Earlier this week, the Australian Senate passed the Treasury Laws Amendment (Axe the Tampon Tax) Bill 2018, which would eliminate the goods and services tax on “tampons, pads, liners, cups, sponges and other products used in connection with menstruation.” These products are currently taxed at a rate of 10%. (The Australian goods and services tax is akin to state sales tax in the U.S.)
The bill now moves to Australia’s House of Representatives, where it is expected to be voted down by conservatives.
One Australian law professor has called the tampon tax debate a “distraction” and says (here) that women’s rights advocates should focus instead on building a stronger tax base. I would say that it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. One can argue for a broader tax base (i.e., that more products should be subject to the goods and services tax) while also advocating the repeal of the tampon tax. Why? Because there is no comparable product that men must purchase and pay tax on in order to go to school, work and otherwise engage in public life simply because of an involuntary biological process. That’s not a “distraction;” that’s an issue of basic justice.
The Australian tax professor is quoted here as saying, “Why not say that all secondary schools and health clinics should dispense free tampons? If you’re worried about helping low income women – especially young women – why not do that?” I’m in favor of that, and I recognize that a strong tax base is needed to provide the funds for free menstrual hygiene products. But the availability of free menstrual hygiene products (such as is the case in NYC public schools, jails and homeless shelters) is separate from the question of whether it is equitable (or even lawful) to tax a product that is used overwhelmingly by women because they are women.
In the Sydney Morning Herald (here), economics writer Jessica Irvine asks, “[W]hy not use the revenue raised from taxing tampons – or forgoing personal income tax cuts – to help fund cheaper childcare, assisting young women to take up their rightful – and equal – place in the workforce?” In my view, using tampon tax revenue to subsidize childcare forces women to bear a disproportionate burden in paying for services that arguably should be funded by all taxpayers. Ms. Irvine’s suggestion follows in the footsteps of the UK’s move to allocate tampon tax revenue to “women’s charities” that provide refuge for victims of domestic violence, for example, essentially forcing women to pay for their own own care if they are abused. That is just part of the same old discriminatory story of privatizing responsibility for women’s needs.
If all taxpayers were to be forced to pay a tax (or if all taxpayers did not receive an income tax cut) for the purpose of subsidizing childcare, then the analysis is different. The tax burden would be shared by people of all genders and subsidized childcare benefits all people. That would move the needle on gender equality.
I’ll be watching the Australian legislature with interest.