The leadership crisis facing Australia
31 March 2022 at 8:23 am
This should have been a landmark budget. Yet the biggest issues facing the nation have barely registered, writes Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers who calls on the nation’s leaders to step up and offer a vision that meets the moment.
Ahead of this year’s budget, there was much talk of the crises facing the nation.
There is the cost-of-living crisis, which has seen the price of essentials soar. There is the housing crisis, driving record numbers of Australians into housing and rental stress. There is the climate crisis, worsening extreme weather as communities reel from the impact of recent floods.
But the most pressing crisis facing Australia is one of leadership. The absence of leadership looms large over our polity, feeding all of the other problems we face. This budget is just the latest example.
Just weeks ahead of a generation-defining election, this should have been a landmark budget to match the moment we face. Yet the biggest issues facing the nation have barely registered. Those that have, were met with band-aid solutions and short-term fixes.
Take the much-discussed rise in living costs, which has come after years of stagnant wages and poverty-level Centrelink payments. Governments could make real reforms to reduce the cost of essentials like out-of-pocket health costs, public transport, childcare, or housing. Instead, it is focusing on tax cuts and one-off payments – which three quarters of Australians say they don’t want – and a temporary cut to the fuel excise.
That cut will barely make a difference to weekly budgets, but it will cost taxpayers billions of dollars. This is exactly the kind of announcement Australians have become used to seeing on budget night. It allows the government to look like it’s doing something, yet it achieves little and it does long-term damage.
It is easy to be disheartened by these short-term fixes, and the lack of imagination, especially when there is so much consensus about what needs to be done to tackle the challenges we face.
We know that more must be done to create jobs and help people participate. Although this was framed as a jobs budget, the figures are murkier when you look closely. The unemployment rate looks low because record numbers of people have stopped looking for work, meaning they no longer count in the labour force. Many would be surprised to learn that more Australians are now on job seeking payments than before the pandemic struck. It is past time for government to invest in direct job creation programs, something Anglicare Australia called for in Five Ideas Australia Needs Now. This also happens to be popular, with almost 80 per cent of the people we polled telling us they back the idea.
Paid work is only part of the story. Those who rely on income support are struggling with living costs more than anyone. That includes parents, carers, people with disabilities, students, and those who have been locked out of paid work. They cannot pursue a better life if they are forced to make tough choices between eating a meal and paying a bill, buying shoes for their children and filling a prescription. And they cannot look for work if they are homeless and hungry.
A one-off payment of $250, or a tax cut, will not lift these Australians out of poverty. At best, it will help people get through the month. We know that raising the rates of these payments is the most powerful step that any government could take to reduce poverty in Australia. There is unprecedented support to make that happen. Leadership on this issue should be easier to show than ever, yet again we find our leaders wanting.
Housing has been another frustrating aspect of the budget debate. Everyone agrees that a home is a basic human need, yet even those working full-time are struggling to put a roof over their heads. Rents have shot up by 20 per cent in the last year, with people spending record amounts on housing. Our Rental Affordability Snapshot, released each year, shows the depth of this crisis. We need 500,000 new social and affordable homes to end the shortfall and fix the system. But instead of seeing the action they are hungry for, Australians are getting more of the same – first home buyer programs and grants. Like the fuel excise cut, this allows the government to look like it’s doing something while making the problem worse.
Aged care, which had been a bright spot last year, is now a job half-finished. The royal commission showed that the only way to deliver quality care is with a strong workforce, yet that workforce is under pressure. Low pay is forcing workers to make tough decisions. Many workers are leaving aged care altogether. This budget leaves that challenge unsolved, instead re-packaging the previously announced one-off retention payment.
As with so many of the budget measures we’ve seen, that will not cut muster for workers struggling with costs. Anglicare Australia will continue to push for a Workforce Fund for wages, training, and nursing costs. We will also keep calling on the government to fund a minimum wage increase for aged care workers. These are key actions to realising the vision of care set out by the royal commission.
A home, a decent income, and dignity in old age are things that every Australian deserves. Each of these areas is critical to making life better for all Australians – and to the national leadership that so many of us crave. They may be absent from yet another budget, but they are too important to ignore.
If the past two years have shown us anything, it is that people are willing to recognise and reward leadership in tough times. Our challenge now is to push our leaders to step up and offer a vision that meets the moment.