The Politics of Wellbeing

We need to discuss the politics of ‘wellbeing’. Australia has a low level of unemployment and yet never before have there been so many Australians hungry and homeless. Each month an additional 1,600 people become homeless. Never before has an unprecedented number of Australians depended on food banks and been unable to afford essentials. Yet research shows Australians are working some of the longest hours of employees anywhere in the world.

At the same time, the Government has a $20 billion plus surplus. 

In this context, the Treasurer Jim Chambers recently produced what he called the Government’s first ‘Wellbeing Budget’. This budget, he claimed was all about ‘Measuring What Matters’. Wellbeing budgets have successfully been adopted by several countries. So did this document signal a new direction the Government would take to address the crisis in the wellbeing and welfare of Australians? Not really. The document contained hastily thrown together outdated statistics. Fundamentally, it did nothing to change the overriding mindset of what the Government values and prioritises and what it considers worthy of taxpayer funding. 

In her extraordinary Robodebt Report, Commissioner Catherine Holmes had the insight to ask not only what happened, by why it happened. She writes of the mindset of government that regards social welfare as “a drag on the national economy” and that “largely, those attitudes are set by politicians, who need to abandon for good (in every sense) the narrative of taxpayer versus welfare recipient”.

Unfortunately, this mindset of ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’ continues to determine the priorities and spending of the Labour Government.

It is this mindset that supports profligate, open-ended, largely unscrutinised spending of billions of taxpayers dollars on defence projects; e.g. $26b on consultants Defence Ministry consultants; $368b on questionable submarines; $9.8b on vastly overpriced transport aircraft. No fears were expressed by the Government that this unbridled spending could fuel inflation.

But when it comes to protecting not just our borders, but the welfare and wellbeing of the people within those borders, the Government adopts a parsimonious mindset. Funding must be eked out with utmost restraint and scrutiny. Increasing Jobseeker for the most vulnerable by $4 a day keeps people below poverty levels. It keeps them hungry and unable to pay for housing. It is a cruel mindset that legislates to have even this tiny increase go into effect only in late September, leaving the homeless to freeze through the winter sleeping in their cars and tents. 

The latest report on homelessness just released recognises that ”older low-income earners, particularly those on fixed government benefits, experience more homelessness.”

It reports that the scale of housing insecurity amongst older people aged 55+ in Australia is “significant and growing”. At least 270,000 people are already homeless or at risk of homelessness, most of them older women. And yet the Government presents a Housing Australia Future Fund Plan for only 30,000 social and affordable homes over 5 years. It allocates only 4,000 homes to be shared between older women and DV survivors. 

Housing, education, health, all essential components of the wellbeing of the people, are severely underfunded and neglected. If the wellbeing of the people were indeed a priority, Government could create a massive sovereign fund. To this end it could stop lavishing $57.1b of taxpayers funds on fossil fuel subsidises,  tax fossil fuel companies for profiting from our natural resources, remove the zero tax status of multinationals and major corporations, and apply a windfall profits tax, banks not excepted. And not introduce the Stage 3 tax cuts. 

Unless the Government acts to make significant changes, particularly in its mindset, priorities and spending, a so-called ‘Wellbeing Budget’ is merely politically correct window dressing.

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