Opinion: The Budget of Social Exclusion – Frank Quinlan
Thursday, 13th May 2010 at 2:59 pm
Frank Quinlan, Executive Director, Catholic Social Services Australia.
While I entered the Budget lock-up with a little excitement, my emotions quickly switched to disappointment as I began to read the approximately 25cm high stack of Budget papers. No bringing along the battler or the underdog here. No promises to end child poverty. No indignation at the of treatment asylum seekers. Just the simple economics of global risk and uncertainty, followed by fiscal caution, and a budget bottom line to bring political comfort.
With the exception of the substantial new initiatives in the Health Portfolio, this Budget presented very dry economics. That is to say, the Budget presents a vision that is based almost entirely around economic goals, rather than social goals. Unlike the previous Budget, there is very little effort made to even dress the economics in social rhetoric.
Perhaps this will be the most damaging and lasting legacy of the Global Financial Crisis. Apart from the human cost that the Global Financial Crisis has wrought in the homes of those left unemployed or those suffering under mortgage or rental stress, the Global Financial Crisis seems to have allowed a shift in public priorities. It seems a treasurer can now be rewarded (politically) for ‘fiscal responsibility’ as an end in itself, rather than as a means to achieving greater social goals.
I suspect that one of the reasons many voters were originally attracted to this government was because in opposition, and even as a new government, they conveyed a strong sense of a broader social vision for a more inclusive Australian society. I suspect many of those same voters may find it hard to see that vision reflected in the new Budget.
The team I work with at Catholic Social Services Australia made some very direct claims on the government in the pre-Budget process, but this Budget has not responded to those claims.
We asked for increased incomes for the poor, especially the unemployed. The Newstart allowance for the unemployed and other government benefits are too low and trap many people in poverty. This Budget fails to deliver even modest increases to the Newstart allowance. We maintain that an Independent Entitlements Commission should be established to make objective recommendations regarding an adequate level of payments from government.
We asked for more opportunities for people to enter paid work and supported employment. As the economy now begins to grow there is a risk that some Australians will be left behind. This is what happened with previous recessions. This Budget fails to deliver real opportunities to those long term unemployed who are unlikely to gain work without intensive support programs and intermediate labour market programs. A rising tide does not lift all boats. Some are damaged and need special care and repairs before they can have any hope of floating again.
We asked for greater support for housing. While we acknowledge that the previous Budget made an historic investment in social housing and homelessness, this Budget fails to sustain that momentum. As housing affordability declines government must increase its support for those facing higher rents and higher levels of mortgage stress.
We asked for greater help with mental illness. Measures in tonight’s Budget go some way to strengthening the level of clinical support for those living with mental illness, but much, much more is needed. We desperately need a National Mental Health Initiative that includes community based mental health care and support, delivered by community based workers and agencies. Many clients in our agencies need much more than a referral to a counsellor from their GP. Without intensive community based, long term support, many will continue to fall through the cracks.
We asked for support for the community sector. While our agencies are facing increased demand for services, they also face increased competition for skilled workers. The Productivity Commission Report and the Henry Review have made many recommendations to support the sector, but this Budget fails to fund any significant reforms. A plan to do nothing is a plan to place the sector under continued and unsustainable pressure. If all the government did was to cut the onerous burden of red tape and administration, many more services could be delivered to those in need.
If a ‘fiscally responsible Budget’ can increase spending on Australia’s representatives in elite sports by $237 million, it is hard to imagine that there is not room for our unemployed to eat a little better, or for social services to shorten their waiting lists. Consumer and peak groups will be pleased to receive $500,000 to help them with the implementation of the National Disability Strategy, but may be disappointed that $6.2 million is being spent on the office in the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs that will be responsible for receiving their input.
One of the concerns with budget commentary is that it can take some time to separate out new spending from old; real programs from phantoms; and to find the hidden bombshells. There was no ‘Fact Sheet’ printed to explain the proposed cuts to the Family Relationships Services program. We are concerned that such cuts would see troubled families with less support right when they most need it. It may take us some time to learn what this will really mean in practice.
My computer based word search did not find any reference to ‘social inclusion’ in any of the 16 mb of papers that we were provided with at the Budget lockup. My real disappointment is that it won’t be found in the days that follow either.
*This article first appeared in Eureka Street – www.eurekastreet.com.au