Economics and finance, Government and governance, Social policy | Australia

18 February 2020

As the climate crisis deepens, ordinary people are taking on its costs. Australia must reconfigure its society and tackle inequality if it is to have any hope of meeting the challenges of the future, John Falzon writes.

When someone faces personal crisis, there are three indispensable things they need to protect themselves. First, a financial buffer, second, a feeling of human connectedness and loved ones to rely on, and third, a reliable social service response.

For already marginalised people, getting the first of these, a financial buffer, is often impossible. Especially when, for example, the rate of Newstart hasn’t increased in real terms since 1994, and wages are stagnating. For many, it is a struggle to meet household expenditure needs from week to week, let alone put something away for an emergency.

The second, human connectedness, is harder to measure, but it makes a significant difference to the way a personal crisis is addressed. It can mean the provision, of sorts, of a financial buffer in the form of help from family or friends.

It can also, importantly, mean a level of emotional support that is difficult to replicate institutionally, whether through government services or charitable support. While hard to replicate, that emotional support can be better enabled by a different kind of society, one which policymakers can help shape.

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The third, a reliable social service response, is where policy can really come into its own. Reliable public services and accessible and helpful options for the community to get help from the government are crucial to getting through a crisis.

The public have been encouraged to view the bushfire crisis as a natural disaster, against which the country is almost powerless, but there is nothing natural about it.

It is the result of Australia’s history, one of deliberate displacement and dispossession that began with colonisation and is replete with a disregard for the community and the environment.

The bushfire crisis is a symptom of the climate crisis, a fact still essentially denied and dismissed by the current government. To avoid responsibility for the crisis, Prime Minister Morrison uses the language of individual strength and resilience, consistent with his general discourse on society and the economy. “If you put in”, said Mr Morrison in a 2018 speech, “you get to take out”.

He says this as if people should only pay for what they use, and only get what they personally pay for. This sums up the government’s political philosophy, and is completely at odds with any commitment to collective aspiration, the core belief that drives social services.

Little wonder then, that under this government Centrelink is under-resourced, that over a billion dollars has been spent on outsourcing by the Department of Human Services, that staffing levels are irrationally capped, that the Newstart payment has not seen an increase in real terms since 1994, and that the Disaster Recovery Payment sits at only $1000 while the Disaster Recovery Allowance remains at the same meagre level as Newstart.

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Government rhetoric consistently cites ‘the economy’ as the reason why it should stint on social spending. The economy here purports to mean the common good, but actually means the interests of big business.

It is for the alleged good of the economy that our government refuses to seriously commit to carbon emissions reduction. Similarly, it is in these interests that austerity is coupled with union-bashing, labour market deregulation – really a form re-regulation in favour of employers – and tax cuts for those who least need them, bearing in mind that one third of large corporations already pay no tax in Australia.

If Australia is to learn from the bushfire crisis of this past summer then it must move beyond a framework that merely aims to manage and mitigate risk– although, given the current state of affairs, even a more successful attempt at that policy would feel like a giant leap forward.

More than just shifting risk, Australian policymakers must acknowledge the social nature of risk and address the distribution of that risk. As a society, Australia must face uncomfortable truths about how its democratic processes have been steered in the direction of compulsory risk-imposition on large sections of the community.

This is happening by means of a piecemeal dismantling of public services, such as the social security system, public health, public education, public housing, and public transport, coupled with a disdain for the natural environment we depend on to live.

French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, defines neoliberalism as “a program for destroying collective structures which may impede the pure market logic.” Interestingly, this logic valorises entrepreneurial risk as a calculated act of creativity for the good of society.

In the same breath, however it condemns as poor behaviour real or imagined risk-taking that other individuals might engage in. It even goes so far as to build a paternalistic architecture that lays blame on the backs of the people experiencing inequality and poverty. Witness, for example, Anne Ruston, the government’s social services minister, claiming that a lift to Newstart would inevitably result in more money going into the pockets of drug dealers.

The government’s policy outlook is as heavily gendered as it is laden with class-based assumptions and prejudices, singling out sole parents for special moral condemnation. Paternalistic responses to this ‘moral crisis’ are exemplified by compulsory income management in its various iterations, the latest being the cashless welfare card, which makes an art form out of disempowerment and demonisation.

Among all this, no one is talking about the compulsory imposition of risk. The policy trajectory that has come to fruition in the climate emergency is a massive imposition of risk on the Australian community.

The removal of workers’ rights, attacks on the right to collectively organise as unions, the casualisation of jobs, the dismantling of social security, the imposition of precariousness on the working class – including people excluded by the labour market and those whose labour, especially the labour of caring, is devalued and carried out either for low pay or no pay – all of these deliberate acts amount to an inherently unequal imposition of risk.

It is time Australia reconfigured its economy and society so that it can democratise the process by which risk is allocated. In other words, instead of sustaining and protecting the persistence and growth of inequality, Australia must sustain and protect its people.

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