Illustration: Michael Mucci
Has there been an outbreak of compassion among the notoriously self-interested, hip-pocket-guarding Australian voter? How else to explain the violent backlash to the federal budget? And how else to account for the $1 billion in taxpayer cash awarded in this week’s state budget to fulfil an ‘‘obligation to help those in need’’?
The funding, which includes $500 million of ‘‘new money’’, will go to child protection, homelessness and disability services, which is startling when you consider that it is a pre-election budget. Kids and the homeless don’t (as a rule) vote, and disabled people are a small percentage of the population, not nearly enough to affect an election result on their own.
Is it possible there are votes in appealing to altruism? Or at least, votes in aspiring to a sense of fairness and the goal of a beneficent society?
Or does self-interest play its role here too? Perhaps it is just that the remainders of the global financial crisis linger in our memories, reminding us we are all insecure. Do we look at the homeless, the disabled, the unemployed, and think, ‘‘Poor bastard’’, or is it more along the lines of, ‘‘There but for the grace of God go I’’?
This week, former Labor Premier of West Australia Geoff Gallop gave a speech at the Sydney launch of Open Labor, which bills itself as ‘‘an activist community working for renewal of the Labor Party’’.
In it, he referenced the political philosopher John Rawls, who formulated a theory for the just distribution of goods within a society, which relied on reconciling liberty and equality – principles which sometimes pull in opposite directions.
‘‘Imagine you don’t know where you will be born, to whom you will be born and what your circumstances will be. Then ask: what sort of society would I want?’’ Gallop told his audience, paraphrasing Rawls.
‘‘Rawls comes down not for the unregulated market, not for socialist equality and certainly not for monocultural communitarianism but rather for ‘a fair society’ based on a modified – or might we say – a socialised freedom.’’
Australian voters, of course, have already been born and they already have their own unique circumstances.
But it seems we have not lost our imaginations – we might be employed, but we can remember a time when we weren’t, or we can visualise a future where our jobs might evaporate.
So we are happy for our freedoms to be curtailed (in particular, in the form of the government taking a portion of our incomes via taxes and re-distributing it), if we believe it’s for the greater goal of a ‘‘fair society’’.
If reaction to the federal budget is anything to go by, it seems voters don’t trust the federal Coalition to execute this. Next year’s state election may reveal NSW voters don’t trust Mike Baird’s government in this way either, but the early signs are good.
In March last year, then-Treasurer Mike Baird gave a pre-budget speech to the Sydney Institute in which he argued that fiscal consolidation (which his government did in the form of drastic public service cuts, efficiency dividends and other funding efficiencies) is the only way governments can guarantee social benefits.
He used the example of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which NSW had signed up to with the federal government.
‘‘Any government is going to want to participate in that scheme and you want the flexibility of finances to be able to participate in that scheme,’’ Baird said.
In other words, he linked his budget cuts (so fierce that public servants took to the streets in great number to protest against them) to social outcomes.
This is something the federal Treasurer has struggled to do, beyond vague talk of the ‘‘sustainability’’ of the welfare system. There are also internal inconsistencies which voters can see through – is the GP co-payment aimed at making the Medicare system more sustainable, or is it supposed to go towards fixing the budget hole? If the latter is the case, why is none of the revenue being funnelled back to the bottom line in the short term?
Neither party has a monopoly on fairness – as the Treasurer reminded us this week, when Labor was last in government it cut payments to thousands of single mothers by moving them from the pension to the dole. In his speech this week, Gallop argued voters rejected his party at the last election because they believed ‘‘Labor was incapable of transcending narrow interests and sticking with the common good’’.
Tony Abbott’s government is toughing out the budget criticism in the hope that once debt has been paid down, the government will be able to deliver some sweeteners (perhaps in the form of tax cuts), boast a much healthier national balance sheet, and convince voters that the pain was worthwhile.
They’re hoping we will see fairness in the rear view mirror, even if it is difficult to spot now.