anthony albanese
Anthony Albanese makes his 2020 Budget reply speech (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

A budget that blows half a trillion dollars on budget deficits, income tax cuts and business handouts, along with a dollop of infrastructure investment is a tough one to criticise for an opposition. But Anthony Albanese has zeroed in on a key weakness: its failure to support women.

The shrillness and defensiveness of Scott Morrison in response to criticisms of the budget is a signal that an opposition that has struggled to make its mark during the pandemic has found a real sore spot for a government that has few women in senior domestic portfolios.

Not that Albanese’s budget reply wasn’t heavy on the blokeyness. The Liberals might play at interventionist industry policy but Labor is the real deal. A National Rail Manufacturing Plan to build rollingstock in Australia. A $20 billion plan to upgrade the electricity grid via a bespoke power transmission infrastructure company. Apprentice employment requirements for Commonwealth projects.

Let’s do the numbers: the transport equipment manufacturing workforce is 17% women. Heavy and civil engineering employs 18% women. And in 2018, around 25% of apprenticeship commencements were female — a decline from previous years. If the government’s recovery efforts are pitched at blokey industries, Labor is every bit as much and more.

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But the dramatic expansion of the childcare subsidy proposed by Albanese — removing the annual family cap, lifting the maximum subsidy rate to 90% and lifting tapering thresholds significantly higher so that all but the wealthiest families will benefit — at a cost of $6 billion over four years places Labor in clear contrast to the government.

The best the government could manage in response to the childcare announcement was to send the risible Jane Hume out to warn it would have “perverse outcomes” and that Labor hadn’t explained how it would pay for it.

Yes, you read that right, a minister in a government that is in the process of borrowing a trillion dollars to fund a decade of deficits is demanding its opponents explain how a program will be paid for.

The indifference to women in the budget emerged on Wednesday and yesterday not from Labor but within the media — prompting a cack-handed intervention by the prime minister’s office that created the unifying hashtag #crediblewomen — and from respected, and certainly credible, independent groups like the Grattan Institute, led by one of Australia’s best economists, Danielle Wood.

It was already established well ahead of the budget that the government’s tax cuts strongly favoured men over women.

The government was woefully unprepared to respond to this, and Scott Morrison, reverting to the thin-skinned, scrutiny-loathing political persona he constantly showed before the pandemic, lashed out in anger at criticisms of the budget yesterday. Asked about older workers being left behind, Morrison accused budget critics of wanting to “set young people against older people, women against men, jobs in one sector versus jobs in another sector — they are the voices of division that will undermine the future economic prosperity of all Australians”.

This is an unusual first in Australian political rhetoric — suggesting that examining and questioning why the government has prioritised some industries and jobs over others, and some demographics ahead of others, in spending a truly staggering sum of borrowed money, is divisive.

Albanese’s announcement echoed a proposal from the Grattan Institute that a significantly greater childcare subsidy form part of the government’s recovery plan, in order to remove the significant disincentive for women to work extra hours when they hit the annual cap. But it also adroitly exploits a feature of Scott Morrison’s political performance.

The prime minister has deliberately cultivated a suburban dad persona, complete with twee cubby-building photos, as a core part of his image. But it’s very blokey, an aspect reinforced by the lack of high-profile women in his domestic political team. Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds may occupy senior portfolios, but they are rarely seen by voters.

In an attempt to remedy that, Morrison has promoted the staggeringly inept Michaelia Cash to the position of deputy leader in the Senate, as Simon Birmingham replaces Mathias Cormann as Senate leader. Cash is almost as much of a scandal-magnet as Angus Taylor, and prone to remarkable misjudgment, but now joins the government leadership team.

But that’s inside the bubble, as Morrison likes to call it. Outside it, the perception Scott Morrison is only interested in male jobs and male-dominated industries have a real foundation.