Why is it that even when the mainstream media are critical of the actions of the Liberal government, they nevertheless accept the premise on which those actions are based? They allow the Liberals to frame the argument.
Let’s take three examples from the discussion of the budget.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard or read the phrase ‘budget repair’ in relation to Joe Hockey’s slash and burn of the Australian welfare system. See, for example, here, here, and here. ‘Repair’ is a positive word. It’s good to repair things. You only need to repair something that’s broken.
The unspoken narrative here is that Labor left the budget in a state that needed drastic mending – you know, chaos, dysfunction and all that. It’s true that the budget needs long term attention to the revenue side, and that large deficits are counterproductive. But Australia’s deficit is relatively small. It isn’t true that there is a short term budget emergency, as any number of respected economists have noted. Labor didn’t ‘overspend’. It spent less than most years of the Howard government. And the Liberals are quite happy to get rid of revenue that comes from the carbon and mining taxes, and to forgo the opportunity to tax the super contributions of high income earners.
No, the budget represents a deliberate choice to reduce the size of government, to create what Hockey calls a ‘smaller, less interfering government’, and to push spending in health and education onto the states, who cannot, of course, afford it. This is not fixing something that’s broken. It’s deliberately smashing it.
Why isn’t this the story? How about a headline that frames it differently. Nothing too radical, just emphasising breaking not fixing. ‘Hockey’s Budget Undermines Federal-State Relationships’ perhaps? Or ‘Small government means cuts in health and education’?
My second example is ‘the end of the age of entitlement’. Parroting this phrase just assumes there ever was an age of entitlement for those in need.
A properly targeted safety net for the poor, the sick, the unemployed and those with a disability is part of our social contract. It is a right. It might once have been called an entitlement – something that comes with citizenship – but that word has now been tainted, and implies the opposite, that the safety net is something that people feel entitled to when they shouldn’t. It’s code for handouts to the lazy and the greedy, people who ‘lean’ on the state. This is the frame that the government is using, and who is challenging it?
For better or worse, Australia’s welfare system is amongst the most carefully targeted in the world. There can be arguments about whether middle class Australians receive too much government assistance, but the budget has scarcely addressed these, as Ben Eltham shows in his article in The New Matilda.
Indeed it has added another ‘entitlement’ in terms of the paid parental leave scheme. While eligibility for family tax payments will be tightened, the real losers are the young unemployed and older Australians who lose their jobs. You can read more of the detail here and here.
Hockey thinks it is the unemployed person’s responsibility to find work. But workers don’t make investment decisions, decide to move offshore, or close Ford, Holden and Toyota.
Hockey noted early in his budget speech that there were over 700,000 unemployed people in Australia, but there certainly aren’t over 700,000 jobs waiting for them to get off their bums and find. He must know this, and simply doesn’t care.
So how could this be reported differently? By putting the social contract front and centre. Let’s try ‘Hockey Smashes Social Contract’. Or ‘Government Repudiates Right to Safety Net’. Or ‘Government to Weaken Welfare System’.
My third example relates to changes to Medicare through the imposition of a ‘co-contribution’ – a weasel word in itself.
The decision to devote $5 of the $7 co-payment to a medical research future fund has been called the one bright spot in the budget, for example here and here. But why? I freely admit that I don’t fully understand how this is meant to work – here are some of the details. See if you can figure it out.
Apparently the fund will eventually reach $20bn, with interest earnings available to boost medical research funding. In the interim, the new fund will begin with an allocation of $1bn from uncommitted funds in the Health and Hospitals Fund, to be topped up by savings from other health cuts, including, presumably, cuts made by pushing costs back onto the states. There are various other cuts to the health budget in areas like preventative health, and increases in charges for prescription medicines; all are condemned by experts.
According to Health Minister Dutton, the changes are designed to “strengthen Medicare”, to “ensure its long-term sustainability” “in the face of big projected increases in health costs”. But if Medicare is unsustainable without the co-payment, why are the funds generated by the co-payment not being used to meet these projected increases in health costs? Why quarantine the money in a future fund which has nothing directly to do with health costs?
More medical research may lead to more cures and less costly health care in the long run, but so would preventative health programs now, and free access to primary health care for those who need it, the very things that are now being taken away. Far from wanting to strengthen Medicare, the Abbott government wants to destroy it by ending bulk billing and ultimately forcing more people to take out private health cover– the failed American health care model which, incidentally, is far more expensive than the Australian one.
The medical research future fund is a Trojan horse, designed to delegitimise opposition to the destruction of Medicare. Where is the headline that says ‘Government to Destroy Medicare’?
As an aside, I can’t help wondering who is going to benefit from this fund. I’m sure established public and not-for-profit medical research centres can always do with more money. I wonder if they will be able to find staff to expand given the disincentives to study science, a career option leading to relatively lowly paid jobs.
One can’t help but wonder if private pharmaceutical research will be funded, and if any breakthroughs will lead to big private profits. The Liberals love Big Pharma and private health care providers. No wonder, seeing the sort of donations they get from groups like Ramsay Health Care.
Much of the criticism of the budget has been about broken promises, and yes, there are plenty of those. ‘Post truth politics’ as Lenore Taylor calls it in the Guardian. But what did you expect from a self-confessed liar?
I agree Abbott is handling it very badly. Rather than denying he has broken promises he would be better off fessing up and explaining his reasons for the changes, as even Howard has suggested. But such is the cynicism of the electorate he probably rightly figures he can get away with it. Even if people do believe he broke his word they will reason ‘well, that’s just what politicians do’.
Broken promises are ultimately not the most important thing to highlight about this budget. What is far more important, and what is lost when the mainstream media accept the Liberal framing of the budget, is the fact that this is an all out attack on the welfare state as we know it.
It will destroy Medicare and the safety net for the young unemployed, and therefore deepen inequality. It will push costs back onto the states, who already perceive that it is a way of making them responsible for having to ask for a rise in the GST. And I haven’t even mentioned the impact of the budget on education and the environment. It represents a triumph for neo-liberal economics and the primacy of the market over society. A true wrecking ball.
Labor, the Greens and even Clive Palmer all need to ensure they don’t buy into the Liberal’s repair, entitlement and motherhood medical research agendas.