Transcript by The Hon Kate Ellis MP

Tax Forum and Women on the Frontline

Program: The Showdown, Sky News, with Peter Van Onselen

PETER VAN ONSELEN: That was Prime Minister Julia Gillard giving attendants at the Tax Forum a lesson in balancing the budget. One wonders whether she’s had a similar conversation with Wayne Swan. This Government has yet to balance a budget. We’ve got promises of it in 2012-13. We’ll see how we go on that front.

A couple of hours ago I spoke to Kate Ellis, Minister in the Labor Government, about a range of issues, including some discussion of her portfolio area being discussed at the Tax Forum and also this notion of women on the frontline, announced by Stephen Smith last week. I wanted to get her thoughts on that as well. Let’s take a look.

Minister, the Tax Forum is in full swing, if you could call it that. Tomorrow’s the second and final day. Your portfolio area of childcare is being looked at. Now, some people want a tax-deductible situation instead of a rebate. The Government opposes that. Why?

KATE ELLIS: Well, look, this is all about engaging in discussion and debate but I have to say that I’m really surprised at some of the women’s groups that are advocating for deductibility when we actually know that the overwhelming majority of families would be receiving considerably less under deductibility than they do under the rebate and of course, they’d be waiting to receive any such payment once a year instead of getting it fortnightly like they do now.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But I think the issue is that if you see childcare as, in a sense, a work benefit and it’s about people being allowed to be in work while their child is being cared for, then if it’s tax deductible it covers it right across the spectrum, rather than as some sort of Government intervention.

KATE ELLIS: Well, I think the issue is that the Government funds childcare payments because we want to increase participation and because we know how important those early years are. Now, the reality is that we want to make childcare more affordable as a result. Now, for many women in particular who currently are earning under the tax-free threshold, under deductibility, they’d actually be receiving zero assistance.

But we also know that even women in the top tax rate, the overwhelming majority would be receiving less than the fifty per cent that they’re getting through their rebate if they were taxed at forty-five cents in the dollar.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But you could certainly have some sort of a system that still included a rebate for disadvantaged people financially but the benefit surely of going to a situation where it is a tax deduction is that it just keeps Government out of the affairs of people. It’s a tax deduction, it’s an issue between an individual and their accountant, quite frankly, as they sought themselves out rather than having some sort of Government bureaucracy administer it.

KATE ELLIS: Well, I think the reality is that this is a Government intervention. The Government is intervening to say we want to assist Australian families in the most appropriate and in the most helpful way and study after study, no matter how you cut it, it shows that a rebate is a much more effective way of doing that than deductibility which is why we’ve increased the rebate, increased the cap on the rebate and we’re now funding a far greater level of childcare assistance than any Australian Government previously does.

Either people want the Government to play a role here or they don’t and what I’m hearing is that people like Government playing a role and know that it’s really important in terms of our overall workforce participation but also in ensuring that Australian families can access childcare no matter what their income.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright. Putting to one side for or against the two methodologies, you mentioned at the start that you were surprised that some women’s groups are actually advocating this. Why are they in terms of the submissions that they’ve put forward?

KATE ELLIS: Well, a number of them have been from higher income women’s groups. A number of them who have been saying that there is a very small percentage of Australian families who are reaching the childcare cap of seven-thousand-five hundred. These are normally higher earning families. They’re normally inner metropolitan families. So some of those groups have been advocating for this change.

But what we know is that this change would not deliver for families overall. It would deliver for a tiny, tiny percentage when what we want is to ensure that children, no matter where they are across Australia, receive the benefits of quality early childhood education and care

PETER VAN ONSELEN: One final question on this topic because I want to move on but isn’t this what’s wrong with the Tax Forum where we’ve finished day one today, we’ve got day two tomorrow. You’re saying that it’s interesting to have debate on this subject but at the end of the day, the Government’s got a closed mind. It doesn’t want to move away from a rebating system. That is the issue with why people, I think, look at this forum and say this is a bit of a joke, at the end of the day it’s a gab fest, not something that’s likely to yield results.

KATE ELLIS: Look, I don’t accept that and I’m simply stating my view on the benefits for a different range of women. But I think what’s really important is that we do have the opportunity to have to discussions, sometimes tough discussions, and to see things from different people’s perspectives. So I’m sure that there are peopleā€¦

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Are you open to changing the Government’s line on this though or is it just an end of story rebate, forget tax deduction?

KATE ELLIS: Well, look, I think we’ve made clear that we want to increase childcare affordability across the board and that deductibility is not an effective way of doing that. Studies have consistently shown that and I’d be interested in engaging in those discussions with people tomorrow but I know that this is an issue which there are many people within the women’s sector who are also having this debate and putting forward that this isn’t the right way to go.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright. Another topic, quite a different topic, you’ve got responsibility for Status of Women is one of your portfolio areas. Last week we saw it announced that women are going to be allowed on the frontline of the Defence Forces. Now, I assume obviously that you’re in favour of that. Devil’s advocate position to that is is just simply that how important is this really, given the incredibly small number of women, if any, that are likely to physically be in a position where they can pass the kind of tests to see them fighting in the SAS in Afghanistan, for example.

KATE ELLIS: Well, I for one am in favour of removing unnecessary barriers to women’s participation across the board no matter what that’s in and I don’t know why it is that we would put in place a ban on women taking up these roles if women show that they can reach these positions on merit and that they have all of the qualities and the expertise needed to be the best people for the job, then clearly any such ban in my view is outdated and we need to move on from it.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: I’ve got to ask the questions but I’m going to make quite clear that I actually agree with you but to play devil’s advocate on this particular issue, this is about symbolism more than practical outcomes, given the realities of how few women physically would be able to pass these tests. I think I saw one person, an expert in this area, making the point that it’s really only Olympic athletes and such that would be able to pass the kind of tests if you’re a woman that the men are expected to at the moment. So that makes it much more about the symbolism. Would you agree with that?

KATE ELLIS: No. Look, I don’t think anyone’s arguing that every woman across Australia wants to or is capable of serving on our frontlines. I think that that’s a ridiculous proposition but I think the argument is why put in place an unnecessary extra hurdle and one which would be preventing women who might be qualified to fulfil that position. But too we’re in a position where we need to recruit and retain people in our Defence Forces.

Now, in order for us to have the best quality Australian Defence Force, then we need to be encouraging as many people as possible who have got the capabilities to be able to play their full role there. So this is in the best interests of everyone.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: The headline grabber in this debate has been about the issue of women taking up frontline positions but probably the more important one in many ways which hasn’t received as much attention is the reform that would see women able to take up key positions as heads of Defence, you know, head of the Army, head of the Navy and so forth. Am I right in that?

KATE ELLIS: Well, at the moment, there are ninety-three per cent of positions within our Defence Forces which are open for women. These reforms would remove the barriers to those existing seven per cent.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Okay. So in other words, now as a result of these reforms, one of them is that a woman could actually head up the Defence Force now. I mean, I tend to think that if you want to take symbolism out of it, that’s the more important reform here, just like we’ve had a female Commissioner of Police out of Victoria, we can now have a situation where the head of the Military or indeed the head of the Armed Forces more broadly can be a woman.

KATE ELLIS: Well, absolutely but we also need to make very clear within our Defence Forces, as within our community, that we’re moving in from outdated notions of what are traditional gender roles and we’re making sure that people can step forward based on their abilities. You’re quite right. That involves leadership positions, it involves serving in a number of different positions and it means making sure that we truly remove those barriers and have a system that’s based on merit which also with it brings important culture change which I think everyone would argue is overdue.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: One woman in a leadership position that’s having a tough time of it at the moment is the Prime Minister. The polling doesn’t lie to that. Now, she’s forging ahead with some big reforms where the people agree or disagree with them but what is your view on the barriers that she is facing as a woman in that role? I know that politicians are loath to bell this issue but at the end of the day, is your view, do you agree with me on this, that she faces a tougher run in the position she’s in frankly because she’s a woman and not a man?

KATE ELLIS: Look, I think that you face a very tough run as Prime Minister of Australia no matter what your gender is. Obviously being the first, then she’s carving a path for future women which is providing some more difficulty. But I think on the whole, it’s a tough job for anyone around. There is a very small section of our community which, I think, has some outdated views that they need to get over in terms of accepting a female Prime Minister.

But I don’t think that that’s reflective of the majority of Australians at all. I don’t think it’s generally much of an issue.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But then you go to something like the At Home with Julia series. I mean, I know that John Howard, even Kevin Rudd, came in for their fair amount of ridicule, Kevin Rudd on that series indeed itself. But I just think the way that Julia Gillard is portrayed, our Prime Minister, on that satire is done in a more disrespectful way, in a different disrespectful way, than would happen if she was a man. Do you agree with that?

KATE ELLIS: Well, I think the main problem with that series is that it was desperately unfunny. That’s a pretty big problem if you’re putting yourself forward as a comedy. I’ve got to say, I watched the first episode and I didn’t tune in again after that. But you know, I think that the Prime Minister is a big enough woman that she can deal with some unfunny comedians. I think she’s got much bigger worries than that.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: What are those bigger worries?

KATE ELLIS: Well, I think obviously that, and we’ve got some pretty serious issues ahead of the Australian people which I would imagine the Prime Minister would lose much more sleep over than a TV show which kind of tried to have a crack at her and fell down pretty spectacularly and was pretty widely criticised as a result of its content.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright, fair enough. Kate Ellis, Minister Kate Ellis, we appreciate you joining us on Showdown. Thanks for your company.

KATE ELLIS: Thanks, Peter.