It's time to harness angry feminist energy and inject it into welfare policy

hen women turned out in record numbers to protest the ascension of Donald Trump, many marchers raised wider issues about the lack of progress to real equality. The Sydney march was bigger than anything else I’ve seen for many years and, like the others, was diverse including many men and children, not just the usual suspects.

The discontent with mainstream macho/materialist market models was evident in many speakers and banners, so 2017 may be the year for some serious feminist policy input into making societies more civil and equitable.

But how to harness the angry energy to influence change? A possible starting point is to address the mess of our current welfare policies through a feminist lens. Women are the majority of welfare payment recipients, yet the current system has many major problems that neither major party has addressed as illustrated by the unfair debt issues of Centrelink.

The current debacle demonstrates the unacceptably high financial and social costs of tightly means tested, targeted welfare payments, and a very bureaucratised, administratively expensive and socially damaging welfare system. A radical restructure is long overdue. At the same time, there is an increasing international interest in a universal basic income (UBI) model for unconditional payments.

A UBI could increase recognition of social well-being and increase cohesion by recognising the value of time used in unpaid work contributions. As the demand for paid workers is expected to decrease, via both technology and new environmental limits, this would be useful. Given the gender income differences already in place, from a feminist viewpoint, a UBI would adjust most existing gender based income differentials.


Time use studies show clearly differing gender balancing of time “choices”, as women retain most domestic and care roles. A Workplace Gender Equality Agency report shows the difference between the time Australian women and men spend on unpaid care work: 64.4% of their average weekly work compared to 36.1% for men.

Conservatives oppose these changes, and warn of reductions in paid work due to sloth, and believe that humans are just self interested and venal. The more progressive view should be to recognise the positive benefits of funding current and additional unpaid contributions.Women’s time on unpaid care averages out to 139 minutes a day and obviously affects their access to paid work. This has not been part of most public debates on this issue, as the focus has been primarily on the effects on earned income of paid workers.

This type of payment reform would allow recipients to make real choices about how to allocate their time between paid unpaid activities. Raising the status of care and parenting, as well as other community contributions, should address wider inequities.

As this is partly unknown policy territory, the commonwealth should consider piloting the UBI in the Northern Territory as it has been the site of an eight years-plus expensive trial of the BasicsCard. This would create interesting comparisons as a non means-tested UBI is the polar opposite to BasicsCard, which controls access to benefits for Indigenous Australians. Despite considerable government support by both the LNP and ALP governments, the extra control model has so far failed to offer measurable benefits. As the main evaluation stated:

The largest and most in-depth evaluation of income management was the evaluation of New Income Management in the Northern Territory. This found that the program had not achieved its objectives and appears to have created dependence.

Using the NT would offer interesting comparisons and show whether both Indigenous and gender inequities can be positively affected by a UBI. It could include some Indigenous communities, now under threat of being closed as “uneconomically viable” because of lack of paid work. These communities could use such payments to continue traditional and creative engagements , similar to the the former Community Development Employment Projects payments that often showed positive results.

Rather than risking extended bad outcomes by adopting the cashless welfare card model, government could use the NT plus other trial sites to develop a serious research model that would offer an evidence-based model that could create social wellbeing and more civil societies. The payment of income that is not paid work related would be a serious radical change with many gender advantages.

According to the WGEA paper the monetary value of unpaid care work in Australia has been estimated to be $650.1bn, the equivalent to 50.6% of GDP.

However, unpaid care work is not included in the calculation of the GDP. Aside from devaluing care work and thereby reinforcing gender inequity, there is also a tendency to obscure and ignore the many other unpaid contributions people make via community activities, sport, culture and creativity, let alone time for good social relationships.

Other groupings like local sustainable co-operatives, creative ventures offer examples of how many people could benefit by re-allocating their time across paid and unpaid tasks. A pilot would show what benefits occur if people are financially okay and free of complex time consuming and degrading demands to satisfy administrative procedures. We need to be bold in seeking out possibilities and a gender lens can be very useful.