Last week, I had the privilege of attending part of an APEC inter-ministerial meeting in Seattle at the invitation of Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Office for Women.
During that one day, which brought together the 21 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation member economies, Australia was – in more ways than one – on the gender equality stage. The Matildas’ recent glory as Australia’s most successful football team has stirred important debates back home about how far we have moved from a culture that, let’s be honest, has for too long devalued women’s sports. At the same time, on the global stage, Australia was making an important contribution to advancing gender equality – reigniting a gender responsive budgeting (GRB) spark.
Put simply, GRB is the use of analytical tools as part of routine budget processes to assess and respond to a budget’s potential impact – for the better or the worse – on individuals, based on their gender.
Gender responsive budgeting is going to cause much less of a stir than women’s football. Yet the Albanese government’s prioritisation of GRB reveals much about how it plans to fulfil its commitment to gender equality as a national priority. Gender responsive lawmaking, policymaking and budgeting, which go hand in hand, are essential tools to re-centre rights, close inequality gaps and transparently earmark the public funds invested on gender equality across all portfolios.
In Seattle, I was impressed by what the Australian government was trying to achieve. The decision for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to support the Office for Women to deliver a series of workshops, as part of APEC’s “Policy Partnership on Women and the Economy”, was a smart choice. That one day included a discussion on lessons from practising GRB in the Philippines and Indonesia as well as Australia. The Australian government certainly raised awareness among members and there appeared to be genuine interest among the representatives attending on behalf of the 21 economies.
Why was this such a good choice for Australia? Australia deserves much praise for having been the first government in the world to undertake gender responsive budgeting at a federal level in the 1980s under the Hawke government. At the time, Australia produced a Women’s Budget Statement (WBS), with each Australian government department required to present an account of the gendered impact of their policies and programs for the forthcoming year. Sadly, the WBS was not sustained as a federal government exercise. A change of government in 2013 saw an end to the practice. The process of bringing a gender lens to the budget was taken up by a non-governmental organisation, the National Foundation for Australian Women.
Years on, however, this history gives Australia legs to stand on when it comes to crafting a feminist foreign policy. Australia can use GRB as an opportunity to make gender equality a priority in its overseas engagements. By bringing together nations practising gender responsive budgeting and creating a space to share lessons across APEC economies, Australia is helping to advance an essential tool in the struggle for equality. GRB helps to ensure that governments do not just design laws, policies and budgets for gender equality but are encouraged to develop reasonable and measurable indicators to monitor budget allocations. With these in hand, we can begin to track impact.
But this is not (just) about telling other nations what to do. This is a genuine statement of our country’s own values and principles. Australia has plenty to learn. For starters, Victoria and Queensland are leading the way in practising gender responsive budgeting and offer lessons for the federal government. Second, Australia has no federal law that embeds gender responsive budgeting into the annual national practice of budgeting. Many other economies do – from the Philippines through to Uruguay, from Canada to Spain. It would be good to see a bill tabled in federal parliament to embed the practice of GRB in law during this government’s first term. Third, if the government is really serious, it would invest in upskilling all ministries on gender in order for gender responsive budgeting to be done, consistently and well.
The government seemed to have pre-empted the prioritisation of GRB in having made Katy Gallagher the Minister for Finance, Minister for Women and Minister for the Public Service. Let’s see this government take that opportunity to its optimum and help catalyse a change in approach across all government departments. Building capacity and genuine commitment across the bureaucracy will be key and would provide Australia some good practice to offer our neighbours in the years to come.