We Spoke to the Women Fighting Australia’s Tampon Tax

Australia's 15 years of taxing periods may finally be coming to an end soon. But why has this recent campaign been more successful than previous attempts?

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jun 2 2015, 5:00am

Screen shot via YouTube.

The "tampon tax" issue has been unavoidable recently in Australia. It's in our newsfeeds, in the papers, in front of Treasurer Joe Hockey's face on live TV, and Thursday morning, on the lawn of Parliament House in Canberra where giant tampons danced to Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."

The period talk has been flowing for the past week, after an online petition to abolish the 10 percent GST (goods and services tax) on sanitary products (tampons, pads, liners, and menstrual cups) spread across social media.

The petition was started by University of Sydney student Subeta Vimalarajah, and has so far gathered close to 100,000 signatures. It also landed Subeta on Q&A, where Joe Hockey awkwardly admitted that the GST "probably should" be removed from sanitary products. Further, he promised to take the matter up with the State Treasurers to review in July.

Currently, sanitary products are classed as "luxury items," and not "health items," which are exempt from GST. This reasoning is based on the shaky logic that sanitary products do not prevent illness, unlike condoms, lube, and nicotine patches.

Tampon taxes are an issue in the UK too.

This is not the first time Australian women have lobbied for the tax on sanitary products to be scrapped. Since the introduction of the GST in 2000, the issue has flared on and off. So what is it about the current social and political climate that has pushed Subeta's campaign further than those in the past?

"All the past campaigns helped elevate mine and helped build momentum," Subeta told VICE. "But Australia has changed in the last ten years. We're more aware about these kinds of issues, about fairness and equity and it just means people have taken to the cause."

While one politician's promise doesn't assure the change to GST legislation will be made, it's the closest indication of a government shift on the issue Australia has had. And despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott distancing himself from Joe Hockey's promise, five Australian states have since given a positive indication that they'd back the scrapping of GST on sanitary products.

The tax has never been popular in the community. Former Prime Minister John Howard (whose government introduced the GST in 2000) was literally pelted with tampons by a group called the "Menstrual Avengers." In 2007, writer Clem Bastow started an online petition asking for the tax to be abolished.

Clem says her petition gathered a decent amount of support, with "thousands of signatories" before the hosting site went down. "At the time, we petitioned the health minister and treasurer with no luck," she says. "I received a generic response quite literally years later."

In 2013, Sophie Liley, a student at the University of Western Australia started her pun-laden online petition called "Axe the Tampon Tax," targeted at the then "I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny" Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It gathered 45,000 signatures, but even the #bloodoutrage hashtag didn't move the government.

Certainly in the present online landscape where there is a greater awareness of feminism and women's issues, it's prime time for a petition on the tax to gather steam. The tampon tax is one of the clearest and plainest examples of sexism to digest. It doesn't take much explaining, and it affects a large swath of the population.

The success of Subeta's campaign so far is also testament to her strategy. She timed her petition to coincide with the government's Better Tax review, allowing signees to make direct submissions to the government review—the aim being to "flood the tax review with thousands of submissions."

But internet petitions alone, despite large numbers of signees, don't always go further than Facebook newsfeeds. Their success is anchored by the media. Subeta's gimmicks—a giant tampon at the centerpiece of every campaign photo, the planned billboard of Tony Abbott behind a tampon driving around Canberra—were perfect media bait. "I was fairly lucky," Subeta says. "When the petition started, I had quite a bit of media attention and signatures came in really quickly."

But it was cornering the treasurer on live TV that took it to another level. By some stroke of luck, Joe Hockey fumbled on Q&A, and instead of deflecting the question or shutting them down completely, made a live-on-air commitment to discuss the tax with the states and territories. It's not an easy commitment to make—the government makes $25 million from taxing sanitary products each year. And while the Federal Government could actually amend the GST law without state agreement, Hockey's words were a start.

Having received a positive response from Joe Hockey, Subeta is now aiming the giant tampon at Tony Abbott, who stated that amending the GST was not something his government was planning on doing. Maybe another live on air cornering is due.

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