Editorial: Existing GST exemptions make a strong case against taxing women's sanitary products

LABOR’S renewed commitment to abolish the so-called tampon tax came out of the blue on the weekend, and gave the Liberals a headache.

There has been a long-running campaign against taxing women’s sanitary products, so it is not a new issue. 

As this picture shows, then prime minister John Howard was confronted by protesters – including one wearing a giant tampon – at Murwillumbah, NSW in 2000.

The GST – or Goods and Services Tax – was introduced in that year, and ever since we have been paying tax almost every time we put our hands in our pockets.

Known as a broad-based consumption tax, the 10 per cent GST replaced a range of sales and other taxes. 

The money all goes to the states and territories, with a funding agreement determining how it is divvied up – an ongoing source of controversy given states like our own are effectively, and highly, subsidised by others.

GST supporters argue it is most effective and fair when applied across the board. 

This is where opposition comes to exempting certain products because, as the argument goes, where would it end?

The problem is the door was well and truly opened on GST exemptions from its very beginning.

Triggering their own eventual demise, the Democrats supported its introduction, but first demanded concessions from the Howard government.

As a result, bread rolls are exempt, but not if they have icing; buy a live sheep and you will pay the tax, but buy a tray of lamb chops and you won’t.

There are, of course, reasons given for these different exemptions, but on the face of it the comparisons make it all look absurd.

So we have women forced to pay GST on sanitary products – at a total cost, apparently, of about $30 million a year – while adult incontinence pads, condoms and sunscreen, for example, are all exempt.

Given the products already GST-free, it is difficult to understand the rationale for not adding tampons to the list.

Yet Liberals have opposed such a change, with Tony Abbott previously saying: “We have to broaden the tax base, not start carving out politically correct exceptions.”

This position may play well to economic conservatives, but likely not with women.

And that’s what is really at the heart of the matter – the push for tax-free tampons is less about saving money and more about the message it sends on gender equality.