Budget divides


This budget is grossly unfair on many dimensions: it gives to the rich, takes money from the poor and provides no resources for the social infrastructure we share. It fails to provide the badly needed money for improving public health care, for universities that are in real trouble, for educating the children whose parents cannot afford, or prefer not to use the private system. It reveals government priorities by its focus on a cash back system which says clearly that this society works only for those who can pay for their own services.

It comes with a mean and nasty budget sell. Today’s Telegraph says it all in its headline: Workers 1 Shirkers 0, followed by ‘Peter Costello last night emerged a working class hero by rewarding workers with $22 billion in tax cuts and prodding the able-bodied off welfare.’ The rhetoric is impeccable populism, playing into the well known negatives of welfare: single parents and those presumed to be exaggerating disabilities with murky images of young unmarried mothers with multiple fathered children and men with faked injuries, Mediterranean backs, the classic welfare myths. By painting such groups as needing to be controlled and made to move off the tax payer teat, public acceptance of the changes is ensured. If the recipients of certain payments are regarded as non deserving, then the ‘taxpayer’ can feel warm about punishing them. The government makes no mention of other forms of disability, or the presumably respectable coupled mothers who will also be part of the changes because they fail to share the ‘dog whistle’ attributes of their less popular peers.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

This approach has been cleverly used to obscure how the cuts will affect future low income parents and people with disabilities. In the former category, full time parenting for children over six will no longer be an option for any low income parents, restricting the Prime Minister’s oft repeated claim of offering choice to those mothers whose husbands can earn enough. The old parenting payment will cease at age six and recipients will be moved onto a form of Newstart with requirements that they look for paid work. This payment is lower, has a much more savage withdrawal rate, even as amended last night, and so is less supportive of part time work. These families will find themselves on much lower incomes even if they find some paid work. If they can’t and are assumed to have not looked hard enough, they may have their payments suspended until they are compliant.

There are some extra out of school child care places, but without the necessary capital grants to assist in setting them up. There is no recognition of the expected rise in fees as a result of a pay rise for workers in child care, just some short term subsidies for very low income users but none for the rest. There is some weird assumption that an extra $1500 will turn unemployed women into family day care workers, ignoring the problems of recruiting such carers because of the working conditions. There is more money for training but in small allowances of $300 per person to Job Network members. Where is the extra money for the proper development of appropriately credentialed education and vocational training resources?

Where are the extra funds for services for people with disabilities that would release carers and let them take on more paid work? There is a $1000 bonus for carers but just another once off payment doesn’t do anything about the need for more services that go beyond respite. There is an increase in mobility payments for people with disabilities that find paid work, but it will not help those where there are no taxis, or whose costs exceed the allowance. Yet if they are presumed to be able to work fifteen hours a week, they will be penalised if they don’t.

Who will employ all these extra people? There are signs the economy may not be growing as fast, so demand for labour may not expand to provide for the 200 000 or so potential extra new entrants. We haven’t absorbed too many of the current long term unemployed and adding many new applicants with very similar workforce disadvantages and lack of recent experience won’t help.

And it’s not a supply problem but one of demand: employers are generally not interested in older workers, those with family demands that may interfere with attendance, those with disabilities or those without recent job experiences. More and more people, often already unconfident, will join the roundabout of being forced to look for jobs that are not there. The Treasury itself says demand for labour is not general, but particular to mainly skilled areas. So the unskilled jobs will continue to be undersupplied for the possible applicants.

There is nothing in the budget that appeals to our sense of collectivity, of being part of a generous wider society. There is no general increase in overseas aid, not much extra for Indigenous services, little for the arts and too much for insecurity programs. It fails to support those public services that bind us together, such as education, community services and health care. It has not used the gross budget surpluses to make Australia a more pleasant place to live for all, just some.

I put up a series of criteria by which we could judge fairness in public policy online a couple of weeks ago. On these criteria, the budget rates very badly. It is unfair to low income people, and privileges the rich financially. It undermines social cohesion by playing into a range of easily aroused prejudices on stigmatised groups. It shows us a government which bases its policy making on our basest instincts, playing to prejudice and self interest, and assuming that coercion is necessary to discipline our slack ways and money benefits the rich but not the poor. This sits oddly with its rhetoric that we are a generous people. The net cost of this budget is Australia will become a less civil place.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.