Is this a fair Budget?

The federal budget of so called “fairness” has in some ways reset the government’s priorities and reflects the influence the charity sector can have through effective advocacy, writes David Crosbie, CEO of Community Council for Australia in Pro Bono News, 10 May 2017.

Is this a fair Budget, Pro Bono Australia, 10 May 2017

If there is one value that is most often cited as a core Australian value, it is fairness.

The polling following the 2014 federal budget was devastatingly clear. The “no pain no gain, contribute and build, lifters and leaners, belt tightening, budget repair job” was not seen as fair.  

Contrary to what the then-treasurer Hockey and prime minister Abbott seemed to argue, the issues contributing to our budget emergency were not caused by the lifestyles of the poor. Making it harder for those without wealth to get access to healthcare, education or any form of government assistance was not seen by many as a good way of reducing the size of government.

Since 2014, fairness has become an important word in the political arsenal of all sides of Australian politics.

It comes as no surprise that the second Scott Morrison budget claims fairness as an informing principle, at least for the purpose of “resetting” the federal budget and pitching it to a jaded electorate.  As part of this “resetting” the government also seems to have embraced increasing debt, something previous Coalition governments railed against.

In this new “reset” budget, health spending is significantly increased reversing many of the previous cuts and adding new expenditure in critical areas like mental health, hospitals, heart health, cancer, and other diseases. Access to a wider range of healthcare in Australia will be better because of this budget.

An increase in the Medicare levy to fund the NDIS, increased investment in social housing, new support (albeit very small) for impact investment, a levy on big banks, and new infrastructure investments are just a few of the other positives.  

There are also new negatives. Cuts to tertiary education will impact the poorest students, reducing international development funding to our lowest level ever should be a source of national embarrassment. There is no mention of the environment, and in some areas – like Community Legal Centres  –  not having money taken away is counted as a good budget measure.

Perhaps the most heartless act in this budget is the proposal to drug test welfare recipients and exclude drug users from pensions and other entitlements. I am not sure where this form of victim blaming ends – next we will be denying diabetes medications and treatment to all fat people.  Most of the people I have met battling drug dependence have had horrific experiences in their lives.   Why create roadblocks to rehabilitation?

So is it a fair budget?

When CCA was looking at measures for fairness we chose inequality in income distribution, partly because there is an accepted validated measure – the GINI co-efficient – which is measured and reported on an annual basis in many countries around the world, providing us with a good comparative indicator.

Inequality in Australia is at record levels and increasing. This budget reinforces inequality. The poorest recipients of welfare are again to be cut in real terms while the richest Australians will pay less with the lifting of the temporary budget repair tax on incomes above $180,000.

There is an ongoing commitment to trickle-down economics that remains questionable. Whether providing tax cuts to business produces real gains for our community remains to be seen.

As time goes on and people start to unpack the detail of this budget, I am sure many issues will emerge. Some will be positives – new programs and opportunities for people – some will be negatives.

This budget has addressed some issues and improved access to some services, but it doesn’t do much to address growing inequality in Australia or offer increased opportunities for the poorest in Australia and internationally. It does little to support our environment and continues with a central economic commitment to significantly reduce business tax.

At the end of the night, after looking at so many figures, the positives, the negatives, the calls from interest groups about issues addressed or not addressed, one thing seems clear. This budget realises the success of the “Mediscare” campaign and the power of the “I give a Gonski campaign”.  

This budget reveals a government that felt it had to do something about housing, about banks, about fully funding NDIS.

In addressing these issues, the 2017 federal budget is not only a resetting of government priorities, it also reinforces a very important message to the whole charities sector. We can influence the shape of our federal budgets, the priorities that get attended to, through democratic processes and effective advocacy.

So if there is something we believe in, something that needs to change to make Australia fairer, it is time to start campaigning to “reset” the 2018 federal budget.