A (Not So) Terrible Tampon Tax?
“Is there anything more twisted than charging GST on pads and tampons?”
“Huh?” Jack didn’t even bother to look up from his breakfast. He enjoyed working at the Australian Taxation Office but had no desire to discuss tax when he was at home.
“Goods and Services Tax on pads and tampons. The government making money out of women’s suffering. It’s blatant gender discrimination.”
“That’s just the way it works, love. A flat ten percent on everything. Fair and simple.” “But there’s no GST on things like condoms and sunscreen.” Ruby was like a bulldog once
she latched onto an issue that she was passionate about.
“They’re health goods.”
“And incontinence pads are GST-free. How are sanitary pads any different to them?” Her voice was tinged with indignation.
“Incontinence pads are medical aids. As far as I’m aware, menstruation isn’t an illness or a disability.” Jack took a sip of his GST-free coffee, savouring the momentary silence while his daughter worked out her next line of attack. He was all too aware of the arbitrary way in which some GST exemptions had been applied, but was confident that he could win a tax debate with a thirteen year old.
“What about nappies?” asked Diana, returning from putting on a load of washing.
Jack was tempted to pretend that he had an early meeting now that his wife was getting involved. He’d been captivated by her rebellious streak when they dated in college – but that was a long time ago. She was nearly trampled by a horse once while protesting against the introduction of university fees. “Nappies attract GST,” he replied under his breath.
“So, if a baby wets itself, that’s normal. But if my father does, it’s a medical emergency.” “Look, GST is very complicated. I didn’t make up the rules.”
“Yes, but now you do! That’s one of the reasons why you wanted to work for the ATO. To change the system from within.”
“No, you thought it would give me the opportunity to change the system.” Jack sighed. It wasn’t just the GST rules that were complicated. Conversations with friends and family had become more troublesome since he’d switched from being a suburban accountant doing tax returns to a job working on tax policy. It was less stressful than running a small business but he hadn’t counted on everyone deciding that he was responsible for every quirk and inconsistency in the Australian tax system. He copped an especially hard time from his mates at the pub. And from neighbours and casual acquaintances while he stood in line at the supermarket. “Why does this widget cost so much?” they would ask. “I don’t know. Ask Jack.”
“You said the GST was simple,” Ruby reminded him. “Fair and simple.”
Usually, Jack admired his daughter’s tenacity – but his tolerance was wearing thin today. He was cornered and retaliated with the spiel that he had rolled out many times before. “It would’ve been simple if there weren’t so many exemptions. Either way, it’s better than it was before the introduction of GST. Wholesale Sales Tax on goods like toilet paper was 22 percent – but could be anywhere from zero to 45 percent. And there were all sorts of anomalies. For example, toothbrushes were exempt but toothpaste wasn’t.”
Ruby sat up straight and glared at her father. “Just because it’s better than it used to be, doesn’t make it okay to treat tampons as luxury items.”
Jack didn’t respond. He felt like he was being grilled at a Senate Estimates hearing. Looking down at the table, he noticed some pieces of dried fruit in his bowl of muesli. They reminded him about the debate over candied peel and glacé fruit. One was GST-free and the other was not. There was no escape.
Diana knew Jack well enough to recognise when he was feeling vulnerable. “Ruby’s right. It’s not like we go around dangling gold-plated tampons from our ears. Who decided that pads and tampons aren’t essential?”
“No-one decided that they’re not essential. They’re consumables. Just like toilet paper, soap, and shampoo. All important and all taxed the same. Ten percent. It’s just the GST. Not the luxury tax that we put on expensive cars.”
“But food is consumable and lots of foods are GST-free.” Diana was a formidable opponent.
Jack had won very few arguments in nearly twenty years of marriage.
“Fresh food.” Jack’s authoritative response made him feel like a total hypocrite. How could candied fruit be considered fresh?
“It’s not like women can put off buying pads and tampons when they’re broke. What if we had to choose between plain rolled oats and tampons one month or your fancy eco-muesli? Would you prefer that the girls and I go tampon-free?”
“My choice of muesli is irrelevant. GST applies to essential goods and services, as well as non-essential ones. That’s what makes it hard to avoid. It’s why economists call it a good tax.”
“It’s not a good tax if it’s illogical or discriminatory,” said Diana.
“Yeah,” added Ruby. “I reckon we should call it the Bads and Services Tax.”
“I can’t understand why the government doesn’t just get rid of the tampon tax and be done with it,” said Scarlett, without taking her eyes off her smartphone screen. Jack had assumed that his other daughter was too engrossed in her social media feed to get involved. Now it was three against one.
“If the government exempted everything that people considers to be essential, then it wouldn’t be able to collect enough money to run the country and pay for schools and hospitals and…”
“No buts, Ruby!” It was taking all of Jack’s self-control to resist the urge to hurl his bowl of muesli across the room. “For most women, it would only save them enough to buy a few cups of coffee each year. And that’s only if companies passed on the savings to women in perpetuity. But there’s no guarantee that they will. It’s hard to police and the cost of compliance and litigation might outweigh any potential savings.”
“But it’s a matter of principle.” Tears welled up in Ruby’s eyes. “It would reassure women that they deserve to be treated fairly and with respect.”
Jack’s tone mellowed. He spent his days arguing that reducing income tax rates and income splitting didn’t help people on low incomes and writing briefs about the impact of cutting family allowances and childcare rebates. “Unfortunately, removing GST on tampons and pads won’t magically get rid of gender inequality. There are lots of things about the tax system that I would love to change, but the tampon tax doesn’t rate on my list of priorities. However, that doesn’t mean that providing access to affordable sanitary products isn’t important.”
“So, why can’t the government give women who are unemployed a few extra dollars each month?” asked Ruby.
“And why not subsidise the cost of environmentally-friendly options like organic cotton tampons, reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups?” added Diana. “And direct the money raised from GST on pads and tampons to things like women’s refuges and domestic violence services?”
“That’s not how taxes and welfare payments work. And why should women pay for the refuges if most of the offenders are men?”
“Well, you come up with some ideas then. You’re the tax policy guru.”
“Look, I agree that the GST has a disproportionate impact on people with less discretionary income…”
“So you admit that it’s unfair?” Ruby put her hands on her hips and stuck out her chest. “In a way, but…”
“No buts! It’s a sexist and unsustainable system and you should be ashamed, Dad! I bet tampons and pads would be GST-free if men got periods.”
Jack felt the corners of his mouth rise involuntarily. Perhaps he should encourage Ruby to join the school debating team?
Scarlett put her phone down and grinned. “If men menstruated, pads and tampons would provided free in public toilets like toilet paper. And guys would brag about using the biggest tampons available.”
The two girls gave each other a high five.
Jack felt uncomfortable about the idea of a man-size tampon and crossed his legs. “And they’d whinge and complain about the pain and inconvenience. And demand paid
menstrual leave,” added Diana, prompting more high fives.
“Did the government even debate whether pads and tampons should be GST-free back in the Dark Ages?” asked Ruby. “Or was it just a whole bunch of blokes deciding the rules?”
Diana struck a superhero pose and told her daughters about the ‘menstrual avengers’ who had protested on the steps of Melbourne Town Hall in their blood-stained knickers and red capes. Jack was relieved that she didn’t mention the women who had thrown tampons at the Prime Minister.
Ruby’s eyes lit up. “Maybe we can dress up as giant tampons and post a video on Youtube?
And start a petition and send letters to the Prime Minister and our local members…” “That’s all been tried and failed.” Diana gave her daughter an apologetic smile.
Only a few years earlier, Ruby had been writing letters to Santa Claus. Now she was talking about petitions and writing letters to politicians. Jack tried to remember what sort of things he’d thought about at her age and ended up blushing.
“Anyway, what makes you think that they’ll listen to you?” asked Scarlett. “You don’t even vote yet.”
Although Jack wished that Scarlett had more of her younger sister’s drive, today he was grateful for her laid-back approach to life. She was usually happy to accept the status quo and was far too fashion-conscious to ever be seen in public in a tampon costume.
Ruby wasn’t perturbed. “Mum can sign the letter.”
“Your father would probably have to draft the reply for the Minister to sign. And we already know which side he’s on,” said Diana.
“It’s got nothing to do with taking sides. It’s about the GST legislation and regulations,” Jack protested.
“Besides, Canberra is a safe Labour seat. They won’t listen to me, either.’ “It’s okay, Mum. We should target a marginal electorate anyway,” said Ruby.
How many thirteen year old girls knew about things like marginal electorates? Maybe Ruby would run for office one day? Perhaps even become Australia’s first President? Or a political lobbyist? Jack shuddered.
“A friend from school lives across the border,” she continued. “Her parents reckon they get all sorts of funding because they’re a swinging seat.”
Jack stifled a laugh. Swinging had meant something different when he and his wife were newly married and living in a flat in Queanbeyan. “You do realise that the Prime Minister can’t change the GST rules without the support of the state and territory governments?”
“Really? Why do they have to make it so hard?”
“I don’t know, love.” Jack felt guilty when he noticed the defeated look on his daughter’s face. He sometimes forgot that Ruby was only thirteen. However, he was sure that his little menstrual avenger would survive this minor setback.
Jack stood up and gave Ruby a hug, before rinsing the breakfast dishes. He was eager to get to work for some rest and relaxation.
“Dad?” Ruby asked. “Yes?”
“Why aren’t Tim Tams GST-free?”
“You can’t expect them to be exempt just because they’re your favourite biscuits.” “But they’re like medicine.”
“Ruby has a point. Ask any woman with PMS,” agreed Scarlett.
Jack shook his head. “Sorry, love. Even if you managed to gain the support of every State and Territory Minister and the Federal Government, the Tax Office can’t discriminate.”
“What do you mean? Men eat Tim Tams, don’t they?”
“Yes, but we can’t favour one manufacturer or brand over another.”
“Okay. We’ll just have to convince everyone that all chocolate biscuits should be GST-free.”
By Pip Marks from Australia