Beyond rhetoric, urgent need to reclaim fair-go society*
Statement from Conny Lenneberg, Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence
A Budget is more than a fiscal document or set of policy priorities. It is, as acknowledged by Treasurer Frydenberg, a test of values. As we steer into a federal election where the ‘fair go’ is taking centre stage in our political discourse, there are deeply jarring numbers that don’t figure in the Budget papers we must reckon with as a nation.
Here are two stark examples.
After 28 years of economic growth – a remarkable run of national prosperity – some 739,000 children under 15 live in poverty.
Newstart, a payment conceived to assist unemployed people while they hunt for work, has, perversely, become an impediment to gaining work. Today the daily rate is as little as $39.69 for a single person, effectively frozen for 25 years. There is strong community consensus that these barely subsistence rates are depriving our fellow Australians of their dignity let alone providing enough money to maintain housing and put food on the table.
Prime Minister Robert Menzies said the state owed its people “not only a chance in life but a self-respecting life”.
Prime Minister Ben Chifley, the architect of our post-war welfare system said: “The modern ideal is that there should be social security provisions to protect every citizen in his or her emergencies, from the cradle to the grave.”
Today, despite our progress, peace and prosperity, we fall short of the goals articulated by these two foundational Prime Ministers.
Bewildering to exclude people on Newstart from one-off energy payment
We need to urgently reclaim the fair-go society that we all cherish as Australians. The Brotherhood of St Laurence believes that means, as a priority, repairing our fraying social security system with its arbitrary compliance regime, invocations of so-called ‘welfare dependency’ and narrowing scope of who is ‘deserving’ – and who is not.
In this context, the decision to exclude Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients from one-off Budget payments to defray high energy costs is bewildering. A quarter of people on Newstart spend 10 per cent of their income on energy and need such relief most of all in our community.
As we step into the federal election, the Brotherhood of St Laurence challenges all political parties to lay down a vision for Australia that is truly inclusive and takes full account of groups in our society that are excluded from our nation’s abundance: these include Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples, young people in our outer suburbs and regions struggling to get secure work, sole parents who are overwhelmingly single mothers and their children, mature aged workers displaced by structural shifts in our economy and older people contemplating their senior years without secure housing.
Our nation faces a pivotal economic and social moment with the challenge of climate change, record rates of underemployment alongside unemployment, the impact of technology and a housing affordability crisis that deeply impacts on people on very low incomes.
The risks are great for the resilience of our society, and especially for the most disadvantaged Australians. For the health of our economy and society, we need to invest in building people’s skills and abilities so they can participate in mainstream Australian life.
Most of all, we need the right policy settings for the emerging generation – this means thoughtful investment in supports for our children, young people and their families. Tax cuts are not the policy prescription we need at this critical time.
Meeting our long-term intergenerational challenges is a task framed by several budgets: requiring ongoing investment in our social infrastructure and systems, which are just as important as physical infrastructure of roads, rails, bridges, dams and ports.
Social policy must be integrated with economic policy so that, beyond rhetoric, we achieve the fair go we yearn for as fair-minded Australians.
*Update: The Treasurer has now announced the reversal of the original Budget decision excluding unemployed people from the one-off energy payment. The Brotherhood of St Laurence is pleased to see eligibility for this modest payment has now been extended.