Ed#459: Take Our Breath Away

23 May 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#459: Take Our Breath Away

The defining image from the lead-up period to the Abbott Government’s first budget will not be that now-infamous photo of the federal treasurer, Joe Hockey, and finance minister, Mathias Cormann, kicking back with cigars after some onerous number-crunching. At a time of mooted cuts and calls for restraint it resembled a pair of gents lingering over the port after a long lunch at the club. But that picture was trumped for symbolism by a photo showing Prime Minister Tony Abbott channelling Top Gun-era Tom Cruise, giving a jaunty thumbs-up from the cockpit around the time he announced one of Australia’s biggest-ever military purchases: a $12 billion order for 58 whiz-bang joint fighter planes. The government is keeping open the option of buying another two dozen or so of the supposedly state-of-the-art aircraft, which, disturbingly, were recently described by a visiting chap from the Pentagon as having bits and pieces “coming off…way too regularly”. Yet the PM has lauded “the most advanced fighter in production anywhere in the world”.

This came just before the National Commission of Audit recommended severe cuts in expenditure; in the main, more severe than were actually announced in Hockey’s budget. But the Federal Opposition did not seek to score political points about Top Gun Tony or boys’ toys being ordered even as pensioners and the unemployed were being asked to accept some bitter medicine. Why? Because Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has described this massive outlay on expensive hardware as “necessary for our forward security plans over a number of decades”. Really? I wonder. Is Australia under threat? And if there is a putative enemy eyeing off our assets, would they be deterred by another one or two or even two dozen planes with macho names like ‘Hornet’ and ‘Growler’ (which sound like characters from the unstoppable X-Men series we analyse in this edition).

A budget says a lot about the priorities of a federal government. It seems this one, which is treating defence with great respect, is passing much of the responsibility for health and education to the states. Adding a few dollars to the cost of prescriptions or a GP visit may not sound draconian, but it is a cost many battlers will find hard to bear. And it will only increase the queues at already-stressed public hospital emergency departments. One leading business commentator, Alan Kohler, noted that the budget’s key aspect was the extent of cuts in the health and welfare sector: “one of the biggest reductions in Australian health and welfare spending in history”. No doubt there have been rorts and wastage in health and welfare (also in defence), yet it seems odd for a government to seek savings where people are in need. Writing in The Australian, former Labor minister Graham Richardson argued that people over 60, people reliant on public transport, people with poor health and not substantial assets, would all be hit. “The end of the age of entitlement was not supposed to usher in a new era of poverty and bare subsistence. The real battlers who have been voting Liberal in ever greater numbers in recent years feel betrayed… They did not expect to be asked to carry the bulk of the burden while the truly well-off were hardly touched.”

This is another key issue: the growing gulf between rich and poor. The budget does include the controversial “debt levy”, a 2% tax on incomes over $180,000. But it has already been reported that tax advisers will find it easy to tailor pay packages to sneak under that threshold figure. The value of a new car lease, say, could be included to lower the cash component of a salary. Just imagine what a fighter jet or two might do…

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.

This article appeared in Ed#459 of The Big Issue magazine.