Imagining the Budget

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The Federal Budget this year coincided with the release of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Fratelli Tutti. Both are preoccupied with the shape that society will take after COVID-19. It is tempting to compare their different approaches.

Main image: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Budgets are rightly concerned with the economy and deal with economic relationships. This year the Federal Budget has been brought down in extraordinary circumstances. It follows a year in which the prevailing economic orthodoxy proved to be threadbare, and comes towards the end of a year in which the economy and society have been disrupted by the coronavirus. Those responsible for drawing up budgets in such circumstances deserve sympathy and encouragement, particularly from people as innumerate as I am. By all accounts this Budget seems to be prudent in its stimulation of the economy and in its provisions for the short term. It emphasises the importance of work. That is certainly central both to economic growth and to human wellbeing.

The success of the Budget, however, will depend on whether people respond to its stimulus by buying the goods and services that businesses provide. That question takes us beyond economic relationships to the whole range of relationships that encourage either trust or suspicion, hope or despair, individual self-interest or attention to others and to the community as a whole, or boldness or timidity. It has to do with the way in which we imagine the world. Our own imagining in turn is influenced by the way in which governments and politicians imagine the world and its workings in their ordinary dealings and in the budget. If their imagining is compassionate and generous, ours is more likely to be the same. It may be illuminating from the perspective of the imagination to compare the Budget and its setting within broader government actions with the vision of Fratelli Tutti.

The imagination is of critical importance because it shapes what we see and how the things that we see are related to one another. The encyclical at its heart is a meditation on attention, on opening our eyes to what and whom we normally miss and giving them due importance. It invites us to see the world through the lens of social friendship by showing the disastrous consequences of seeing it through the lens of selfish individualism.

In the encyclical the attitudes that reveal most strongly the quality of our imagination are related to borders and equality. The exclusion, neglect and ill-treatment of refugees and impoverished minorities disclose an inattention to people who share our humanity. So does gross inequality, where the majority of national wealth is held by few and the majority of people live precariously. Both these signs are evidence that people are not noticed and valued as human beings. They are seen as statistics and as ciphers within economic or migration policy to be evaluated by their usefulness to serve others’ interests. Their human lives, with the personal relationships, gifts, creativity, joys and griefs that constitute them, and the personal and social possibilities that all these relationships offer, are simply not recognised. This is a failure of the imagination.

When people are imagined as means to another’s ends, as statistics, as the impersonal objects of policy, there can be no social friendship. That begins in fraternity in which we attend to people as persons, enter the human complexity and aspirations of their lives, wish them well, and welcome them into society. It is about open borders and shared resources. Social friendship means that these attitudes are expressed in public policy that attends to the lives of the most disadvantaged and accepts the responsibility to sustain them and help them connect with society.

If social friendship shapes the imagination, governments in time of crisis will attend to the needs of those affected most. In rebuilding the economy they will keep in mind the quality of the relationships necessary in caring and a resilient society, one in which energies are freed, not stifled. They will imagine the economy in organic terms, with its parts interlocking in serving the good of each person in the whole society.

 

'If social friendship shapes the imagination, governments in time of crisis will attend to the needs of those affected most.'

 

The image suggested by the Federal Budget is different. It is that of a mechanism, a meccano set on steroids, which is built strut by strut and flange by flange. It gives lots of boys’ toys: equipment, roads, tax reductions, apprenticeships, big and solid things with high cash value. It is less generous with the softer toys: the dolls, books, games, paint boxes, jigsaws, and musical instruments that reflect relationships which can’t be nailed down or screwed together. We may ask, however, whether it is precisely these relationships that are most necessary for building the trust and confidence required to animate the economy.

This question is sharpened when we reflect on how the government imagines Australia after the immediate supports are withdrawn. It is a world in which people are valued according to their economic contribution and where a great gulf separates people who are useful from those who are useless. Support will be given to heavy industry but will be withdrawn from services; it will be given to young workers but denied to the older unemployed. The growing number of people who are unemployed, including disproportionately women, will be reduced to penury, the elderly who bore so much of the suffering of the coronavirus will continue to be at the mercy of businesses that profit from them, refugee budgets and support will be slashed, the homeless will return to homelessness, people relying on casual employment will be unprotected, artistic creativity will be dampened, and child care will be unsupported. It is hard to see how such a society will not become more unequal rather than less, and that people will not be more likely to hoard money than to spend it.

This represents a vision, not of social friendship, but of social neglect. The encyclical is pertinent because it shows that when social friendship is absent, societies are vulnerable, divided and stifled. The relationships central to social friendship are those between young and elderly, those nurtured through art and music, between men and women, and through friendship and study. They breed initiative and confidence. The social friendship expressed in care for the weakest in society and in building intangible relationships breeds personal altruism and a confidence that open purses as well as hearts.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis, encyclical, Budget 2020, Josh Frydenberg, social friendhsip

 

 

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Existing comments

Whatever ones views of Jesuits or the Roman catholic enterprise, prophets are called forth in every age. Andrew’s reflection reminds us of the complicity that all persons have who kneel before the god ‘Economics’. As I face the contradictions within my own responses I appreciate the lucid and compassionate view expressed in this article.
Martyn Robinson | 15 October 2020


Andrew I really enjoy your writing but I do feel unfairly under attack when I think of myself being in that ‘lucky’ category of people who not only have a good job and income but also a business that employs quite a few people. I don’t believe our staff are “not noticed” and I can assure you we (I) value them very much as human beings! Apart from my own business, there are many many businesses that are financially successful AND successful in creating a caring and healthy culture whereby staff feel very much ‘wanted’. I actually don’t believe that “the majority of people live precariously” but I fully understand life is very difficult for too many and more care is needed for “impoverished minorities” . Add the refugee problem and yes, there is much work to be done !! I just want to stand up for the many successful business people I know who set the right example in running their affairs, and who do ‘give’ to those less fortunate than themselves. Never enough maybe , but doing more than some observers image. Cheers. Jack.
Jack | 15 October 2020


I agree your your analysis of the black and white contrast between the Morrison Government's 2020 Budget and its inert foundation in 'a return to economic normality', and Pope Francis' encyclical which showed how a 'living' world creates a future for everyone, not just the few. The opportunity to look to the future was lost on the myopia of this conservative government. There was no vision or change from the past paranoia that 'greed is good'. It was just a case of 'more of the same'; with the old, unemployed and those with artistic talents put at the end of the line. What future is there for this country when the government of the day continues on its well-worn path to nihilism?
john willis | 15 October 2020


I wish this could be printed in every media outlet and preached in every parish in our country. Thank you, Mr Hamilton for this article when we have 1000 rough sleepers in my area alone.
Marie Cradock | 15 October 2020


Re politicians. I am under the understanding. No-one can ever say: ''I have never done anything wrong''. "I've done nothing wrong''. It is elaborated in the letter of John 1,2 or 3, somewhere. Who on earth can say that?
AO | 16 October 2020


What a pity socialist leftist policies which proclaim the Utopia of equality for all have proved repeatedly over the last century or so to fail the poor and disadvantaged miserably!!
john frawley | 16 October 2020


An article that sums it up, and well put; is it not time, then, that the 'boys offered the toys' will be the ones to stand up for their brothers and sisters and declare this budget to be unacceptable? Until enough people with voices that can be heard speak up, these injustices will only get worse.
Carla van Raay | 16 October 2020


...And I also rather like Judges who are humble. I find humility very aggregable in people in high positions... 'I do think that I was born under a very bright star," Ginsburg said, recounting her life and the obstacles that faced her... The main problem with women in power is they acquire the negative traits of men in power. And become like men in power.
AO | 19 October 2020


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