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Episode 5: Julie McKay on rebalancing equality and wellbeing

19 May 2021

Episode 5: Julie McKay on rebalancing equality and wellbeing

In this episode of the PwC Federal Budget Podcast, we look at where meaningful impact was made in the Budget, if it really did deliver for women, and the role of equality in Australia’s recovery from COVID-19.


Episode transcript

Laura Jayes: Hello, I'm Laura Jayes and welcome to the PwC Federal Budget podcast. Last October's budget was based on economic survival, it was designed to soften the blow of COVID-19 related impacts. Now in a position of strength, Australia has gained a unique opportunity to increase its focus on diversity, equality and wellbeing, address structural inequality and rebuild a fairer country.

I caught up with PwC’s chief Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing Officer Julie McKay to discuss where meaningful impact was made in this budget if it really did deliver for women and the role of equality in Australia's recovery from COVID-19. So is this budget a step forward for diversity, equality and wellbeing, or is there still a long way to go? Let's find out.

Laura Jayes: Julie McKay, thanks so much for talking to us today. We've just seen the budget handed down and often we're looking at the dollars and cents in the budget. But what should we take notice of when it comes to diversity, inclusion and well-being?

Julie McKay: There's a lot in this year's budget as it relates to diversity, inclusion and well-being. I think of particular note, the investment that's been made around mental health and suicide prevention is particularly significant. After the year that we've had the cumulative impacts, I suspect, of the health and economic uncertainty of the past 12 to 18 months is going to be unknown for a while yet. But what we do know is that on just about all measures, people are reporting having their mental health and stress levels worsened in the last period, particularly for me, one of the stats that stuck out was 74 percent of young people saying that their mental health had worsened during that period. So I think that significant investment from the government will be very strongly welcomed. 

I was really pleased to see the women's budget statement come through. I think in an ideal world, we would see a full gender analysis of all budget measures, but in the absence of that, a detailed budget statement that gives us the ability to start to understand the impact of different budget measures on women is really important. And it's something that we haven't had access to in the previous few budgets. And the third area for me, I think, is around aged care again in response to the royal commission recommendations, we've seen a really significant uplift in funding. 

Laura Jayes: Julie the government had flagged that the NDIS had become unsustainable, but they have committed to fully funding it in the budget.

Julie McKay: For a lot of Australians, myself included, the moment where Treasurer Frydenberg actually said under the coalition, the NDIS will always be fully funded, was actually quite an emotional moment because for the families that are and the individuals that are accessing support on the NDIS, that constant fear that the support may not be there, that the funding may not be there year to year is something that takes a significant toll. 

So I think it is really important that we pause and recognise the very significant nature of a statement of that nature. There was absolutely a commitment of additional $13.2 billion over four years to ensure that people with significant and permanent disabilities were able to benefit from the NDIS. I think the challenge still remains and the concerns the sector is raising is around whether or not the NDIS is on track, particularly concerns around independent mandatory assessments and how people are actually getting access to the scheme. 

We were pleased to see the establishment of the new disability focused early child care program, because that's an area that we know has been a real gap and parents have been flagging that getting their children into appropriate early learning is a really critical part of that early support. But I also was concerned that there wasn’t additional support that I could find for the employment of people with a disability. And again, there's a piece here that's around government responsibility, but there's also a piece on all of us, PwC included, around our responsibilities as big employers to ensure that we're playing our part in giving people with a disability opportunities to access meaningful work.

Laura Jayes: Mental health we saw a further $2 billion down payment in this space, it goes to further Headspace centres, but also suicide prevention.

Julie McKay: It's really important that the different agencies that focus on different aspects of mental health and different population groups have very different needs in this space. So receive targeted support and targeted funding. I think it's fantastic that there has been the investment over the last couple of years in youth mental health. But I remain concerned about some of our other diverse groups, for example, the LGBTI community, our first nations Australians, and ensuring that the level of funding through mental health targeted services is both retained and increased in the years ahead. 

That said, I think there's also some intersectional issues that need to be considered. And so one of the things that we spoke to our clients a lot about in the year, in the year just gone was the impact of racism. We saw that the Black Lives Matter campaign around the world really start a new conversation around racism or renewed conversation around racism. But perhaps in the budget, we're not seeing the link between the mental health impacts of issues like racism and so there's more to do in that space. But I think overall, increasing access to services, decreasing the stigma associated with mental health, which comes by virtue of us all having these conversations. I can't imagine 5 or 10 years ago us even having a national conversation around suicide prevention and mental health at the scale that we're now able to have it and that's in part due to moments like the budget and investments like the budget has just made.

Laura Jayes: The focus on women in the budget was quantified at $3.4 billion. It included $1.9 billion for economic security and $1.1 billion for women's safety. It feels significant but will it deliver?

Julie McKay: So the focus on women, I think is really important, and one of the things after the last budget that we spoke to the government a lot about was the investment that had been made in infrastructure and job creation and there being some risks around that, that the jobs that were created were created in traditionally male dominated industries. And what we've seen both through the women's budget statement being much more specific around where some of those traineeship programs and funding programs have been allocated is that there has actually been quite a strong gender split of those allocations. 

But new investments into women's leadership development programs, into STEM qualifications, a significant part of the budget investment in women this year was around domestic and family violence. And again, I'd be shocked if there were too many Australians who thought that that was not a necessary investment. That will allow frontline services and support services to be able to provide additional care, to be able to provide additional accommodation. It will also provide additional funding into the justice system, which, again, we've seen through COVID can work really differently to how it has worked more traditionally. 

However, the funding allocation was about a quarter of what the sector has asked for. And again, I know it's easy to kind of add up all of these additional investments and ask and get to an impossible outcome but on an issue of fundamental safety, we still have to really face into some of the challenges around housing, homelessness experienced by families experiencing domestic and family violence, and also some of the accountability and justice issues surrounding the perpetrator where we haven't still seen the level of funding or programmatic investment that will be required to actually prevent domestic and family violence. 

I think the other point here is that the sector has been systemically underfunded for decades and so the funding that that was announced in this year's budget goes some way to addressing that and acknowledging the systemic underfunding that has taken place

Laura Jayes: And one of the biggest areas of spending on services for this Government, as recommended by the royal commission, was on aged care. It does fall short slightly with what the royal commission did recommend, but it does go a long way.

Julie McKay: Look, I think the funding will be very well received by the sector, not just in terms of the additional home care packages and additional supports available for residential care facilities. But I think there's a recognition in the significance of the investment that the recommendations of the royal commission will be addressed and will be taken seriously. The challenge is always when you get these budget numbers down to individuals and individual situations and you find that in, for example, Canberra, when we talk about 80,000 home care packages over two years in Canberra, what we're talking about is 400 places. And we know that there's about 1200 people who are currently in need of additional homecare support. And so that gap between those who will be able to access those packages and those who are needing them will still be there and will still be there in a really significant number. 

And so how we actually support that sector to continue to train workers, to continue to build capability, to continue to find efficiencies without cutting the really important care element is going to be critical.

Laura Jayes: Overall, this budget has made progress, if we could, to return to the women's budget for a moment. The biggest down payment there is $1.7 million on childcare. Is this the Government recognising it more as a productivity issue than a welfare one?

Julie McKay: I have this moment everytime someone says childcare is a women's issue, that I kind of pause and really struggle, because I think fundamentally, for as long as we actually see childcare as a women's issue, we actually perpetuate the problem, which is that women can only work if everything at home is otherwise taken care of. But if I can put that aside, because that perhaps is a bit of a derail, I think the additional investment, again, will be really welcomed. 

I'm sure there are lots of individuals for whom it will not be enough to cut through that challenge in order for me to actually be able to access meaningful work, the care I need is above and beyond what the subsidies will provide for. But in removing the childcare subsidy cap and increasing the funding for second children, there will obviously be a huge number of families who will be able to get additional support and access support that may not have in the past. And so it can only be a positive step to what we know is one of the main barriers for women's workforce participation.

Laura Jayes: There was also a focus on women's safety and health, domestic violence is one of those. There was a lot of more money funding put into frontline services, how important is that to deliver some of the grants and the funding that women need and can access?

Julie McKay: Domestic violence, frontline services and the workers who work in those services are some of the most courageous, strategic and brilliant Australians. Many of those workers have worked in the industry for their entire careers, and they've done that in part as paid workers and in part it's their night weekend volunteer roles. 

Many of them open their own homes to support people when their services are at capacity. Many of them are full-time advocates as well as full-time workers in the sector, in the industry. So it's really important that we acknowledge the work that that sector does to provide safety to people. And we may never fully know the extent to which we'll always know things like bed nigts and accommodation numbers, but we may never know the lives that were actually saved by that sector.

Laura Jayes: Covid has been terrible in terms of setting us back in so many ways, but there's also opportunities to reshape the way we do things. Do you see this is an opportunity now, particularly when it comes to jobs for women? The job training program I'm thinking of more specifically.

Julie McKay: There will always be a need to ensure that programs and initiatives like JobTrainer to have a diversity lens not just for women, but ensuring that people who come from different cultural backgrounds or people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTI, people who are First Nations Australians have access and opportunity to be part of those programs.

And for some of those groups, the opportunity for those programs to be delivered in a part-time or flexible way, noting that they may not be able to commit to a full-time traditional traineeship or program. And so that the numbers are looking good in the first year, and I think it was 56 per cent of people who had access to the JobTrainer programs were women. But more is going to be needed to ensure that we keep attracting female talent into these programs and then also making sure that the program is connected to a pathway into employment that's meaningful and sustainable.

Laura Jayes: What about social housing? Labor's budget in reply did put this on the map.

Julie McKay: Social housing is a huge opportunity. I think in Australia, again, we've been talking about homelessness and housing and the National Housing and Homelessness Strategy for literally decades. And I don't think any government or any NGO private sector organisation has the answers in this space. 

But what we know is that the fastest growing group of homeless Australians is older women. I think when you say that and when you think about that, I think I think most Australians would feel fairly uncomfortable. We know that women escaping domestic violence and families escaping domestic violence is another growing and very substantial group of homeless Australians. 

So something in the model of our current homelessness and housing system isn't working, is not delivering the outcomes. We've got far too many people on waiting lists. We've got far too many people who are not even counted by the numbers because they might be living in unstable accommodation or living in cars. They might be living temporarily with friends. So the scale of the problem is also, I suspect, undercounted social housing offers us another. It's not an inserted solution. It's an as well solution. And again, we've seen in some communities, social housing have really significant impacts on the experience of getting people into safe and affordable, medium to long term housing, which then has a whole lot of benefits and flow on impacts to their ability to to maintain employment, to their ability to to save and ultimately exit the sort of housing system.

Laura Jayes: In any Budget, there's always competing headlines and there's a number of smaller initiatives and grants that didn't get the media coverage that they probably deserve. That will have a great impact. What are they?

Julie McKay: One of the ones I think that was really important was the commitment to First Nations womens’ scholarships. There was a commitment made last year to the Clontarf Foundation, but that targeted young men. And so addressing that and actually ensuring that young women were part of that picture as well was really important. And that's around year 12 attainment. There was some specific programs around LGBTI mental health and wellbeing, again, small in number, but really important for the communities that they will ultimately impact. And some of the investment that I think is being made around sexual harassment prevention and workplace sexual harassment. Again, I would have loved to have seen bigger numbers attached to it, but I think the symbolism of a Federal Government calling out those smaller investments in the Federal Budget and actually saying this is the start of a different conversation will be really impactful for Australia into the future.

Laura Jayes: And what's missing from the Budget? What would you have liked to have seen?

Julie McKay: So I was hoping to see some parental leave reforms. So when we think about the Government's parental leave scheme, it still does not have superannuation attached to it. I think that would be a step to closing the lifetime earnings gap for women, but also extending the support to include secondary carers, particularly male carers, who we know in those early months of a child's life that the patterns of women as carers and males as breadwinners are reinforced by many of the policies that we have in place. 

Sexual harassment, there was some acknowledgement of the need to implement the respect work recommendations and some funding associated with how the Government will actually seek to do that. But I think acknowledging the scale of sexual harassment in this country and in all workplaces, there's much more that needs to be done. 

I was also hoping to see some targeted funding for a national anti-racism strategy that really started to try and frame up how we could as a society address the issue of systemic racism. And related to that acknowledgement of and steps towards addressing Aboriginal deaths in custody, which again has been in the spotlight over the last 12 months very significantly, but no immediate response or targeted funding to really hit pause and say, how are we going to make sure that our last 30 years doesn't become the next 30 years?

Laura Jayes: The Budget isn't the only opportunity for a government to make decisions around diversity, inclusion and wellbeing. So where would you suggest the Government needs to head towards in an election year?

Julie McKay: In a global context, Australia has an opportunity to be an absolute world leader around all aspects of equality and diversity. We've got one of the strongest legislative frameworks for human rights and equality that exists. And so fundamentally, going back to basics around the work that our Human Rights Commission was established to do around ensuring that the sort of social inclusion aspects of the programs that we're thinking about in the spends that we're making are front and centre. I think the key is keeping equality, human rights and wellbeing at the centre to set Australia on a path that we can genuinely continue to be proud of and where we can genuinely say that that people had fair, safe, healthy and meaningful laws.

Laura Jayes: Julie McKay, thanks so much for your time.

Julie McKay: Thank you.

Laura Jayes: Thank you for listening to the 2021 PwC Federal Budget podcast, we hope you enjoyed our commentary. For additional in-depth analysis, head, where you find articles and information about the 2021 federal budget and what it means for the economy, our society and you. 

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Contact us

Julie McKay

Chief Diversity, Inclusion & Wellbeing Officer, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 (7) 3257 5436

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