Budget vision leaves Australia’s structural challenges unsolved

By Melissa Coade

April 1, 2022

Scott Morrison
Scott Morrison claims 1,600 jobs will be created over four years. (AAP Image/Pool, Michael Wilson)

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has described the 2022 federal budget as an example of the Coalition government ‘kicking the can down the road’ on major structural challenges facing the nation. 

The 2022 federal budget is loaded with short-term election sweeteners and some ‘pleasing initiatives’, according to Wilkie, who has highlighted gaps on climate change, flat pension and government payment, health services and housing in his review of the budget measures.

“Real climate change solutions are grossly neglected in favour of gas in a stunning failure of responsible governance,” Wilkie said.

“Government pensions and payments are almost stagnant, forcing millions of Australians to live in poverty by design. Aged care remains chronically under-funded. The public housing crisis remains largely ignored, as does dental care and public education. And primary health care is set to continue its downward spiral with the current GP rebate in particular woefully unfit for purpose. This list is far from exhaustive.”

Wilkie also slammed the federal government for shortchanging Tasmania in its ‘pork barreling’ and infrastructure spending, noting a paltry $662.2 million only was going to the state for these projects mostly for Bass, Braddon and Lyons.

“At least Clark gets $13.5 million for the Hobart – Northern Transit Corridor, and will be a major beneficiary of the $839.9 million to maintain Australia’s scientific leadership in Antarctica,” Wilkie said. 

There were some short-term measures Wilkie said he supported, including short-term fuel excise cuts and one-off payments to low-income earners that would help to put food on the table.

“There’s some other good stuff. For instance, paid parental leave is being expanded and made more flexible. There’s more funding for mental health, especially for youth and suicide prevention. And the funding for the development of a mRNA manufacturing facility is obviously of vital importance.

“Reducing the PBS safety net threshold and the addition of new medications like Trikafta is also very welcome,” Wilkie said. 

Meanwhile, independent Dr Helen Haines called for more action on housing affordability than what the government outlined in this week’s budget. For regional Australia, the government’s first-home buyer package did not do enough to address issues with the lack of housing supply in regional Australia, she said. 

“Housing affordability is a huge issue across Indi. And while saving for a deposit is one part of the problem, we know there is a desperate need for measures to increase the supply of affordable housing,” Haines said. 

“Australians know this budget is aimed squarely at the election. They are rightly sceptical about the government’s intentions and would be right to question if these announcements are made because they are in the country’s best interest, or because they make good election promises.”

Haines has been a longstanding champion for a federal integrity commission, and absent money allocated for that initiative was something she derided, along with Opposition critics.

“Until we have a robust federal integrity commission, a real watchdog with teeth that can hold politicians to account, Australians will continue to lose trust in the government. 

“They will question whether announcements are made in the best interests of the nation or to win seats. We need an integrity commission to ensure we know our taxpayer dollars are being spent where they are most needed, not where they are most politically advantageous,” she said.

Putting public education last

The Australian Education Union said public education received a last-place treatment by the federal government in its budget, with president Correna Haythorpe saying the outcome was ‘extremely disappointing’.

The union said the budget spend on public education delivered a funding cut by $559 million over the next three years for public schools, while funding for private schools increased by $2.6 billion over the forward estimates.

It is public schools that are witnessing booming enrolment growth and have the greatest need for capital spending on new buildings and state of the art facilities and yet the government has failed to deliver that funding,” Haythorpe said. 

“Australia’s national skills pipeline is in complete disarray after a decade of funding cuts to VET. Yet the government does not see the nation’s worsening skills crisis as a priority with the federal budget failing to mention TAFE at all.”

No funding was allocated for capital works in public schools and the budget made no extra funding commitments to preschools, the union said. 

“The early education of our children is critically important, and this budget has failed to deliver on Universal Access of preschool for the two years before school.

“Prime minister Morrison has shown yet again his preference for privatisation at the expense of Australia’s excellent public education system,” Haythorpe said.

Critical childcare reforms

Early learning and childcare advocates have said the federal budget let down Australian families, with a campaign group named ‘Thrive by five’ contending the government’s flexible paid parental leave arrangements were weak. 

Thrive by Five director Jay Weatherill said in the past two years early learning costs went up for families by 10%.

“This budget fails to make childcare more affordable,” Weatherill said.

“[It] is a missed opportunity to invest properly in high-quality early childhood education as a key driver for easing cost of living pressures and supporting women and children.”

If the cost of childcare was prohibitive for working mothers, and especially families with more than one child, that would mean more children missing out on accessing learning during a critical period of development.

“Early learning is a smart investment with every dollar spent delivering about $2 back in economic and social benefits,” he said. 

Weatherill added investment in the workforce for the early education sector with budget money for improved wages, conditions, training and professional support was essential to drive reform that would make early learning accessible to more children.

“That hasn’t happened, which will mean longer waiting lists for families as centres struggle to attract and retain sufficient educators.

“Fixing the early learning system is the type of reform that will define this generation of political leaders, contribute to greater gender equality and set Australia on a trajectory of economic growth unmatched in our nation’s history,” Weatherill said.

Health hopes

According to the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM), improvements to the healthcare system in the budget were welcome but greater investment was urgently need to address a widespread crisis affecting hospitals.

“The College urges urgent attention and investment in healthcare workforce, with a key focus on bolstering and retaining senior nursing workforce staff who form the backbone of the health system and have left the sector in droves, leading to a significant loss of vital skills,” the college said in the same week midwives in NSW held a 24-hour strike for better conditions and more staff resourcing

Federal responsibility for investments that impacted dangerous emergency department (ED) overcrowding, acute hospital access block and ambulance ramping: aged care, mental health, the NDIS and rural, regional and remote healthcare (RRR) were also considered by the College. 

A more equitable and responsive healthcare system in Australia was needed, the College said, but this required investments across the board which this week’s budget did not go far enough to address. 

“ACEM’s three key areas of focus are: better healthcare for older persons in residential aged care; better access to specialist accommodation and services through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) for people with disability; better regional, rural and remote healthcare,” the college said. 

“Systemic issues and shortcomings in these areas significantly impact the abilities of hospital emergency departments, and the staff who work in them, to treat people in a timely and effective manner and leads to poorer outcomes – including death.”

It was a national shame Australia’s aged care system produced an inconsistent level of care, the ACEM said, and ‘massive commitment and investment to ensure aged persons receive the support they deserve’ was needed.

“ACEM welcomes the $468.3 million commitment to further implement the Government’s response to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, including the $22m investment for new models of multidisciplinary outreach into residential aged care facilities (RACFs) and $7.5 million for the Palliative Care Service Navigation Pilot to trial models for improved coordination of palliative care,” the group said in a statement.

“Despite the announcement of $49.5 million over two years to provide an additional 15,000 low and fee-free training places in aged care courses, ACEM remains concerned that the aged care workforce remains under significant strain and believes that longer-term investment is required to build and retain a high-quality workforce of clinical and care staff.”

Helen Haines added funding for rural hospitals was severely lacking.

“There is no transformational investment in rural hospitals or workforce,” Haines said. 

The number of Commonwealth Supported Places for medical students at rural university campuses will increase by 80, following increased investment in the budget. 

“We know young people who grow up in the regions, who want to become doctors and serve their communities, want to get their education closer to home. 

“That is why I am calling for an extra 30 places for medical students to be funded at La Trobe University in Wodonga as part of the Murray Darling Medical School Network. 

“These budgeted places are a welcome inclusion, and I will work with our local universities to make sure some of these places are at campuses in Indi,” Haines said.

 Measures for women’s workforce participation ‘modest’: CEW

Chief Executive Women’s Sam Mostyn said the budget was a missed opportunity to deliver the ​​significant reform needed to release women into economic participation. And since halving the workforce participation gap between men and women would deliver a $60 billion GDP bump by 2038, it made economic sense to do more to achieve that.

“Targeted, intentional investment is needed to deliver well-paid, secure jobs in the care sectors and to make early childhood affordable for families – a key of cost-of-living pressure that has not been addressed,” Mostyn said.

“We need to acknowledge that women have an essential role to play. Their underemployment and underutilisation should be a key focus to help grow our economy.

Care industries like early education and aged care services, where women dominated workforces, were chronically underpaid, undervalued work, Mostyn added. 

“These industries are vital to a healthy, functioning economy, but the workers – mostly women – are running on empty.

“We need to show care industries the respect they deserve through intentional policy that ensures secure, well-paid jobs. These jobs must provide career progression to attract the workforce of the future – both men and women,” she said.

CEW went on to say that for a so-called ‘cost-of-living’ budget, financial pressures on families across the country remained undressed on account of systemic issues being dealt with on either a surface level or not at all. 

“Right now, there are women who reluctantly say no to extra days of work simply because of the cost of childcare. 

“Australia needs to recognise that investment in early education is also an investment in women’s workforce participation. We must build towards a system where all children under five receive universal access to early education. We saw it work early in the pandemic and we know it’s a win for all,” Mostyn said.

Paid parental leave changes to include 20 weeks’ leave for mothers and their partners was welcomed by CEW however was still six weeks less than what the group has been calling for for a number of years now. The group also wanted a ‘use it or lose it’ clause added to the paid leave to encourage more partners to take up the offer. 

“Unlike the proposed scheme, a ‘use it or lose it’ approach is a proven way to ensure both men and women are taking up parental leave. Insufficient action on Paid Parental Leave means women will continue to be left behind.”

“Expanding the Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave Scheme to 26 weeks’ shared care would give both parents vital time with their family, while providing a mechanism to increase women’s workforce participation. This would be a real boost to GDP of $900 million a year through increased workforce participation,” Mostyn said.

New South Wales Liberal government happy

The NSW treasurer Matt Kean welcomed the budget’s $2.6 billion for infrastructure projects for his state, tax relief and measures to ease cost of living pressures to fuel the COVID-19 economic recovery. He congratulated his federal counterpart treasurer Josh Frydenberg for delivering on what he said was vital infrastructure, tax and cost of living relief.

“Also [on] important spends on preschools, aged care and domestic violence prevention,” Kean said. 

“This budget provides skilled training for in-demand industries, supports first home buyers and will help our state bounce back stronger than ever.”

The state government commended federal initiatives to give $346.1 million over five years to extend the Paid Parental Leave scheme to 20 weeks; the six-month fuel excise announcement to drive down costs at the petrol bowser 22.1 cents per litre; and a one-off tax relief to low-to-middle-income earners of $420.

Kean also underscored the commonwealth’s $1 billion pledge for four years from 2021-22 for the state’s flood recovery effort. He said the state treasury would now examine details of the budget to consider how it would feed into initiatives of the NSW 2022-23 state budget.

“We’ll also be looking for further opportunities help make people’s lives better, relieve cost of living pressures, and break down barriers to create a fairer society,” Kean said. 


READ MORE:

Critics blast budget’s missing measures to close the gap, zero money for federal anti-corruption commission

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