How you responded to last Tuesday night’s budget speech would depend on your point of view, your preoccupations and your prejudices – political and otherwise.
If you were a clinical psychologist, you might have been disturbed by signs of the Prime Minister’s short attention span. Chatting to his colleagues, giggling, looking distractedly about, he seemed unable to concentrate even for 30 minutes while his Treasurer made the speech of his life.
If you were a spin doctor, you’d have been deeply impressed by the whole thing. Knowing that governments generally benefit from an air of crisis, you’d have applauded the creation of ‘‘budget emergency’’ as a slogan (derided by economists at large, but what would they know about winning?) You’d have loved the many euphemisms for tax, especially ‘‘budget repair levy’’ – quite possibly the basis for a whole new chapter in the spin doctor’s manual, that one.
If you were an economist, you might have found much to admire in the budget. You knew there never had been a budget emergency; you knew Australia was a world leader in keeping its national debt under control; you knew the temporary tax on high-income earners was a reckless short-term substitute for serious tax reform. But you might have felt that a tough budget was called for since, sooner or later, the deficit problem would have to be tackled.
If you were a moral philosopher, your jaw would have dropped at the new depths of hypocrisy and the extent of promise-breaking implied by the budget. Even in a climate of unprecedented cynicism about political integrity, you might have assumed that this Prime Minister, having relentlessly attacked Labor for three years over its broken promise on the carbon tax, and having repeatedly declared that no election promises would be broken, would have shown some restraint.
You would therefore have been amazed to see him sitting there grinning while his Treasurer trashed promise after promise. No new taxes? Trashed, by the levy, by the ‘‘Tony Tax’’ on GP visits and prescriptions, and by the increase in fuel excise. No cuts to the ABC? Trashed. No fiddling with the age pension? Trashed. Even if you saw value in any or all of these measures, and the many other budget surprises, you would have marvelled at the moral insensitivity involved in introducing them after all that had gone before.
If you were an advocate of public education, you would have been surprised to hear no reference to it in the speech, but perplexed to discover the truth later in the evening when the commentators got to work on the fine print. You might then have wondered whether ‘‘we are on a unity ticket with Labor’’ on school funding reform was not a promise, but simply an expedient lie.
If you worked in the welfare sector, especially among young people, you might have wept with a combination of frustration and despair.
But what if you were merely a concerned citizen, looking to the budget for clues about where this new government might be taking us; what kind of vision it has for Australia; what kind of society it wants us to become?
As background, you would have been aware that the OECD’s annual report card on Australia, while lauding our prosperity and economic robustness, has for some years been warning of growing income inequality and a rise in poverty. According to the OECD, income inequality among working-age Australians has been rising since 2000 and is above the OECD average.
In Australia, the top 20 per cent of households control 62 per cent of the wealth, while the bottom 20 per cent have less than 1 per cent. As in any society, economic inequality has certain inexorable social consequences for such things as rates of imprisonment, social exclusion, class envy and social anxiety. Yet, year after year, federal budgets have consistently chosen to favour the already-wealthy through such measures as tax cuts, the inherently regressive GST, and generous superannuation benefits inaccessible to the poorer members of the community.
So perhaps you might have expected a ‘‘tough’’ budget to begin the process of redressing that socio-economic imbalance, since every budget is an exercise in social engineering. You might have wondered, for example, whether this budget would signal a revival of Australia’s once-famous egalitarian ideal by offering more support to the marginalised, more opportunities for people to lift themselves out of poverty, a blueprint for the creation of more full-time jobs, and some new ways to encourage the rich to accept more responsibility for the poor.
Anyone who dreams of a better world knows that a civil society runs on trust. We need to be able to assume that our fellow citizens appreciate the value of mutual respect and those qualities of kindness, compassion, care and concern that distinguish the much-vaunted ‘‘civil societies’’ from the rest.
But trust is more than a personal, private matter: it starts at the top. We need to feel confidence in the integrity of our institutions, whether political, legal, religious, commercial or cultural. We need to be able to trust our leaders, above all. In spite of our cynicism, and regardless of how often we might have been disappointed, we (and our children) still look hopefully to them as examples of probity, charity, loyalty, integrity and decency.
That’s why we are so badly let down when institutions and their leaders err – through anything from corruption or child abuse to the breaking of promises. And we are similarly let down by any sign of heartlessness in high places; any sign of harshness in the treatment of our most vulnerable citizens.
By such criteria, this is a profoundly disappointing budget. It’s not the economics; it’s not the politics; it’s the clear sign that this government has young people, the sick, the poor, the unemployed, the elderly and the marginalised in its sights.
It’s a budget that not only turns its back on the problem of inequality; it exacerbates it.
Hugh Mackay is an author and social researcher. He is an honorary professor of social science at the University of Wollongong.