19 May 2017.
Written by Anglicare CEO Jeremy Halcrow.
The Federal budget has been called “Labor-lite” by conservative media. Others labelled it “incoherent” because it lacked a unifying philosophy or strategy. Indeed, there wasn’t a consistent vision for Australian society in Mr Morrison’s presentation at the ACOSS Post-Budget breakfast at UTS, with various elements pulling in different directions.
The positive in this year’s budget was that the Federal Government has made a step toward addressing the housing affordability crisis and related homelessness. “It’s one of the areas where we are relieving pressure on rising costs,” Scott Morrison told the ACOSS breakfast.
Anglicare believes that tackling rental affordability for low income households must be a policy priority. Providing appropriate, affordable housing is a fundamental need for all citizens. We could quibble about the size of the spend on housing, but we now have key parts of the policy architecture needed to address affordability. As economist Dr Marcus Spiller put it: “At least this budget has put the levers in place and future Governments can pull them”. Of course, the gap is the lack of focus on addressing the tax treatment of investment properties, especially capital gains tax. But it is noteworthy that the Treasurer has even tweaked negative gearing by limiting the travel claims landlords can make against their properties.
However, the so-called “welfare integrity” measures, such as drug testing the unemployed, undermines the positive step taken on housing affordability because it will hit the most vulnerable the hardest.
In questioning the Treasurer at the breakfast, ACOSS CEO, Cassandra Goldie, said there is a lack of evidence that policies such as the cashless debit card and the random drug testing on social security recipients actually work. In response, Mr Morrison said such pilots had to be a collaboration with the community sector and “we will work through that, as we have done with other trials”. Granted he was at an ACOSS event and therefore facing a crowd largely hostile to the changes, but I was surprised that Mr Morrison made no serious or in-depth attempt to defend the welfare “integrity measures”.
“We think the mutual obligation measures are very important,” Mr Morrison said simply. “We are just going to have to work closely with the sector on that.
The real question is whether the Coalition believes in a universal safety net for all citizens or sees welfare as a privilege you have to earn. Should only the “deserving” receive our help? Following this logic leads us down a dangerous path. Whilst the Government should be careful stewards of the public purse, it would be very troubling if this philosophy extended into Government-funded assistance services. This approach is certainly contrary to Anglicare’s values, of being inclusive and non-discriminatory in our care.
In a panel discussion that followed the Treasurer’s address, former Chief Executive of The Australian Industry Group, Heather Ridout said that she believed Australia’s 5,000 Newstart recepients were victims of a “brutal political play” with the Turnbull Government needing to placate the Coalition’s conservative base in the face of a “dramatic shift to the centre” on a range of other issues including housing affordability, infrastructure spending and increasing taxes such as the bank levy.
Journalist Laura Tingle added that the Coalition has a poor understanding of the realities of unemployment and many party members genuinely believe that drug dependency is a cause of joblessness. Another concern is that is that the public sector has not been given the resources and capacity to implement complex policies in a fair and effective way, as evidenced by the so-called “Centrelink robo-debt” issue. This point was reinforced from Nadine Flood from the Public Sector Union who added that this budget has cut another 1200 jobs from human services, despite the fact that last year there were 30 million calls unanswered by Centrelink.
So what can we do in the face of the constant demonization of the unemployed? One ray of hope is that the public does understand that people are losing jobs for structural reasons, such as automation.
Economist and former Federal Liberal leader, Dr John Hewson, said his concern was that the Government had no strategy underpinning their budget and was failing to take a longer term view of what is happening to employment and underemployment. In the face of significant technological change and automation of many jobs, “the worse downside is that we will have a very large underclass cut off from full time employment… [Technological change] is a massive problem that we are not talking about,” he said.
The Australian welfare system should be a universal safety net that ultimately protects all of us by ensuring we have a reasonable level of social equality and civil cohesion. Right now the safety net is so low, and is so full of holes, that it’s not going to stop people hitting the ground.