Reflecting on the Federal Budget

This reflection on the Federal budget is jointly prepared by the Synod Social Justice Forum and Uniting’s Centre for Innovation, Research and Advocacy.

Last week saw the unveiling of the Federal Budget. Media reporting on the budget often starts with something along the lines of…. “The Federal Budget: here’s what’s in it for you!”

At its inauguration the Uniting Church pledged itself “…to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self-interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere.” More specifically, that statement in 1977 pledged the church to seek the correction of injustices and work for the eradication of poverty and racism. And with notable foresight, it also talks about safeguarding the rights of future generations, protection of the environment and the wise use of energy.

So, if we are a member of this church, with these concerns, our interest in the Federal budget will be correspondingly broader. Along with the question of what’s in it for me and my family, we will want to add:

  • What’s in it for everyone, especially the poor and vulnerable?
  • What’s in it for the environment and for future generations?

Having this wider perspective and asking questions like these is consistent with our Synod theme of uniting for the common good. The concept of the common good is shaped both by our biblical and theological traditions as well as by secular thought.

In the book of Jeremiah the Jews in exile are urged to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7)

The Hebrew word translated here as welfare is ‘shalom’, an incredibly rich and multifaceted concept with no adequate equivalent in English*. It comes from a verb meaning to ‘bring to completeness’ or ‘to make whole’. For individuals it represents integration of mind, body and spirit, attuned to nature, open to others and living in joy with God. Between persons it means justice and peace, harmony and reciprocity. It is the opposite of oppression, selfishness and indifference. It underscores the essential mutuality and interdependence of human beings and indeed of all life.

Within the Catholic tradition the common good is a core element of social justice teaching. It is described as the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment, to flourish. Catholic ethicist John Rawls says this requires having the social systems, institutions and environments on which all people depend, working in a manner that benefits all people. This obviously has implications for the role of the state and the policies of government, including the Federal budget.

The whole Uniting Church and each member of it has a role in critiquing the policies and decisions of government of the day in the light of our faith and mission. Assessing policies from the perspective the common good is part of that.  Uniting has a particular role, delegated from the Synod, to promote the welfare of people who are vulnerable, needy and disadvantaged. For a brief overview of the budget from that perspective, see below. Please note Uniting is conducting separate analysis on how the budget impacts on its capacity to provide services within our Synod.

What the budget means for…

  • Taxpayers: The announced cuts may stimulate economic growth by giving those with lower incomes (who usually spend a greater proportion of their incomes) more money to spend. However, the cuts make our tax system less progressive overall by removing an entire tax threshold. While a modest tax benefit (around $10 a week or less) will accrue for low and moderate income earners in the early years, most of the benefits will flow through to higher income earners in later years (e.g. more than $80 per week for someone earning $180, 000 per annum).1
  • Older Australians: The 14,000 new home and community care packages are welcome. However they are only a small proportion of the 104,000 people on the waiting list, which grew by 20,000 people last year. The government also announced two measures which will benefit those older Australians who are already advantaged by good health or home ownership: a bonus for those who work after pension age, and a government-backed loan scheme to allow people to use equity in a home to increase their living standards.
  • The unemployed: There has been no increase in Newstart or Youth Allowance, which are widely acknowledged to be inadequate, including by business groups. A very high proportion of children in unemployed families will continue to live in poverty. There are reports of a further $270m cut to TAFE.
  • People with a disability: There are some positive announcements here. These include recognising the problems faced by those people who used to receive disability services but are ineligible for the NDIS ($92.1m over five years), and the need to support carers ($113m over five years). There is also more support for people with disability to find jobs ($64m over four years).
  • Children and families:  Last year’s budget included significant changes to child care benefit and funding for primary and secondary schools. This year, expenditure on ensuring access to and quality in early childhood education and care over future years is being reduced (down by around 25% to $300m per annum).
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People: There is some welcome funding for indigenous health ($200m over four years) and Remote Indigenous Housing  in the NT ($550m over five years), both of which emphasise the needs of remote communities. There was also a welcome extension of Medicare for dialysis services in rural and remote areas.
  • People in insecure housing: There were no announcements to address homelessness or create affordable housing options (apart for the extra support for indigenous housing in remote areas mentioned above).
  • People seeking asylum and refugees: The government has doubled the time refugees must wait before being eligible for jobactive support (to 6 months). It has also extended the time refugees must wait to access certain welfare benefits from three to four years, though humanitarian entrants are exempt.
  • Health. The budget included two relatively small new initiatives: $83m over five years for rural health, and $338m to support mental health. The government had previously cut $715m from hospital funding, and there are reports the budget contains cuts to dental care for veterans, a freeze on Medicare rebates for specialists, and a further $2.1b of cuts to hospitals.
  • The environment: There were no major announcements regarding climate change or the environment. There were reports of a 25% reduction in the budget of the biodiversity and conservation division of the Department of Environment and Energy but these have not been confirmed as yet.2

In his official reply to the budget, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten focussed on:

  • Tax (replacing “$89b” of corporate tax cuts with cuts that would benefit low-income workers);
  • Industrial relations (restoring Penalty rates and enterprise bargaining);
  • Health (extra $2.8b for hospitals, particularly emergency departments and waiting lists for elective surgery)
  • Schools and universities ($17b for schools, and uncapping funding for university places); and
  • The environment (an emissions target of zero net emissions by 2050).

Mr Shorten referred to housing affordability and infrastructure without giving any specific details, and made no mention of funding for the NDIS or aged care, or issues relating to immigration. Please note that at the time of writing the ALP had not released documents supporting its alternative budget and therefore it remains to be adequately assessed.

Uniting will provide more analysis of the social and environmental implications of the policies of the major parties in the lead up to the Federal election and seek to make this material available across the wider church.

*Much of this material is taken from an exposition on the meaning of shalom by Michael Eastman in “So what for the Church” in, Inside Out, Eastman M (Ed); Falcon; London: 1976

References

1 Prof R Tanton and Ass Prof Jinjing Li. Most of the benefits from the budget tax cuts will help the rich get richer. May 10. Available at: https://theconversation.com/most-of-the-benefits-from-the-budget-tax-cuts-will-help-the-rich-get-richer-96348

2 ABC News. Rare species could slip into extinction as jobs axed at environment department. May 4.  Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-04/environment-department-to-lose-60-jobs-key-to-threatened-species/9722560




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