Since the Federal Budget was brought down on 13 May, much commentary and analysis has focussed on its fairness and the impact on social equity. Former liberal party leader, Dr John Hewson, for example, has weighed in on this issue in an article in the last few days.
It is of course quite right that broad community concerns about the ‘fairness’ and social equity of the budget are expressed but my concern is that it is too much a ‘them’ and ‘us’ discourse rather than a ‘we’ and ‘us’ discourse. By this I mean, it is too easy for commentators to express concerns about the effect of the Budget on low income or otherwise disadvantaged people – ‘them’.
This is fine as far as it goes but I believe it would be more helpful as well as more correct for the discourse to become much more one centred on the effects of the budget across the whole society – perhaps most people – in fact ‘us’.
There is a good reason for this. There should be a great disquiet about the new level of ‘risk’ that many people may unexpectedly find themselves exposed to following the budget.
The social safety net is not only about fairness and equity it is also very much a social means of managing risks such as unemployment, illness, old age…and of course poverty. There may also be secondary effects of the budget measures through families and communities.
As such, the budget may affect people in ways they did not expect. They may have thought they were relatively sheltered and that the effects would be felt by others. Consider the following scenarios.
1. There will be many middle aged parents or parent finding that they will need to support an unemployed adult child up to the age of 30, no longer eligible for Newstart, for months at a time. This may be at a time in their own lives when they need to be focussing on their own needs and view towards retirement. While the budget may not directly affect the middle aged parent/s , they will nevertheless bear the cost if an adult child has no other means of support. Sole parents will be particularly strained by the
2. Many people outside the social security system (no concession card) eg working people or self funded retirees who may be needing to see a doctor more frequently will be facing a new impost adding up to hundreds of dollars a year. The President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Brian Owler discussed these potential impacts in an article – Medical Co-payment belongs on scrap heap. The article posits many other potential implications of the budget measures such as on people in aged care facilities who will find it more difficult to access GP services. We may ask what secondary effects will this have on families and communities.
3. A redundant worker in his or her 40s looking to a retirement age of 70, needs to make a career change but wonders if the new fees for a university course will be prohibitive. This is another example of the secondary effects of the budget measures in higher education – possibly inhibiting people from making changes they need to keep up their skills for a longer working life.
These are just some examples of how the budget measures may impact very broadly across the community and not only on those who already doing it tough – although of course, there should be grave concerns about them.
While the government faces a backlash from the fairness angle of the budget, it should also consider that many people may be taking a cold, hard look at their own new exposure to ‘risk’ which the social safety net, and health and education systems have served to mitigate or underwrite for much of the post war period.
While it may think it can overcome the fairness objections to the budget by promoting ‘freedom, enterprise and liberty’ (see Joe Hockey’s speech to the Sydney Institute, it may find that the social risk objections, which are deeply embedded in personal assessments of the effect of the budget, are much harder to overcome.
Another dimension of this question of the broad effects of the budget concerns the youth population. Some commentators have pointed out that disadvantaged youth will be most affected which is quite correct. There is a significant new risk of destitution for people under the age of 30 especially for whom there may not be parental support.
However, this characterization of the relative effects of the problems for young people is perhaps underestimating the effects across the youth population except an exclusive minority – the “1%”. It is maybe more than the Occupy Movement’s 1% – perhaps 10% or even 25%, who will be well able to “survive and even thrive” as proposed in the article, most likely as a product of their family background.
Labour market insecurity reaches deep into many occupations and affects people emerging from education competing for a limited number of secure, decent jobs. Many stories have emerged of late of constrained opportunities across a range of occupations for new graduates even in traditional safe havens of employment such as engineering, teaching, and nursing. There is a high risk for a lot of young people of cycling between contract/casual work and spells of unemployment regardless of education.
The combined effect of the policy changes across social welfare and higher education in context of labour market insecurity, I would argue means that the majority of young people will be exposed to some risk of hardship and at the very least significant new stresses and anxieties in their twenties.
A portrayal of the issues as affecting the majority rather than a ‘significant minority’ may be helpful in future policy debate.
Again the issues are about ‘us’ not just ‘them’.