Treasurer Scott Morrison’s mantra on budget night was “Jobs and growth”.
Much of the political narrative surrounding the 2016 Budget was about creating jobs, creating pathways to jobs, filling jobs, training people for jobs. It was about jobs for the future, jobs for Australia.
It was about getting Australians back to work.
But what about getting Australia itself to work?
What about getting Australia working as one nation, one people, united by fairness and equity rather than divided by injustice and poverty?
Listening to the speeches of many of our country’s politicians, and the commentary that follows in the media, I can’t avoid the feeling they’re talking about an imaginary Australia, an Australia that exists only in an ideologically-created fantasy.
It’s an alluring fantasy, too, for many conservative Australians. It involves a world where the better angels of our nature materialise in the board rooms of the largest companies, and where paternalism – here called the “trickle-down effect” or “supply-side economics” or, more damningly, “voodoo economics” – is genuinely concerned not with self-aggrandizement but the betterment of all humanity.
But this is a world constructed from the thin and rapidly unravelling fibres of neoconservative economics, a febrile dream of a world with resources that would never run out feeding a market that would never stop growing.
This is a dream that Australia is only now slowly rousing from. We are opening our eyes and seeing what we have wrought: a broken connection between what makes a society wealthy and what makes a society liveable.
Families, particularly women and children, are increasingly worse off and dramatically vulnerable to domestic violence. Affordable housing is in short supply. For many, a world-class education is now unaffordable and world-class health care increasingly unobtainable. The majority of Australians now look forward to a retirement hindered by the threat of poverty and shortfalls in aged care. Unemployment in many parts of the country is entrenched and multi-generational.
That any of this is happening in Australia, for the size of its population one of the wealthiest countries in all history, is unbelievable.
No. Sorry. It is believable because it is happening. It is a tragedy, and a tragedy that at present has no prospect of catharsis because it does not seem the political will exists to turn things around, to realise that Australia is made of 24 million human beings rather than the companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.
Let me say that I’m not against business. I’m not against the accumulation of wealth and capital. I’m not against free enterprise.
What I am against is inequality and injustice. What I am against is a free enterprise system untrammelled by regulation that is both efficient and enforced, and without a system to redistribute equitably a portion of wealth so that the whole of society benefits.
Free enterprise cannot properly operate in a society that itself is not free but imprisoned by poverty and division.
The good news is that there is a solution.
First, we need to look over our shoulder.
We need to look back to the past and see how previous generations of Australians made huge sacrifices so that those who followed did not suffer from hunger, from despair or from fear, but instead inherited a nation with great promise, great ambition and great hope.
We are no longer making those sacrifices for those who come after us. We have forgotten what it is like to struggle for the generations to come instead of just for ourselves.
Second, we need to look out to the far horizon and not down at our feet. As a nation we are failing to future-proof because we have forgotten there is a future. We cannot afford political decisions made today simply to be about today, or the next news cycle, or even the next election. Every time the government chooses the short-term over the long-term, the future is diminished.
Third, investing in Australians instead of in huge companies whose management and majority shareholding live far from these shores, will make a dramatic difference, bringing benefits not just to society but to the national economy.
Fourth, politicians must not only comprehend that social justice and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand, but understand why the link exists. An IMF report from 2015 on the causes and consequences of income inequality will provide some of that understanding. In part, the report reveals there is an inverse relationship between income accruing to the richest and economic growth. A rise of 1% point in the income share of the top 20% leads to lower GDP growth. A similar increase in the bottom 20% is associated with a higher GDP growth. A similar increase in disposable income for the middle class also leads to higher GDP growth.
As Per Capita’s Stephen Koukoulas pointed out in The Guardian, “ … the government could have aimed to reduce inequality in the economy by skewing the income tax cuts linked to low-income earners [where the] marginal propensity to spend is higher … The cost to the budget of skewing tax cuts to lower-income earners could have had the same impact on [the] bottom line but with the benefit of faster GDP growth and jobs than what is currently projected.”
In other words, Scott Morrison’s budget is a slow motion crawl to growth and jobs. The problem is, the longer we delay taking action, the more the country’s options are whittled away. The longer we delay taking action, the greater the cost and the repercussions we let fall on the shoulders of our children and their children after that. By not acting now, we are implicitly shrugging off our responsibilities as good citizens.
By not acting now, we are failing to make Australia work for all Australians.