Parliament resumed on August 30 and the government's agenda was simple: delay marriage equality; justify the double dissolution; and argue the case for a renewed assault on living standards — I mean: “budget repair”.
The “budget repair” project was contained in a centrepiece “omnibus” bill that combines 24 measures from this year's budget that have not yet passed the Senate. It is an attack on students, welfare recipients, ordinary workers and the environment.
Fairfax's Jessica Irvine has dubbed the bill “24 shades of nasty”.
The largest single “saving” in the package is the proposed removal of an energy supplement worth between $4.40 and $7.05 a week to welfare recipients.
This supplement was initially introduced by the Julia Gillard government as compensation for the introduction of the carbon price. The equivalent compensation was given to others via income tax cuts. Those tax cuts have not been reversed, so why should the supplement be taken from Australia's poorest people?
To the class warriors in the federal government it is $1.29 billion being distributed to poor people and they want it back.
The second-biggest “saving” is the $1 billion proposed to be taken from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
Before parliament resumed, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on Labor to support his agenda — or as he put it, to “meet us in the sensible centre”. The “sensible centre” is propaganda spin for a right-wing, neoliberal agenda of slicing away at social services and the living standards of ordinary workers.
However, the rub is that the government launched their omnibus bill claiming that they were measures Labor had already supported in the platform they took to the last election. The government is using this fact to pressure the opposition to support the bill.
Michelle Gratton reported on August 28 that the “word from Labor sources has been that the ALP is expected to vote for all the measures in the bill” since these are the ones it “banked as savings before the election”.
Of course Labor reserved their right to examine the detail of the legislation and have not yet announced their position. It has been revealed that one of the measures in the omnibus bill was actually opposed by Labor in the previous parliament.
Further, opposition frontbencher Tony Burke has hit out at the government's approach calling it “deceptive” — initially the government said there would be 21 measures and it turns out there are 24. Also, while Labor threatened to cut $1 billion in ARENA funding, they were also planning to make up for it by investing $300 million in renewable energy elsewhere. Labor also scored points when they revealed that the $6.1 billion of savings claimed in the bill was really only $5.9 billion due to a “computational error” by the government.
Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese has spoken out against the proposed cuts to the energy supplement for welfare recipients. Labor should be “very cautious about voting for anything that hurts some of the most underprivileged people in our community,” he is reported to have said.
However, as Green Left Weekly goes to print, Labor is yet to reveal whether it will support the Omnibus bill as a whole.
The big question, though, is why is it even a debate?
Turnbull claims the moral high ground on the issue, saying budget repair is a “fundamental moral challenge”. In one sense he is right. We live in a society where:
* more than one-third of pensioners live below the poverty line;
* poverty rates are even higher among the unemployed;
* poverty, incarceration rates and health outcomes are all at alarming levels for Aboriginal people while funding for services is being cut;
* we need to budget $40 billion a year for an urgent transition to 100% renewable energy; and
* there is an ongoing crisis of inadequate funding for mental health.
These are just some examples of the moral challenges that Coalition and Labor governments consistently fail when they draw up budget allocations.
These pro-corporate governments always try to cut away at government funding for social services instead of raising revenue from the big end of town. They never talk of cutting the billions of dollars in subsidies to polluting industries or the wasteful expenditure of $50 billion on submarines.
It is because Labor shares this pro-corporate outlook with the Coalition that most of the omnibus measures were part of Labor's election agenda.
It would be unsurprising if in opposition they ended up deciding to oppose the bill. But that would not change the fact that if we want a government budget that represents the interests of ordinary people, we will have to need to build a grassroots, political alternative to the big corporate parties and fight for it ourselves.