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Neither seen nor heard


In a signature essay published last year in The Monthly, Treasurer Chalmers staked out an ideological terrain he described as ‘values-based capitalism.’ The Budget 2024 is quite the big reveal on what those values include and who they exclude. 

Capitalism is a set of power relations in which the desires of the chief owners of private capital (the what) take overall precedence over the needs of working people (the who). Apologists for this system defend this power imbalance as being in the best interests of everybody, arguing that those who own the capital are best placed to make the decisions about the lives of those who do not. 

The current federal Labor government, coming from a broadly social-democratic tradition (albeit with a more recent history of Blairite centrism), has set as its immediate tasks the improvement of the living and working conditions of working people while managing, and arguably improving, capitalism rather than challenging or transforming it. 

So what does Budget 2024 tell us about the values that are, in the Treasurer’s framing, the means by which capitalism can be saved from its now defunct neoliberal incarnation?  ‘In well-functioning democracies,’ writes Chalmers, ‘leaders listen or lose power.’ In his Budget speech, the Treasurer identified cost of living pressures as a chief concern for households across the country: ‘The number one priority of this government and this Budget is helping Australians with the cost of living.’

The Albanese Labor government has indeed considered the impact of what should more accurately be called the cost of profits crisis. And concrete measures have been taken to at least address some of its symptoms, including a deplorably untargeted energy rebate (of $300 per household), tax cuts ‘for every Australian taxpayer’ (including those on very high incomes), the funding of significant wage increases for workers in the poorly paid, and highly feminised, aged care and early childhood education sectors, the reversal of an appalling indexation hike for student loans, improved access to bulk-billing primary healthcare and a modest boost to rent assistance. 

While making some comforting noises about fixing the root cause of price gouging by the supermarket duopoly, it has ruled out any serious market intervention. Prior to the Budget, however, the federal government introduced some significant industrial relations reforms to address the systemic precarity that increasing numbers of workers are subjected to in a labour market that has been deliberately shaped by neoliberal values. 

But the people who have borne the brunt of inequality and precarity have been neither seen nor heard in Budget 2024. 


'The people on whom cost of living pressures fall heaviest have not been listened to. It is as if, in the scheme of things, their votes do not matter that much, or worse, that doing something that would take them out of poverty would be seen as an electoral liability.'


As the Treasurer rightly observes: ‘We know cost of living pressures fall heaviest on the most vulnerable.’ Knowing is one thing; doing something is another. This Budget was not designed to address the structural causes of poverty and inequality. Which is not to say that it does nothing in this space. Investments in health, aged care, education, housing, the care economy, the Leaving Violence Program, the extension of superannuation to parents on paid leave, and renewable energy are clear signs of a major shift in values and priorities compared to the previous government. 

But the people on whom cost of living pressures fall heaviest have not been listened to. It is as if, in the scheme of things, their votes do not matter that much, or worse, that doing something that would take them out of poverty would be seen as an electoral liability! Hence the logic of the energy rebate (we can’t help people on the lowest incomes without giving the same to those on the highest incomes) and the tax cuts (we can give tax cuts to the low-paid, but only on the condition that we give generous tax cuts to the highly paid). 

For First Nations Peoples the Budget has delivered a $770 million remote jobs program, and a $4 billion remote housing program. While both have been welcomed, Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC) chair, Matthew Cooke said that the Budget could have been a watershed moment but that: ‘The government's approach to investment contributes to the confetti shower of inadequate and piecemeal funding.’ 

In the crucial area of women's safety and equality, in addition to the Leaving Violence Program, $44.1 million has been allocated in 2024-25 to support the National Legal Assistance Partnership and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services. Elena Rosenman, Chair of Women’s Legal Services Australia, however, stated: 


‘This budget means many women's legal services will have to start planning to reduce services to women experiencing gender-based violence. If we are asking Australian women to trust that the system will be there for them when they flee a violent relationship, we must ensure they can access the trauma-informed, integrated legal services they need.’


Karen Bevan, CEO of Full Stop Australia, said something similar: ‘There is no new funding for frontline services, particularly for specialist sexual violence services. There are huge funding gaps across response and recovery programs, which is where the critical work is done providing support to victim-survivors.’

LGBTIQ+ Health Australia (LHA) CEO Nicky Bath observed: ‘Over the past year, this Government consulted on the health and wellbeing needs of LGBTIQ+ populations—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and other sexual orientation, gender, and bodily diverse people. So where is the funding for action? Despite the pressing health disparities, including higher rates of mental health issues, sexual, family and domestic violence, substance use, suicide, and experiences of discrimination in healthcare settings, the government’s budget fails to prioritise LGBTIQ+ people’s specific health and wellbeing needs.’

Jo Rostami, CEO of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC), summed up the Budget as follows: ‘Despite being marketed as a better deal for young people, this Budget has prioritised those already privileged, and failed to deliver tangible relief for young Australians doing it tough today.’  

Welcoming the introduction of a new Commonwealth Prac Payment (of $319.50 per week) for students on clinical and professional placements, from 1 July 2025, AYAC ‘is pleased that the identified courses – which train people to provide essential social services to the Australian public and are highly feminised sectors – have been targeted first, in line with recommendations made in the Universities Accord.’ AYAC also however notes that student groups have described the payment as a ‘slap in the face’, as it equates to being paid only $8 per hour while on placements.

Regarding the Budget measures targeting youth mental health, AYAC notes that ‘all these measures combined only represents a 1 per cent boost to mental health funding overall – nowhere near what is needed to address the current youth mental health crisis.’ 

People With Disability Australia (PWDA) President Marayke Jonkers, expressed concern regarding the NDIS: ‘The forecast to moderate the Scheme’s growth by $14.4 billion would seem to come at the expense of support and service delivery for people with disability who need it most,’ also noting: ‘There’s nothing that recognises the unique forms of violence experienced by women with disability or prioritises accessible and targeted responses to end the violence we endure at twice the rate. The gaps in the Leaving Violence Program for women with disability is emblematic of this.’

On the housing and homelessness front, Emma Greenhalgh, National Shelter CEO, notes, with deep concern: ‘The doubling of funding to homelessness service is overdue, but we are concerned that there is no significant uplift in a five-year housing and homelessness agreement – this is not a scaled investment to the demand that exists. We are also concerned that the additional funding in homelessness has come at the expense of the housing component of the agreement, specifically repairs and maintenance.’ 

And finally, you guessed it, the government could not bring itself to lift people who are living below the poverty line, especially those on JobSeeker and Youth Allowance payments, out of poverty by lifting the payments. 

All the military Keynesianism (read AUKUS) in the world, with all that this entails, is no substitute for being seen and heard if you are among those who are most violated by a system that is built on dispossession and thrives on disempowerment. 

The struggle continues, slowly, painstakingly, fraught with failures and setbacks. It continues as long as we are not silent, as long as we are honest and courageous enough to challenge and transform the structures that devalue and degrade, gradually replacing them with the means to properly care for each other, our planet and ourselves. 




Dr John Falzon (he/him) is a poet and sociologist. He is Visiting Fellow at ANU’s School of Regulation and Global Governance and was Vinnies National CEO from 2006 to 2018. He is a proud member of the Australian Services Union.


Topic tags: John Falzon, Budget, Government, Capitalism



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Existing comments

It's a wonder that John Falzon left Vinnies, a nation-wide Catholic outfit dedicated to obtaining a measure of justice for the poor to attempt to breathe fairness into a failed state-based service provision arrangement that has long abandoned any measure of Keynesian redistribution in hard times to accommodate the gremlins of neo-liberalism whose bottom line has always been profits.

John's quandary is that so long as Australians look upon the state as the dispenser of redistributive justice they're living in cloud-cuckoo land.

Given, then, the reconstitution of non-statist charities to fill redistributionist gaps, why isn't Falzon at the forefront of leading the case for keeping charities tax free? That would encourage bloated philanthropists to donate tax-free profits in far larger amounts to those who, like John, have the conscience and the skills to spend it where the neoliberal state, whether managed by 'soft-capitalist' Labor or the 'bone-dry' Coalition, won't.

Not only does that meet the efficiency flow-on so essential to spending excess profits conscientiously; it exposes the minimalist state for the societal hoax that it is, with an interest only in toadying to unelected foreigners by buying armaments and waging war than in investment in life-changing social services. Go figure!

Michael Furtado | 06 June 2024  

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