Tony Abbott assured Australia in his acceptance speech that the Coalition “will not leave anyone behind". The true test of his government will be the extent to which it provides today’s "forgotten" a hand-up to lift our nation’s fortunes.
Our new Prime Minister set an early tone for his government with the pledge to govern for all people in Australia, including those who didn’t vote for him. In his acceptance speech he said, “A good government is one with a duty to help everyone to maximise his or her potential … We will not leave anyone behind.” It was a defining start to his prime ministership, drawing a distinct marker by which the ultimate success of his government can be judged.
Only a week earlier at the Coalition’s campaign launch he outlined his vision that, “Our country will best flourish when all of our citizens, individually and collectively, have the best chance to be their best selves.”
Since 1956 ACOSS has been the voice for the needs of the forgotten people in our country – those experiencing poverty and inequality – with a vision for a fair, inclusive and sustainable Australia where all individuals and communities can participate in and benefit from social and economic life.
Although most people are better off today than they’ve ever been, the harsh reality is that despite two decades of unprecedented growth, an increasing number of people on the lowest incomes are falling behind.
Late last year we calculated that 2.2 million people were living below the poverty line, including nearly 600,000 children. Disturbingly, the recent annual report of the longitudinal study of households (HILDA) showed that child poverty has increased by 15 per cent since 2001. Clearly this is unacceptable for a country as wealthy as ours and will need the attention of the new government.
An urgent priority to guard against worsening hardship and poverty is action to tackle rising unemployment, with the number of people reliant on unemployment payments long-term rising from 300,000 to 500,000 since the global financial crisis. Too many people are at risk of being left behind in the labour market permanently and denied the chance to be their "best selves".
Governments cannot reduce unemployment by their own efforts alone. The incoming government will need to partner with others: with unemployed people to stay active in the labour market, with employers and unions to ensure that they are not frozen out of jobs by lack of skills, age or disability, and with employment and community services to invest in training and work experience.
ACOSS has been working with business and unions on solutions to unemployment and one of the important first steps of the new government should be to bring these key stakeholder groups together to forge a compact about growing job opportunities, particularly for people who are long term unemployed.
The Coalition has already made some positive announcements around incentives for employers to take on mature-age unemployed people. ACOSS has developed concrete proposals in this area, including expanding the proven wage subsidy scheme and paid work experience, and greater investment in case management. In addition, we will need to tailor training and support to better prepare long term unemployed people for the jobs of the future.
The new government will also have to repair the serious holes in the social safety net, including disability services, equitable access to quality schooling, health and aged care services for older people, the economic and social conditions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and the $150 gap between weekly "allowance" and "pension" payments. There’s no getting away from the fact that each of these areas will require significant public investment over many years.
Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges for the incoming government is the growing gap between people’s expectations of governments and the revenue available to them. Clearly this problem will not be resolved in a single budget. It can only be resolved through a dialogue with the Australian community over what we can realistically expect from government and how the tax system can best be reformed to collect public revenue in a fairer and more efficient way.
It is time we had a mature national discussion about this, including much needed structural reform of Australia’s tax and transfer systems. Long term this will be the only way to meet the fiscal challenge that our nation faces. It’s the only way to move us towards a sustainable budget bottom line and finance the important social programs we all want – such as disability services, equitable school funding, adequate income support payments, dental and mental health, affordable housing, and meeting the future costs associated with population ageing.
Reform of tax and public expenditure is also a partnership between government and the community. Far reaching reform is more likely to happen if the government sets clear long-term goals and enters into a well structured dialogue where all interests are represented.
ACOSS welcomes the announcement of the new ministry. The government has sensibly avoided rushing into new policy announcements. To restore the budget, strengthen essential community services and ensure that no-one is left behind it will need to work steadily, patiently and collaboratively with the community.
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