Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has announced measures for community support in the coming months, we also need to consider Australia's priorities in the long term.
Government provisions during COVID-19 have been welcomed across the political spectrum. But serious concerns have been raised about how Australia will repay the debt.
Meanwhile, just before the Eden-Monaro byelection, it was announced Australia's military budget will continue to rapidly expand, totalling $575 billion (more than double the announced $275 billion) over the coming decade.
Australia's budget is not a magic pudding. The choices we make have major impacts on many people's lives.
Why is our burgeoning military budget sacrosanct? Why is there so little public debate about this massive budget expenditure? Are opposition politicians simply too scared to be labelled "weak"? Is it actually making us more secure?
There is also a failure to adequately assess Australia's rapidly growing defence expenditure. Far too much of it has been wasted on inappropriate or poorly administered projects.
We could start by reviewing the controversial $89 billion Attack class submarine contract. Globally we see rapidly changing technology, such as underwater drones, satellites and artificial intelligence. Yet the extraordinary cost of these subs, the first (optimistically) launching in 2035, is justified by the literally incredible assurance that they will still be in service until 2080. The expert advisory panel advised against and the auditor general has been scathing, while even Defence has classified it as a "high-risk" project.
We have failed to learn from the F-35 jets debacle, which was deeply flawed, highly politicised, hugely delayed and extremely costly. Last year two recent Air Force chiefs asserted the Air Force's brand-new fighter is inadequate. This is strategically unacceptable and a waste of taxpayers' money.
The Coalition are supporting the weapons industry as a priority in Australia. The same government that refused subsidies to the manufacture of cars is now subsidising the manufacture of weapons. Again, there has been minimal public debate about this choice.
The Coalition has offered $3.8 billion in loan guarantees (and also grants) to weapons companies. We are assured these billions will create jobs.
Yet there is good research showing the same equivalent funding creates more than twice as many jobs in healthcare and education, and almost one and a half times more in renewable energy industries.
How have these political decisions been made? Australia's failure to be transparent about both donations and lobbying raises concerns about undue influence.
Defence contracts are opaque and often untendered; in the 2019 caretaker period alone $42 billion in untendered contracts were issued to weapons companies. These companies have deep pockets for lobbying and donations.
The Centre for Public Integrity, comprising lawyers, ex-judges and integrity experts, has noted
"There is ample evidence of the power of money in our political system. Currently there is no agency that can effectively investigate corruption allegations in federal politics and public service. A national integrity commission with strong powers and ability to hold public hearings is crucial to public trust."
Could these funds be spent in a more effective way? With greater scrutiny and better choices, we could improve Australians' security in other ways. For example, recent cuts to DFAT staffing and Australia's diplomatic capacity ignore the role of skilled negotiation and conflict resolution in making our region more peaceful. Diplomacy underpins Australia's role as a middle power.
Given our long relationships with both China and the US we should be working to reduce tensions between them. Being dragged into a war between these two superpowers would be catastrophic.
What else could we do with this money? My personal list would include:
- Increase the Newstart allowance. In 2018 there were over 3 million Australians living below the poverty line, including 739,000 children, according to ACOSS. Sole parents were the hardest hit.
- Fix public housing. The most recent census in 2016 found 116,000 Australians were homeless. In 2018 a report from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found $5 billion annually is needed between now and 2036 to catch up on the vast backlog in social housing.
- Domestic violence remains a dire threat to many Australians. As well as affordable housing, legal aid is essential. Yet federal contributions to community legal services have been stripped back - so much so last year the Law Council stated: "Hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts by successive Federal governments have pushed legal aid to the brink of collapse".
These would be my choices. What would yours be?
We need more public debate about how much to spend on Defence, better scrutiny, transparency and accountability and discussion of alternatives.
When it comes to political choices, the public interest must come first. It has been good to see the financial support provided during the pandemic. But long-term underfunding of the important areas that genuinely make people safer must be challenged.
So when politicians talk about making Australians more secure, we need to reflect on what "security" really means.
Extravagant weaponry makes for showy announcements, but real security is much more effectively provided by basic income, housing, legal aid, healthcare and education.
In addition, bolstering our diplomatic capacity and avoiding sparking a regional arms race must be priorities.
There is not much that is good emerging from this pandemic but alongside the many calls for action on climate change, prioritising genuine security would improve the lives of millions of Australians.
- Dr Margaret Beavis is vice-president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, Australia.