Economics and finance, Government and governance | Australia

30 May 2018

Australia’s budget was steeped in a type of policy nostalgia which says progressive mass reform is no longer possible. Such thinking is harmful for the country and dangerous for the two major parties, Helen Sullivan writes.

Now that the immediate analysis feeding frenzy of the budget has passed and all that’s left are the bones of last week’s hot takes, let me give you a somewhat colder serve.

This budget is terrible if you are a woman. It was disappointing if you care about our cities. It will likely exacerbate inequality rather than address it. It will further alienate our young people from getting involved in important decisions. And it was steeped in the sepia of an imagined and constraining golden age of great policy reforms that probably never happened and we fear we will never repeat.

First, women in the budget. Or more precisely, the absence of them. Women were largely only mentioned in reference to being mothers and carers – the way that we collapse all things to do with women when we can’t think of anything else.

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There was a minor amount of money targeted at women’s health. There was also an extraordinarily small amount of money targeted at encouraging women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics – an amount so small many would see it as an active discouragement from careers in those fields.

And for all the press-release trumpeting of tax measures and counter-measures, there was no recognition that women continue to earn far less than men on average, and they continue to have less in savings and superannuation than men. Women’s positions as economically independent individuals remain, it seems, in a pretty parlous state.

This is particularly sad, as Australia once led the world in understanding why it was important to produce different kinds of budgets for different constituencies. These days budget analysis is based on a notion of a single ‘homo-economicus’ that’s apparently genderless and classless.

Cities, too, were an extraordinary omission. Anybody involved in public policy knows that urbanisation is a key issue now and into the future. Australia has some of the fastest growing cities in the world.

A sensible budget would be asking questions about what our policies will mean for cities. This is particularly important in a country with a complicated governmental system.

It’s noticeable that the budget repeatedly refers to ‘the regions’. Rural and regional Australia is, of course, important, but cities are equally so and were almost completely absent from the budget.

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Then there’s the question of inequality. One of the really challenging issues facing Australia is the crisis of young people and youth homelessness. The government’s response is to run a trial in the development of social impact bonds.

I’m supportive of anything that requires us to do public policy differently. But it’s curious to me that it’s the issues that affect the most marginalised and vulnerable in our societies that are now subject to these extraordinary, potentially costly and unproven policy experiments. It suggests that Australia is experimenting on those people in society who are least able to lobby for their rights and entitlements.

Another marginalised group, albeit for very different reasons, are young people. Working in a university, I meet lots of young people who are very smart and switched on but don’t have the first idea why the budget should matter to them.

That is deeply concerning and suggests they’ll only start to care at the point where they have too much debt, or they realise they can’t buy their own home. We have to better communicate with young people, and the broader public, that reform is necessary.

For too long in Australia, the narrative has been that budgets have to find a way to make sure everybody – or at least the ‘everybody’ that governments care about – is more or less satisfied.

If we want to talk about reform, then we need to have a conversation about Australia’s rather rose-tinted view of itself as a country that values a fair go. It once had an admirable system that combined welfare with opportunity and a functioning tax system.

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But that’s a nostalgia story that Australians tell alongside fireside tales of the 1980s golden era, when we all basked in the warmth of progressive mass reforms.

Now the narrative is a stony-cold grayscale tale saying that those years were unique and we can never do it again.

That’s a dangerous way to think. If we want to have a conversation about reform, we have to have a conversation about what fairness means now. For example, I defy anyone to look at the absolutely poverty-inducing pittance we pay people on Newstart and think that, in any way, demonstrates Australia’s commitment to a ‘fair go’.

Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope these conversations will happen anytime soon, at least not in the bubble of Canberra politics. The two main political parties are largely indistinguishable from each other. They both feed us the line that it’s a particular kind of economic rationalism that determines what we should do and how we should do it.

Thankfully, those conversations about positive reform are happening in Australia’s voluntary organisations, government departments, and universities, as well as amongst some business leaders. That kind of thinking and work offers some hope that we can think about policy questions without looking at them through a particular economic lens or the constraints of the wafer-thin margins of political choice.

Budgets designed to make everyone satisfied leave room for plenty of short-term hot takes. But in the long term, and for the two major parties especially, ongoing failure to deliver reform will see an electoral response that gets colder every year.

This piece is based on the author’s contribution to the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation event ‘Tell us what you really think: post-budget forum’. You can watch the whole event online here.

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