Hard heads, warm hearts, blind eyes

With its paltry nod to frontline and legal services, this budget has failed the most vulnerable

In yesterday’s edition of The Politics, Jack Toohey made a perceptive observation of Jim Chalmers’ third budget. “In the face of mounting crises,” he wrote, “incrementalism is not the hallmark of wise leadership, but a sign of a government failing to meet the moment.”

Toohey was talking about the housing crisis, which in the past two years has rapidly outpaced the Albanese government’s halting and miserly response. Tuesday’s budget announced $6.2 billion dollars for social and public housing. But this is a drop in the ocean in Australia’s $10 trillion dollar housing market. Any new homes won’t be coming for some time: housing starts are currently at their lowest level in eleven years.

Failed incrementalism is also a criticism that could be mounted against the welfare and social policy measures announced on Tuesday night, many of which are worthy, but collectively won’t touch the sides of the standard of living crisis ordinary Australians confront.

As Greg Jericho pointed out this week, Australian wage earners have lost an astonishing 14 years of wage growth. Despite their recent upswing, real wages are now where they were in September 2010.

This is the context in which Chalmers decided not to increase the rate of income support payments on Tuesday night. Yes, there was some extra money for rent assistance, and some modest tweaks to the worst punishments of mutual obligation. But given the severity of the cost of living crunch hurting low-income Australians, these measures are fragmented and meagre.

In 2022, the Albanese government commissioned an Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee, chaired by former Labor social services minister Jenny Macklin. The Committee made specific and firm recommendations for this budget. Recommendation number one was “substantially increase JobSeeker and related working age payments and improve the indexation arrangements for those payments.” Chalmers ignored that recommendation.

At just $385 a week, the current rate of NewStart is a doleful $224 a week below the Henderson poverty line for a single person working, before housing costs. Can anyone afford to rent in an Australian city on an income of $385 a week? No, they can’t. As Kate Allingham from Economic Justice Australia pointed out in response to the budget, “this Budget does very little for those on the lowest incomes in the country. People reliant on Jobseeker, Youth Allowance, pensions and other payments will remain in poverty due to low maximum payment rates.”

Perhaps the most bewildering aspect of Tuesday night’s budget was its failure to fund community legal centres. There was a tiny $44 million in new Commonwealth funding for community legal assistance. Astonishingly, the budget failed to commit to a renewal of the National Legal Assistance Partnership Agreement, which will expire next year. There’s no funding in the budget to continue it.

Community legal centres are literally the frontline of domestic and family violence: often the first place that victims turn to when attempting to flee a violent relationship. The failure to guarantee new federal funding may force some centres to wind down, or even close. According to the CEO of Community Legal Centres Australia, Tim Leach, “this budget leaves many community legal centres no choice but to prepare to wind down programs and services.” The Welfare Rights Centre has already announced it will start withdrawing services from 1 July.

The family violence sector was shocked at Tuesday night’s budget. Despite the flurry of activity surrounding the recent National Cabinet meeting focused on the issue, the budget included very little funding for frontline domestic and family violence services. Yes, the $925 million in additional funding for the Leaving Violence Program announced by Albanese in April was budgeted for. The government also committed to a long-awaited National Student Ombudsman aimed at addressing the epidemic of rape on university campuses. And there were commitments of $13.1 million to support refugee and migrant women, and $11.7 million to extend a First Nations Family Dispute Resolution pilot.

But, like housing, such small and targeted investments are manifestly inadequate to the scale of the crisis. Women’s legal services are particularly dismayed. “We are deeply concerned that the Albanese Government has completely overlooked the critical work of women’s legal services,” Elena Rosenman, the Chair of Women’s Legal Services Australia wrote in a budget response. “We are already forced to turn away over 52,000 women every year due to lack of adequate resources.” According to Karen Bevan, CEO of Full Stop Australia, “there is no new funding for frontline services, particularly for specialist sexual violence services.” That $44 million won’t go far.

There was an excellent question to Chalmers from the Guardian’s Paul Karp this week at the National Press Club. Acknowledging that the government had raised the rate last year, Karp asked him, “What would the economy and Budget need to look like for you to further increase JobSeeker?” Chalmers waffled in response, eventually settling on a cute catchphrase about “good Labor governments with hard heads and warm hearts … will do what they can to always help the most vulnerable people in our society.”

But the evidence suggests otherwise. With a $9.3 billion surplus, Chalmers and Labor could have done a lot more to help the most vulnerable. They have chosen not to.

Ben Eltham is a writer, journalist, researcher and unionist.

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