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Framing the budget

Photo: media framing

Photo: media framing

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.


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  1. Totaram

    Glad you have put it out there. It’s all about framing. We need to stop using the phrases used by the neo-cons: taxpayer-funded, tax-relief, budget-repair, “entitlement” (applies only to the most vulnerable- if the miners get a “rebate” that is NOT an entitlement). I have suggested already, we find all these phrases and root them out of our discourse and campaign against them at every turn and on every forum. If we don’t retake control of the language, we lose the “hearts and minds”. Unfortunately, it’s hard. We are, in a sense, victims of our own success as a species. Democracy depends on an “informed” electorate. The explosion of knowledge in all spheres makes this virtually impossible. Add to this the ownership of the mass media by the oligarchs, and we are even less likely to be well informed, especially when they are deliberately out to sow doubt and confusion. Finally, we have the Dunning-Kruger effect: the less anyo0ne knows about a subject, the more likely they are to think they know all about it.

    I am just posing the problem. I don’t have a solution.

  2. mars08

    What Hockey might call and entitlement… I prefer to think of as an earned benefit.

  3. David Crooke

    Well said.

  4. Wayne Turner

    Very well said article.Personally,I think the Main Stream Media allow it because they are still BIASED and puppets for these Libs.I feel they only are being partly critical to show some people that they can be critical (Plus to try to silence some of the MSM critics),but as pointed out they still are promoting the LIE of a Labor mess.

  5. Terry2

    Dutton says, on the one hand, that the $7 co-payment is ‘to ensure the long term sustainability’ of Medicare; Hockey says it’s all about over use and stopping folk who don’t need to go to the doctor from doing so.

    If Dutton is correct then we probably need to look at increasing the Medicare levy: if Hockey is correct then we should leave the over use to medical practitioners to monitor.

    The $7 levy will impose further administration on doctors and will cost them to collect and manage; it’s badly thought out and Dutton need to go back and do his homework.

  6. Zathras

    I too have a problem with the word “entitlement” and how it is now being used.

    An entitlement is something to which one has a right and is typically guaranteed through legislation.

    A rort is more like the abuse of an entitlement.

    An example of each may be seen in Commonwealth Travel Allowance where it is intended to compensate the claimant for out-of-pocket expenses for meals and accommodation in cases where overnight travel is necessary while on official business.

    That is an entitlement as a condition of emploment – like penalty rates.

    Submitting TA claims where meals and accommodation have already been provided (such as a “Polly Pedal”) or when not on official business (such as visiting an investment property for personal reasons) are clearly rorts.

    Politicians and the media should be very clear about such things.

  7. Terry2

    I think Kevin Andrews let the cat out of the bag this morning. He said that, in putting $245 million into the school chaplaincy program over the next five years and excluding secular mentoring from the program, that the (religious) focus of the chaplaincy program was always at its core.
    That might come back to bite him as the current application to the High Court is seeking to contest the constitutional validity of the scheme because it seeks to promote religiosity which is unconstitutional (S. 116)

  8. Joe Banks

    Kay Rollison, I agree with everything you say… Despite the political atomic bomb that has been exploded in this country, sections of the MSM still can’t quite bring themselves to call it for what it is. I have concluded that some journalists and commentators are frightened of Murdoch, some are not very perceptive but still want to play journalist, and some are confused and a bit silly. The other possibility is that most of them are suffering pangs of conscience for what they did to Rudd and Gillard – unnecessarily – and they are trying to justify their past actions by playing down the current disaster that is our new government (nothing to do with me).

  9. marg1

    I think Murdoch has a lot to answer for and also this lot are so vindictive the MSM are frightened of them. Bill’s speech last night was fantastic – made me feel so happy, also standing ovation great!

  10. Olivia Manor

    Murdoch and the IPA are running this country. Abbott and his stooges are just the puppetts!

  11. Buff McMenis

    I’m probably 99.99%recurring in agreement with all the comments on this very good Blog article but my closest feelings are probably with the remarks by Totaram! There is rumour that now Abbott has taken the flak Muck-raker Murdoch’s Media outlets will now start slamming Malcolm Turnbull will be the new role model for the Blue-tie Brigade. Olivia Manor .. you have hit the nail on the head. So thanks KayRollison … I feel comforted to know there are others out there in Ether-land who also are still capable of using their brain and assessing facts and not fiction!

  12. Dan Rowden

    Kaye Lee,

    That video is extraordinary. Who is running the House? Prissy Pyne or the Speaker? Amazing footage.

  13. Dan Rowden

    It took a while for Bill Shorten to fire up in the Budget reply, but in the end it was a pretty decent effort.

  14. Kaye Lee


    Potty mouth is Leader of the House and Bronwyn is very much part of the Government. She is also, for all her fire and brimstone, a woman who seems to feel her appearance is important. I am growing heartily sick of pearls and it ain’t just Bronnie. But it’s wrong of me to comment on appearance and to think because you like jewellery and makeup and pretty clothes that you may also be…ummm…responsive? to male authority?

  15. Sir ScotchMistery

    Bronwyn is little more than Dame Kwithtopher’s fag hag.

    She does as she is told, and gets to pour the tea.

    That is all. 101 opposition members out, Zero “government” members.

    Toss the lot out.

  16. Dan Rowden

    Actually, that post was inadequate in itself. I keep forgetting I’m not on twitter:

    On Thursday night, the Leader of the Opposition will have his opportunity to fess up. He will have to stop being the No. 1 whinger in Australia. He will have to start having solutions rather than being all complaint and no responsibility. If No. 1 whinger in Australia were a reality TV show, there would be no point in any other contestant entering it—because if Bill Shorten entered it, he would win it! But on Thursday night the Leader of the Opposition has an opportunity—

    Mr Shorten: Madame Speaker!

    The SPEAKER: The minister will refer to people by their correct titles.

    Mr PYNE: I will. I withdraw. On Thursday night, the Leader of the Opposition has to do three things …

    Withdraw? Withdraw what, exactly? I mean, really, wtf?

  17. Kaye Lee

    Just to add to our wonderful reputation it hit the international press too.


    Still, it’s no doubt what they think of we selfish red neck bogans considering our policy on climate change, foreign aid and asylum seekers. Though we do get brownie points for giving the US billions for defence I spose.

    Could I point out that in 2006 Julia Gillard was kicked out for calling Abbott a grub. To be fair, when asked to apologise, she apologised to the grubs. 🙂

  18. Stephen Tardrew

    Dan after canning him the other day I thought Shorten sort of did OK. Let’s hope he can keep it up.

    Dan, Dan, Dan ya know we can’t have the whatsama thingy genitalia references in Hansard now can we might offend the ladies? Mind you Bronny took it well didn’t she. Do you think she is a covert genitalia linguistic expert as well? If so I am shocked I say shocked.

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