. This measure is not grounded in reality. Industry Super Australia estimates this measure will help less than 2% of women with super accounts. The truth is, its difficult to find extra money to put into your super when, like so many women, you are working part time or earning less than the average wage. This is a measure that we fear will actually benefit wealthy men - and we don't support it. 

During the coming debate about superannuation reforms - we need to do two things. Firstly remind people that this package does not solve the problem. But secondly, make sure that the limited number of measures that are useful are retained, and not watered down any further.

  1. 3. The final priority in this parliament, is that we need to be very mindful about the pension

As I mentioned earlier, since 60% of pension recipients are female, adverse changes will have a disproportionate effect on older women. Unfortunately, it seems adverse changes are just what the government has in mind. Scott Morrison has repeatedly referred to it as ‘welfare’, and has spoken about his ambition to have as many people as possible retire independently. Christian Porter has prefaced his assault on unemployment with a wild statement about the ‘growing burden’ of welfare dependency. Howeowever  the only component that is really growing is the aged pension, and I'm worried about the Coalition's plans for the pension.

We’ve already had to defend the pension against cuts to indexation that would have significantly reduced its value. It’s absolutely critical that we prepare ourselves to spring to its defence when the government makes its inevitable attack. Superannuation was always supposed to be a complement, not a substitute for the aged pension. And it's critical for women that this position is retained.

The next few years

So where to from here?

The key across all of these policy fronts – from super,  to the aged pension – is to take the quite different needs of women into account.

At budget estimates in May I asked Treasury officials what gender modelling they had done about the effect of the government’s superannuation policy. I was stunned to hear they had done none. Women retire with half the super of men, and treasury had not thought it necessary to see whether the government’s super reform package would make the matter better or worse.

We need to be pushing for this thinking to be done – not only by the government, but also by us when we make policy. We need to be vocal and persistent in this demand, and not be afraid to call out our own policy makers. Women have very different economic needs – if you’re not thinking about gender you’re making policy with one eye shut.

You are a key part of that. You are part of the bulwark that keeps women’s workplace wellbeing on the agenda in our newspapers, in our party, and in our parliament. In doing so, you are helping not just your members, but women generally enjoy a more economically secure retirement. I am looking forward to your questions. Thanks.