There are three ways of framing a federal budget: as a means for the government of the day to reward its friends and punish its enemies; as a means of getting re-elected; and as a means of shaping a nation's future, either to make it more equitable and therefore stronger, or to boost and buttress existing inequality, weakening society and economy alike.
Each of these can overlap. Or one of them can almost devour the others.
The Prime Minister is right. The 2020 budget is an extraordinary moment in our history. With more than 1 million people without a job, unemployment is an urgent and immediate problem of extraordinary magnitude. It's time his government invested in the people, through a jobs plan that wasn't predicated on the discredited trickle-down theory.
But the Morrison government will still be rewarding its friends with tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy, and a gas-led recovery plan that was very obviously framed by some of these friends (how else do you interpret the Prime Minister's proposition that "gas chose itself?"). I'll come to the enemies later.
It will also clearly be framing the budget with an eye to the next election. So expect a banquet of sweets on somebody's table. Certainly no substitute for a good, solid, and widely shared meal.
The Morrison government would do well to consider that some who placed their trust in it at the last election are now unemployed. Others are in danger of losing their jobs. There will be many who, for the first time, might be thinking carefully about the settings that made their personal situation worse than it could have been.
Some will, for example, wonder how anyone could live on the lousy pre-COVID-19 unemployment benefit, at $40 a day, perhaps feeling in turn relieved that it was propped up by a strong supplement and then bitter that it has just been cut back. And fearful of an uncertain future.
Those on JobKeeper will perhaps feel relieved that the government ended up heeding the call by the union movement to urgently implement a wage subsidy to keep people in jobs. But again, there will be a bitter taste left by the recent cut.
And then there will be those who, because of the particular ideological prejudices of the government, were deemed ineligible, such as visa holders and people locked into casual and insecure work, such as in the higher education sector.
So how much weight will the government give this coming Tuesday night to shaping the nation's future?
Who actually wields the proverbial axe? Surely those who both instigate and benefit from the neoliberal trajectory, namely big corporate capital. Certainly not the voters.
A budget is a statement of a government's values. What a government does speaks louder than anything it actually says. Morrison and Frydenberg are assiduously talking the talk about rebuilding the economy and strengthening the nation's future. But what they say matters little next to what they decide about our future.
Interestingly, the word "decide" comes from the Latin de caedere, meaning to cut off. When a government decides to allocate our resources in a certain way, it effectively cuts off the possibility of their allocation elsewhere. Which is why vision is so important.
Central to the neoliberal story, however, is the deeply offensive trope that unemployed workers and others such as sole parents, people with a disability and young people, are a drag on the economy and especially on the budget, because they are painted as greedily swallowing up our national resources.
Which is why the Morrison government just loves to experiment with new and exciting ways to lower the price of labour for its friends by raising the level of humiliation for its enemies, through exploitative practices such PaTH, Work for the Dole, the inherently racist Community Development Program, and now a cheap labour fruit-picking plan.
At the same time, spending in the public sector, beneficial to the working class, is generally framed as being out of control and in need of reining in, whereas spending on one's well-heeled friends is framed as being good for "the economy". It is obvious that when they say "the economy", they mean profits; they don't mean workers.
Which leaves us with the question: who does the Morrison government see as its enemies? And do these enemies see themselves this way?
There's an old Turkish proverb: "When the axe came into the forest, the trees said: the handle is one of us." It's tempting to go for the more obvious reading, namely that the Morrison government is that axe, especially given it has just cut the incomes of those on JobSeeker and JobKeeper.
But judging by the 2019 election, the Morrison government is not the axe. It's just the handle. The axe head is actually the neoliberal, supply-side, economic agenda. The handles are replaceable.
Which is why, incidentally, Frydenberg's much-loved Margaret Thatcher once famously declared that her greatest achievement was Blair's New Labour.
No matter how friendly it looks, the handle is not one of us. Not when it metes out the suppression of workers' wages and rights, the normalisation of precarity in the labour market and in the social security system, the incremental dismantling of the public sector, privatisation, and tax cuts for corporations and high-wealth individuals.
But who actually wields the proverbial axe? Surely those who both instigate and benefit from the neoliberal trajectory, namely big corporate capital. Certainly not the voters.
MORE JOHN FALZON:
The Morrison government has, at times, cited its domestic enemies as being people using the security system, workers who have organised themselves into unions, and anyone else who can be deliberately "othered" on the basis of class, gender, race, sexuality, culture, age or disability.
Being a good handle, the Morrison government is able to qualify or even tone down its animosity towards us. But at its heart, the Morrison government hates the public sphere, with us in it! We reek too much of democracy.
Which is why we won't be seeing in this budget an expansion of the public sector to support the community, a massive and much-needed investment in social housing, a permanent increase to JobSeeker and other pensions and benefits, or a resetting of the way we work so that insecurity becomes the rare exception rather than the rule.
We won't be seeing a budget that delivers for women, who are bearing the brunt of the recession.
We won't be seeing an investment in the caring economy.
We won't be seeing investment in First Nations communities, or any communities for that matter, with the exception of communities set to benefit from systemically rorted grants schemes.
We won't be seeing a new vision for manufacturing.
We won't be seeing an expanded and reinvigorated TAFE or even a down payment on equitable funding for public education.
We won't be seeing a respectful package for higher education or a commitment to universal early childhood education.
And we won't be seeing a dismantling of the nefarious architecture of profiteering out of aged care (at the expense of care itself).
And, noting that the "all in this together" theme music has faded, we will probably be getting a bit more "enemies of the people" propaganda, especially targeting and tarnishing young, unemployed and low-paid workers (many of whom have recently been lauded as heroes), along with an oblique dig against the public sector (again, deeply respected by the community for its role as a cornerstone of support and stability in a period of national crisis).
The 2020 budget will be a means for the government to reward its friends and punish its enemies. It will also be an attempted means of getting re-elected. But it will also be a means of shaping a nation's future, not to make it more equitable and therefore stronger, but to boost and buttress existing inequality, weakening society and economy alike.
I hope I am proved wrong on all of this. But I doubt it. Not when the actions of a government suggest that it prefers to be the friend of inequality rather than being a friend of the people.
- Dr John Falzon is senior fellow of inequality and social justice at think tank Per Capita. He was national chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018 and is a member of the Australian Services Union.