Better than nothing?

The public is no longer buying the Albanese government’s unofficial mantra that something is better than nothing

Announcing a one-off $5000 escaping violence payment in response to an overwhelming roar of fear, frustration and rage at the epidemic of gendered violence in Australia could become a defining moment of the Albanese government.

The backlash was immediate. Yes, providing financial support to people leaving abusive relationships is necessary. But no one – not survivors of intimate partner violence, not experts, and not the general public – believed this ‘solution’ would help. Re-badging a Morrison-era program with eligibility criteria so strict that less than half of applicants ever received a payment was an insultingly small step for a crisis this large.

The time for incrementalism has well and truly passed, so why is the government still insisting that something is better than nothing?

Federal Minister for Women and Finance Katy Gallagher’s appearance on the ABC’s Insiders this weekend gave us another example of this slowly-slowly rhetoric. When discussing the fact that women and children face poverty when leaving violence, host David Speers asked Senator Gallagher whether the government would increase the single parenting payment.

“Well, we did raise it in the last budget.”

Speers corrected her – the government did not raise the rate of the payment, but expanded access to it by lifting the cut-off age from 8 to 14 years old. The question of whether that payment is high enough, Gallagher doesn’t answer.

It’s a recurring theme. Making a small increase to JobSeeker payments, but leaving them below the poverty line. Legislating an emissions reduction target of 43% by 2030 – more than the Morrison government’s pathetic 28%, but still far below the 75% reduction required to prevent climate catastrophe. And on Sunday, Minister for Education Jason Clare announced changes to HECS indexation. Wiping out last year’s brutal 7.1 per cent increase is a good thing, but it doesn’t provide material cost-of-living relief, doesn’t reduce HECS payments, and never addresses the core question: should a university education cost that much?

If these incremental changes never add up to a whole solution, why should we count them as wins? And why should any government expect credit for them?

Decades of policy-making infected by neoliberal thinking have saddled Australia with problems on all fronts. Did Labor ‘inherit’ a mess? Maybe, but by now partisan questions about fault are irrelevant. When millions of people are financially drowning, women are terrified and young people are all but resigned to a lifetime of insecurity, the blame game matters far less than having the guts to implement the solutions we know exist

The ALP is misreading the public mood. We don’t want to hear our political leaders say that “things need to change”, we want to see them fight for meaningful solutions – even the ones that are tricky to implement or go against the status quo. We want to see experts being utilised when they put up their hands. We want to see the care that these big pieces of work require balanced with the urgency felt right now, so the ‘perfect’ policy doesn’t arrive too late. 

One term in government is not enough time to fix every problem, but it’s more than enough to show how you intend to approach them. In the past week, the public feedback on Labor’s approach has come in loud and clear: tinkering around the edges isn’t cutting it. We no longer live in a time that not making things worse is considered an acceptable alternative to measurable improvement.

Labor has positioned itself as the mere ‘something’ in contrast to the Coalition’s ‘nothing’ on a whole range of issues. It shouldn’t be surprised if, by 2025, voters have decided that’s all the same to them. 

Crystal Andrews is a journalist and founder of Zee Feed

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