Will we ever see a socially responsible budget?

May 13, 2021

They might be calling it the Women’s Budget, but the way I read it this budget attempts to appear to be in the public interest but it’s actually aimed squarely at the private sector. Funding allocated to target women’s needs is actually designed to give money to providers of services that employ mainly women and serve mostly female needs. These providers are increasingly for-profit, and there is little in the budget for not-for-profit groups, or for extending public services to serve the public.

Deliverers of aged, disability and children’s care services, which often exploit women workers in low paid jobs to minimise the costs of delivering services, are increasingly for-profit businesses. Yet there is no program funded specifically to raise poor wages and ensure adequate staffing by qualified staff.

Calling it a Women’s Budget only reinforces the ongoing gender divide in pay and the devaluing of feminised jobs such as nursing. These care services have shown their real value during the pandemic and it is past time to recognise that these and other health and welfare services are essential for the future wellbeing of societies.

My earlier article on childcare funding highlighted the risks of having providers’ control both fees and location of services. The Aged Care Royal Commission exposed the poor levels of care in too many services, and the reports of the NDIS Commission suggest there are similar problems. Yet the funding in this Budget goes no way towards fixing the endemic problems, just reinforces the needs.

While extra funding on childcare services is justified as freeing more women to join the paid workforce or take on more hours to increase GDP, it also undermines the value of unpaid care and the needs of those in care for better services. The value per se of services tends to be given a dollar value, rather than seeing services as valued for what they offer the target groups.

Another example is the Budget’s provision of funds for non-tertiary, private English colleges and other such services. The sector is in trouble with the lack of overseas students, but these services are often poor deliverers of adequate qualifications. At the same time, TAFE and other post-school public training services are also in trouble but are not given financial support!

The above examples show the Budget bias in its apparently generous funding of private for-profit community services over non-profit ones, which are often replaced by the private services.  Not-for-profit organisations used to respond to diverse community needs, not just try to earn the most money possible although some have recently followed the market models.

These examples will likely increase the levels of distrust of democratic political processes, which had started to fall during the pandemic as the government took action to mitigate COVID’s effects through public spending measures.  However, this can easily turn if the market based private sector is seen as dominating power! The Budget is likely to reinforce distrust!

Budgets matter! When I taught advocacy and policy at UTS, my first lesson was to explain the importance of government budgets. These were the annual indicators of what the various state, territory and federal governments were prepared to spend over the next financial year. If they failed to allocate funding for anything that involved any substantial form of expenditure, it would be most unlikely to happen. Therefore, these annual events firmly set limits for the proposed money allocated and revealed what was not to proceed.

Last year’s federal Budget had only one relatively small item targeted to women’s economic needs and lots of spending on the areas that advantaged primarily male labour and skills and other similar priorities. The then Women’s Minister denied accusations of bias on gender grounds by saying that infrastructure projects were important to women because they drove cars and therefore roads were needed!

That omission and response left some ill-feeling that was considerably exacerbated when young women organised big demonstrations to protest against workplace gender deficits, such as the march on Parliament House on International Women’s Day. AsJustice4Women took off nationally it reminded older feminists of the revival in the last century of the angry 2nd Wave and what we won. This budget, despite its inclusion of ‘women’s services’, shows we are still losing ground.

This Budget has doubled funds for helping victims of workplace and domestic violence and other health needs. However, there is little funding for fixing the causes of such violence. These funds again reinforce the roles of women as rescuers or victims of gender violence and there is no money to change the socialising of damaged men and young boys into less anger and desire to control. We need more programs to stop the violence if we want gender equity!

There are many other sins of commission and omission that will continue to penalise disadvantaged sections of our population. These include the expensive and ineffective Basic and Cashless Debit Card programs that cover close to 40,000 recipients (mainly Indigenous) in the NT, with trial sites in SA, WA, and Qld. Despite the failure of evaluations to identify any clear benefits of the cards, too many recipients of welfare payments have their payments controlled in this way. Surveys show most recipients are shamed by the card but the trials have been extended. Costs are high and again involve the private sector in aspects of administration.

Although the Budget also claims to be about jobs, it includes further controls over the unemployed on benefits which will result in 140,000 job seekers potentially losing part of their payments. Given these are inadequate and the job-seeking organisations are again privatised, this unfairness is more proof that the government doesn’t trust public service assistance despite flaws in the tendered-out services.

There are many more omissions, such as environmental damage fixing, no money for rotting archives and no money for social housing. There is some extra money for rural health doctors but not for other needed health services in these areas. However, the omission of funds for closing the gap suggests Indigenous needs are overlooked!

Will we ever see a socially responsible budget that includes at least a basic acceptance of the value of care, paid and unpaid, that can really aid the health and wellbeing of all? We need to restore the value of unpaid contributions in care, the arts, volunteer fireys, etcetera so we can sustain the society in all its strengths, not just the limited scope of GDP!

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