BUDGETS AND KNIFE EDGES THAT CUT

Posted by SCA on  September 20, 2019 |
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1500 words – about a ten minute read

Today, Thursday 19 September 2019 the Government announced the Australian federal budget was back in balance – well, almost.  A deficit of $641 million dollars was “effectively zero” to quote that quickly stated and accompanying disclaimer and besides, the $641 million deficit was far better than the $6 billion deficit the treasury forecasters feared would find form in today’s ledger.  A sudden and far better than expected return in the resource sector – specifically iron ore prices – made the “effective balanced budget” announcement possible.  There was surely much teeth gnashing as the calendar ticked closer to today’s date – if only some $5 billion could be found there’d be no egg to wear and the pre-election signalling to be “back in black” would avoid being negatively cast in endless rotation on the days news bulletins.  And so it came to pass, that the Government went for the the best return against the cohort least likely to bite, fight or leverage back – the disabled. When a $4.6 billion drawdown from funding the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is executed to make a political announcement possible, even where little public outrage will ensue, we must again ask ourselves what index a society uses to measure its value? Numbers, in isolated presentment, tell us, at best, half a story about the health of an economy and even less about the values, programs and commitment to protect that society’s principles.

Where a society is surely measured by how it treats its most vulnerable, today’s announcement is more about signalling and party promotion than honouring a promise to those least able to defend themselves; more about an urgent mandate to satisfy an election marquee marketing promise.  I really don’t think closer analysis reveals anything worth celebrating.  The final “almost surplus” counted as not point not seven percent of GDP and thus, with much sophistry of a good magician, voila, the budget was shown to be “effectively” balanced.  Back in the black – absolutely and positively, as in literally, within nine months (according to still more treasury forecasts) from today’s announcement… almost – though I would not hold my breath.  More so still, one may ask, at what cost and expense have we endured to almost get to zero?

A healthy economy must, like any good muscle, be stimulated – and so much of what’s unfolding is contraction within Australia.  How we got to zero and what – as well as who  – more pointedly – paid and shall suffer to make it so, shall require some spin from the Government, but a bit of noise the Government similarly factors in under the expectation that the public, writ large, shall largely soon forget.  The most vulnerable in this Commonwealth paid, quite unwillingly, to make the balance thus – via a drawdown of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) amounting to $4.6 billion.

An economy, like the nation itself, is judged by many standards – an economy that is stagnant may have no debt but may show little or no growth either – more kitten than tiger. The Australian economy is sluggish – consumer spending is way down (distressing indeed where household consumption is 60% of GDP), household debt way up, wages are not good, and the RBA is cutting so low they’ve almost reached zero and will soon be flirting with “less than zero” and had the resources sector – specifically higher than expected higher iron ore prices – not eventuated, to the delight of the executive, that flirtation with a balanced budget would have been a complete miss.  The economies in trouble – a bit of fiscal stimulus would not only be helpful but likely critical to healthy growth – but easy messaging around deficit and surplus, negatives and positives, is a far easier branding exorcise between the parliamentary executive and most of the electorate.   Again, nothing to see here – how good are we?

The National Australia Bank has flagged economic growth at an anaemic 0.2 percentage points teeing up annual economic growth to end up with the weakest GDP growth in almost two decades.  The average punter is just happy they can keep pace with their own bills and have some kind of a weekend and so they listen to the quick spin on the news bulletin in the arvo that talks of a balanced budget and they think – how good is that – as a rhetorical question in the affirmative and not a serious question.  “We’re better at managing money” was a good election narrative by the LNP but are they really?  When the average Aussie is broke one sweats; if you just get across the line, even if just thus and you can look forward to the next pay check – well, for most, that’s  good enough – a sensibility that may have a bit of residual effect from that omnipresent cultural legacy that is the  tall poppy syndrome -and a too often default setting used to gauge the national economy: National Budgets should not find equivalence with household budgets and yet that’s often precisely how they’re contemplated – where they are considered, at all.  The kind of society we wish to be and how we treat the most vulnerable a consideration that should be paramount to a liberal democratic government… but who has time for such detail?  Right?

The truth is that too many people are underworked – having far fewer hours than they’d wish or need and the gig economy is a “fun euphemism” for further insecure work – a magical branding exorcise akin to calling ragged clothes the latest in modern minimalism – and we as a public, generally echo these cynical but no less effective social trumps – in short, they work and there is little collective protest.  If you call Telstra, TPG, ANZ, Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, and on and on and on you will, in all likelihood have your call taken offshore where someone in India or the Philippines is being paid 1/20th the wages mandated onshore by the various Commonwealth employment agreements and with no benefits or entitlements.  We make a big deal out of the “Made (or grown) in Australia” sticker but how about “Working in Australia”? Economies are funny things – in liberal democracies in the 21st century their becoming positively complex, even as their marketing to the public writ large takes on a paradoxically simpler and simpler framing around negatives and positives, both literally and figuratively– but government has a relationship with large corporations and much is lost to find some gains. I recognise the realpolitik, even if many do not, though I keep hoping they shall – which is why easy signalling and branding of “strong fiscal management” via a balanced budget is an easy sell for government… most of the time.  It also skirts that conversation about what kind of a nation we have been, currently are and what we wish to become – 1’s and 0’s being so much easier to toy, crow and manipulate.

The greatest insult however, is that in their rush “to find balance” and thus meet the ideological and political narrative spun out to the electorate, which Scott Morrison set as a mandate in the lead-up to the federal election of May 2019, billions of dollars – yes, Billions with a “B” – were taken from the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS); $4.6 billion to be precise.

If one is going to be cynical or just plain austere – depending on how you brand your actions, the adjective “pragmatic” is oft intoned to explain why 679 of Australian’s quite powerful corporations should pay no income tax.  Government clearly takes this position but many people find the failure of 679 of Australia’s largest corporations, many foreign owned, not paying one cent of tax more than a bit of a concern.  One may, by such action, send a signal internationally that Australia is not the best place to conduct business and the associated monies from such overt loss to treasury in the form of taxes is made up in other ways and so the corporations get a pass and their creative but perfectly legal tax strategies are legislatively tolerated. Go for the disabled – their lobby is markedly less capitalised and thus significantly less intimidating – which is just another way of saying the disabled don’t have half as much leverage as the privileged corporate elite.  We deign to believe in the rule of law but the rule of power has quite an insidious way of creeping in to the social court that good law of rule is supposed to steward and otherwise protect.

The Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Stuart Robert, spoke in Parliament yesterday and assured the public that all eligible NDIS applicants would be fully funded – nothing to see here; all is well – back to the fields.  The problem, amongst a great many, is that even if that statement endures the test of time it quite pragmatically fails to acknowledge the many persons who will simply be deemed ineligible – like our son, Dylan.  The conversation around “the invisible people” of Australia shall not even find exchange – that cohort whose home is indeed Australia but under cynical manipulation of the Migration Act 1958 become less a group of second-class citizens but quite literally non-class-citizens.  The ongoing parsing around permanence of place continues to create a divide in Australia that many are not even aware exists but which I aim to make known – hopefully.

Where so many applicants were simply denied their denial leaves in its wake a cohort that have little capacity to affect appeal or attend the political equity such mandate for remediation requires – but setting aside this most aggrieved and desperate class we can consider the very scheme itself, established to protect the most vulnerable but the first tranche to be surgically – and creatively – cut by Government in quest of its marquee pledge to “balance the books”. The federal budget had to be seen to be balanced yesterday – by any means necessary – because an election was won on such trumpeting.  The bugle call however has come at the cost to the nation’s disabled and unless one is personally effected such people are easy to forget.  Besides, the next media distraction will come along shortly – as sure as night follows day – and the government, even where the event can be as equally grim, relies upon such endless headlines competing for the publics limited attention span in a news cycle more 24 second than 24 hour.  Complexity is confusion and confusion is easily gamed.  “How good is a 24 second news cycle?”  It’s great because it can be tempered by easy slogans and the permission to forget or never study the broader detail.

I don’t want to hear about unfunded empathy – I just want some good old fashioned, Australian dinky die fair dinkum decency restored to leadership and the nation.

Coming up in a future article; “The Invisible People”. Our little boy who has no other home and is woefully segregated by the Commonwealth in which he lives. He is amongst that cohort of Australian residence now marching towards two million people who are part of the census, who drive the economy with spending and who call Australia home but they’re not only second class citizens – like so many of the disabled – they simply do not count in today’s modern Australia.  A nation that once proclaimed itself the land of the fair go – but is that still part of the national identity or just a catchy slogan used for political affect?

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