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Australians Want Fairness To Be More Than A Slogan

In Australia, the 'precariat' is growing.

22/05/2017 10:34 AM AEST | Updated 22/05/2017 10:41 AM AEST
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"Australians want governments and politicians to say what they mean and mean what they say."

One of the reasons Australians are no more convinced with or impressed by the Abbott-Turnbull Government's fourth Budget than the three preceding it is because it can't be divorced from the broader economic and political reality into which it has been released.

Edward Luce's new book The Retreat of Western Liberalism charts four big trends: a growing middle class in the developing world accompanied by the hollowing out of the middle in the developed world; the denigration of politics accompanied by weak economic growth; the unpredictability of global leadership in the Trump era; and the breakdown of trust that we are all in this together. He paints a convincing picture of why the "precariat" -- people without predictability or security, particularly at work -- are seeking political alternatives.

In Australia, the "precariat" is growing. Consider just a handful of crucial facts about the people-facing part of the economy: we have record underemployment; fewer hours worked per Australian than ever before; higher rates of casualisation and insecure work; record low wages growth and cuts to penalty rates.

for all the talk about "jobs and growth", key parameters in this Budget have actually been downgraded

We know what's necessary to address these economic trends and their political consequences: economic growth which is inclusive; work that is rewarded; and a decent social safety net for those at risk of falling behind. We also know what not to do: favour the top end of town over those who work and struggle; cut education and infrastructure investment; or hollow out the future.

That the Turnbull Government has continued down this path is part of the reason why its political stocks are so low, but not the only reason. If we care about the disconnects that Luce has described, then the last thing leaders should do is say one thing and do another -- the political strategy at the core of this Budget.

The Budget's gap between rhetoric and reality is laid bare in at least six ways.

The first and starkest is the authenticity gap in a Budget framed around "fairness". You don't need a focus group to understand fairness; you need a heart. This new-found obsession with "fairness" jags with the Turnbull Government's $22 billion cuts to schools, tax hikes for battlers, tax cuts for the top end of town, and its refusal to level the playing field for first-home buyers in the property market by taking action on negative gearing.

Second, for all the talk about "jobs and growth", key parameters in this Budget have actually been downgraded -- growth is down, wages growth is down, employment is down and the unemployment rate is up -- all the while there are 95,000 fewer jobs forecast in this Budget than the one before.

Third, they claim to be about lower taxes and smaller Government, but the Coalition propped up its Budget with $21 billion in new taxes.

Fourth, despite spruiking $75 billion in infrastructure investment over the next 10 years, the Government's Budget papers actually show funding for this coming year has been slashed by $1.6 billion, to $7.6 billion, and will continue to fall to just $4.2 billion by 2020-21. It's no wonder peak body Infrastructure Partnerships Australia has slammed the Government, saying its Budget "sees infrastructure funding at its lowest level in more than 10 years".

Fifth, they promised to "fix the Budget", but their own numbers show record net debt for the next three years; a deficit for the coming year, which is 10 times bigger than was predicted in their first Budget in 2014, and; gross debt expected to crash through the half-a-trillion dollar mark within weeks for the first time in Australia's history.

Finally, the Treasurer talks about "better days ahead", but last week's post-Budget ANZ-Roy Morgan survey shows consumer confidence is at its lowest in 17 months and the worst under Malcolm Turnbull's leadership.

For all of these reasons, the Coalition's carefully crafted political strategy is crumbling. Even if Australians support some aspects of the Budget, the authenticity gap means they don't think the Turnbull Government believes in them or can deliver them.

Australians want fairness to be more than a slogan. They want governments and politicians to say what they mean and mean what they say. They want leaders whose policies stick because the parliamentary team is united behind them.

This is one of the reasons why Labor has found relevance and resonance from Opposition and led the policy debate. The Turnbull Government's political strategy -- to reset its relationship with the electorate -- won't succeed because the Prime Minister doesn't understand fairness, doesn't believe in it and doesn't mean anything when he mouths it.

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