Policy Officer The Salvation Army Victorian Social Program & Policy Unit.
Here we are again – another budget. We remember the last one clearly, and wonder what’s in store for us next.
The budget this year will be relatively unremarkable – “dull” and “much less exhilarating” to use the Prime Minister’s words. It has to be. The Abbott Government would not be able to weather another year like the last.
Rhetoric around the budget has shifted from stressing the need for “tough decisions” last year to emphasising that this budget will be “responsible and fair”. It’s an important admission that last year’s budget was indeed “unfair” – at least in the eyes of the Australia public, who have made it very clear they will not stand for policies which punish the poor and leave untouched the well-to-do. Nor will they stand for policies which undermine the cornerstones of the social system, like free healthcare and education.
However, while we may be relieved that we will not see a budget as bad as last year’s, there remains a danger in settling for mere relief. Just because this year’s budget will not be as bad as last year’s, it doesn’t mean it will be good.
The Abbott Government would desperately like this budget to pass under the radar, so they will play it safe. Playing it safe means no big cuts, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be small cuts. It doesn’t mean they learned their lesson, understand their policies were unjust, and Australia won’t stand for it. It just means that they have learned they need to make smaller changes and manage their public relations better than last time.
While the rhetoric on cuts is much softer this time than before, the Coalition Government has stuck to its claim that the budget is in trouble. And in the long term, it is. We need reform. The question is how to get there. The answer is not cutting welfare payments and support programs. The answer is expanding them to give people the ‘leg up’ they need.
For a long time, the community sector been putting forward solutions for youth unemployment, entrenched disadvantage, rising housing prices, and generating the revenue needed to pay for it. Its time someone started to listen.
- For vulnerable youth, flexible education and training options and meaningful pathways into employment
- Increased income support payments, indexed to wage increases, enabling people to rise above the poverty line and the cycle of poverty and disadvantage
- Market-based incentives which leverage private investment to create new housing and social housing stock
To fund these programs, we need tax reform to remove inequities in the tax system like negative gearing, capital gains, and superannuation tax concessions.
These reforms make economic and social sense. We are already seeing the social costs of entrenched disadvantage and poverty: abhorrent rates of family violence, increases in ice use and alcohol abuse, crippling rates of mental illness, and growing prison populations. These social ills are expensive. We can’t afford to keep paying for that ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. And we can’t afford to lose the next generation to these same problems either. We need investment now, in return for savings later.
Good news for vulnerable Australians are a two-year extension of the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH), reversed cuts to the community legal aid sector, continued commitment to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), and a 12-month extension for Alcohol & Other Drugs (AOD) funding. And while an inquiry into family violence, housing affordability, an ice taskforce, and a tax reform discussion paper conveniently make the Abbott Government look as if it is doing something without needing to fund anything until the investigations are complete, they are positive steps in the right direction.
Without continual advocacy from the community sector and a healthy dose of public outrage, much of this would not have happened. We in the community sector should be proud of these achievements. But our work isn’t done. There’s no question that we have very real challenges ahead of us. After last year, I understand why the government will play it safe, at least safer than last year. But in the long term, it’s not good enough.
We need bold reform and investment in programs which support the vulnerable and reduce inequality. We need leadership. We need inspiration. Australia is supposed to be a place where everyone can ‘have a go’, but currently this is not the case for a lot of people. We need a vision that lays out what sort of society we want to be and how to get there. We may not achieve that this year. That doesn’t mean we should not keep asking.