The middle-class feminist fraud

It’s a little like watching a dog not only walk on its hind legs but also attempt haiku poetry. For the past fortnight or so the Abbott government has been gamely trying to make an argument based on fairness. It’s doing so in the context of its new parental leave policy, under which women would not be able to receive both payments from the Commonwealth scheme and any employer-provided entitlement.

The reason for this policy, we are repeatedly informed, is fairness. It’s simply not just for people who earn good coin to also receive a benefit from the taxpayer.

Gone is Tony Abbott’s talk of ‘fair dinkum paid parental leave’. Instead, we have Scott Morrison ‘getting rid of…an inequity’. In response to a hypothetical about a lawyer receiving six weeks’ paid maternity leave, Morrison answered: ‘She will get the same thing as someone working for the bakery … that’s the important thing.’ Similarly, Joe Hockey concluded that ‘in many cases it’s mostly people who go on parental leave that earn more than $90,000 a year.’ The government has a particular beef with public sector workers: Morrison argued that ‘If you’re drawing down $20,000 from a public sector employer … you don’t get to go back to the well and say can I have another $11,000 please from the taxpayer. If you think that’s a fair thing … you wouldn’t know fairness if it fell on you.’

The government’s claims have been interrogated. For instance, commentators have observed the original scheme was designed to be ‘double-dipped’ and that the about-face from Abbott’s previous advocacy of a six-months-at-full-pay parental leave scheme is inexplicable. Michael Bradley has also pointed out that ‘the median income of all PPL recipients is $47,730, and that of the parents who would no longer qualify is $73,011,’ and suggested that we ‘compare that to the Prime Minister’s recent assertion that an income of $185,000 is not “especially high”.’

Beyond this, though, there’s something very strange in the spectacle of a Coalition government attacking benefits that go to high-earners; a sight that Paula Matthewson has termed a ‘confected class war’.

In Australian public life, the person who observes that some of us earn more than others, or receive favourable tax treatment, will quickly hear cries of ‘envy politics’ from the Liberals and their friends; suggestions that it might be unfair for a well-paid professional to receive more of anything than someone working in a bakery are apt to be derided as ‘class warfare’. For the right, people are to be praised for being ‘aspirational’, not pestered with inconvenient questions about why they have the good fortune to be wealthier than others. Consider the government’s reactions to Labor’s proposed changes to superannuation concessions, which would involve a 15 per cent tax on investment earnings over $75,000 a year. Labor has estimated that this would only affect retirees with assets worth $1.5 million. Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg criticised this proposal as ‘a tax on the middle class, which is already harshly treated by our retirement income system.’

This all adds up to a reasonably consistent message: don’t bag out higher earners because we’re all battlers together. As David Kemp wrote of the Gillard government in 2012, ‘class war rhetoric is distasteful in the extreme. To encourage one part of a community to hate another by unleashing prejudice is surely the depth of political immorality.’

Given the government’s newfound enthusiasm for lobbing words like ‘rort’ around in the general direction of mothers, though, it seems that the above rules simply don’t apply to women. ‘Tradies can be ladies’ observed an exasperated Annabel Crabb; indeed they can, yet it seems broads (or at least, broads with babies) can’t be battlers. Curiouser and curiouser.

This inconsistency is a little uncomfortable to discuss for feminists on the left, who favour a movement which places more emphasis on issues such as poverty, precarity, racism and inequality than on concerns primarily affecting middle-class women. Media-friendly feminism has often been tone-deaf or worse on issues of class or race, and this tendency can be seen in a constant emphasis on the need for affordable childcare to assist mothers to return to work – an emphasis which often entirely overlooks the pay and conditions of the mostly women who work in the childcare sector.

Consider also the popularity of what Eleanor Robertson terms the ‘textbook bandaid solution’ of getting women on corporate boards; a cause that will make no difference whatsoever to the lives of the vast majority of women. ‘Trickle down feminism’ might help some individual women, but would be useless as a broader liberation movement: feminism must not be reduced to a lobby group for privileged professionals who happen to wear skirts. From this perspective, who cares if it’s apparently easier to cry ‘unfair!’ at middle-class women than at middle-class men? The ‘high-earning battler’ narrative is riddled with flaws; why worry that it seems to exclude women?

These are valid points. And yet. It’s still worth asking why women who earn above average wages seem to constitute more attractive targets than their male counterparts (who usually, let’s face it, earn more anyway) – a tendency that as Eva Cox has noted can also be discerned in some of the reactions to Abbott’s original PPL scheme. It’s also notable that although terms like chardonnay socialist or the latte left are gender-neutral, our political lexicon contains no male equivalents for the dismissive term ‘doctor’s wives’ – used to denote wealthy voters who dare to hold progressive views on issues such as asylum seekers, and therefore fail reliably to vote Liberal.

It’s also worth pointing out that terms like ‘middle-class welfare’ are generally used to refer to initiatives such as childcare rebates that are (illogically) seen as relating only to women, instead of, say, the exclusion of the primary residence from capital gains tax. Could it be that government assistance is seen as legitimate when it clearly benefits both men and women, and dodgy when identified only with the latter? Some will argue that a tax concession is qualitatively different to a ‘handout’ on the basis that the former allows you to keep ‘your’ money, while the latter gives you ‘somebody else’s’ – logic that only holds if we accept income levels as some sort of neutral fact of nature. Further, both kinds of measures equally represent a loss to the national exchequer. Writing in a United States context, Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker have described tax concessions as a ‘submerged welfare state for the affluent’.

(A digression: ‘middle-class welfare’ may be a reliable villain in Australian political discussions, but it has also been argued that extending benefits to the middle classes is beneficial as it establishes the principle of universality and helps to solidify support for the welfare state. The late historian Tony Judt wrote that in postwar Europe, the welfare state bound different social classes ‘closer together than ever before’ and gave them ‘a common interest in its preservation and defence’).

Finally, it’s revealing that in these debates employer-provided paid parental leave schemes seem reflexively to be dubbed ‘generous’, phrasing which achieves the triple whammy of undermining the efforts of workers and their unions in bargaining for these entitlements, implying that parental leave constitutes a kind of indulgence (unlike, for instance, sick leave), and suggesting that women should be grateful for whatever they get.

Together with talk of ‘rorts’ and ‘fraud’, such language frames the intense care work parenthood entails as some sort of excuse for a perk, rather than a fundamental part of being human. The devaluing of motherhood matters, and it matters regardless of the social class of the women involved.

That the right (and not only the right) seem happier to pile on middle-class women than their male equivalents is by no means a first-order feminist issue, but it tells us something about the gendered nature of our political discourse. Question the benefits that accrue to men and you’ll likely be accused of ‘envy politics’, but women are fair game. Perhaps they are simply not seen as having all that much to envy.

Sarah Burnside

Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

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  1. The Abbott PPL scheme always had strong opposition internal to the Liberal Party.

    What we observe now is that they (and the ALP) are obsessed with deficit politics, but terrified by the thought of pulling on some of the policy levers—negative gearing, superannuation tax concessions, diesel fuel rebate, income tax brackets, etc—that could seriously impact the Budget.

    They’ve tried and failed to implement other quasi-austere policy, eg the six month wait for the dole. So the PPL scheme moves to the chopping block and gets reduced in scope.

    The decision having been made, the “confected class war” about middle-class recipients of PPL comes about as the easiest way to spin a decision with priorities that are foggy as hell.

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