Ethical keys to a just budget

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'Australia's purse', by Chris JohnstonThe governments of the States and Territories have introduced their Budgets for the coming year. Now comes the big one, the Federal Budget.

A government budget is the time when all the chickens come home to roost. As American political scientist Aaron Wildavsky said in his classic study, The Politics of the Budget Process, the budget is necessarily a political thing, and it lies at the heart of the political process. If politics is about 'who gets what, when and how' then the budget is a public record of outcomes and intended outcomes. Any budget must be considered in this light.

Wildavsky goes on to explain at some length what he means by the centrality of politics:

'Taken as a whole the federal budget is a representation in monetary terms of government activity. If politics is regarded in part as conflict over whose preferences shall prevail in the determination of national policy, then the budget records the outcome of this struggle.

'If one asks, "Who gets what the government has to give?" then the answers for a moment in time are recorded in the budget. If one looks at politics as a process by which the government mobilises resources to meet pressing problems, then the budget is a focus of these efforts.'

At this time last year I wrote Tips for a more discerning Budget night. It still stands as a general guide to approaching any budget. Among the ten points made in that article are several that are of special relevance to the Rudd Government's second budget.

I made a point then about the three-year budget cycle, commenting that in the first year a government can produce a mean, tough budget full of cuts to spending and rebuffs to sectional interests while in the second and third years a government can hand out goodies and election bribes.

Unfortunately for the Rudd Government, that no longer applies. The global financial and economic crises mean that the Government cannot afford to be generous now. All of its generosity has gone in stimulus packages.

As a consequence there is a lot that already appears to be clear. This budget will record a deficit so large that it may take up to a decade for future governments to pay it off and to return the budget to surplus. This budget must cut hard to do something to rein in that deficit.

Nevertheless many promises have been made, such as tax cuts, and many aspirations have been raised, including increasing pensions and introducing paid maternity leave.

The legislated tax cuts will be honoured by the Government, though what is given with one hand to middle Australia will be taken back with the other. And if the Government is not to seriously damage its credibility with sections of the community money will be found for pension increases and maternity leave.

Beyond that, even in the most trying circumstances, there are ethical principles that should guide any budget. These should be intuitive for all humanists and the general principles are common to many faiths, but they have been spelled out in Catholic Social Teaching in a way that supplements what Wildavsky had to say. They guide where money should be raised and spent and where cuts should and should not be made.

The key ethical principles were embedded in the pre-budget submission of Catholic Social Services Australia. They include catering for the needs and aspirations of all members of the community (the 'common good'), ensuring any economic burdens imposed are proportionate to the person's capacity to pay (distributive justice) and always giving priority to enhancing the lives of the most disadvantaged (preferential option for the poor).

These principles should determine who gets what from the government in the budget. If might is right then the preferences of the strong will overpower those of the vulnerable, including single mothers and the unemployed.

The Budget must be judged according to these principles. It is not enough just to target high income earners if those forgotten by society suffer continued neglect.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Australian National University and Flinders University and Deputy Chair of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: common good, distributive justice, preferential option for the poor, budget, global financial crisis



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Good article John. One correction though, the Queensland budget will be delivered on 16 June this year.

Tom Cranitch | 12 May 2009  

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