A Budget For Last Century…

By Tim Hollo May 10, 2017

Last night’s Budget has been received by many as a typically Labor Budget. And, to be frank, that’s about right. Publicly framed as fair while hiding tax cuts for big corporations and nasty punitive measures for vulnerable people, it’s a Budget that suits a party still emerging from the 19th century, paying no heed to the huge challenges of the 21st century.

The Victorian-era puritanical approach to drugs, ignoring contemporary evidence that drug use is a health issue and should be treated as such instead of punished, is one small example.

Then there’s the approach to education – cutting funding to the bone, undermining the capacity of our schools and universities to provide deep education, forcing them even further down the road towards Industrial Revolution style factories churning out good little worker bees.

Even the infrastructure spending, focussed as it is on a slow, transcontinental rail line harks back to an early colonial era. Getting freight off the roads and onto rail is wonderful, but there are smarter ways than this old National Party boondoggle.

And, of course, some of that rail spending is to transport coal – that most 19th century fuel.

Which leads us to the most obvious 21st century challenge that this Budget utterly fails to mention – climate change.

Once again, while fossil fuel subsidies continue to tally upwards of $7.5 billion a year, the Treasurer made no mention of climate change in his speech. There wasn’t even a boost to the largely useless Direct Action fund.

Given the way renewable energy technology has zoomed ahead (not that Scott Morrison has noticed), really the main step necessary for it to transform our network on its own is simply for governments to stop subsidising coal! But some of those funds could certainly help if directed towards grid infrastructure – strengthening interconnections, extending the grid out to renewable energy hubs, and implementing the smart computer technologies the Germans have been using for years to smooth out supply and demand.

While the urban rail investment is hugely welcomed (thanks to the old Malcolm, the train buff), where is the thinking about how electric cars will change the way both our roads and our energy grids operate within a few short years?

Where is the investment in making our communities more resilient in the face of worsening storms, floods and fires which we know are coming thanks to the decades of governments ignoring global warming? Instead of preparing for this, the government has abolished the National Centre for Climate Adaptation Research!

And where is the investment in Just Transitions policies to support workers in the old, 19th century industries like coal which are coming to the end of their natural lives? Where are the funds to help them retrain, to seed new, clean industries, to simply help them get by and move into the future with confidence and their heads held high?

And this brings us to the other enormous challenge of the 21st century ignored by this Budget – the massive economic transformation underway, seen in industrial changes away from coal, but going far deeper with the incredibly swift moves towards automation.

The robots are here, and they want our jobs. Not only in manufacturing and services, but in professions from accountancy to law to medicine.

And, you know what? Instead of being scared by this, we should welcome it! 70 years ago, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by 2030, we’d be working 15 hour weeks, because technology would allow us to work so much less.

In a country divided between those desperately looking for work and those working too hard, we need to find ways of sharing work better, of ditching the jobs we don’t need or aren’t actually productive for society or the planet, and of supporting each other and ourselves to contribute in broader and better ways, from caring to creating to cogitating to communicating.

Ideas like Universal Basic Income, a living wage which would go to everyone for who they are, not for what they do, are building a head of steam around the world. The trial currently underway in Finland is already showing benefits to mental health through stress reduction. Surely that’s a better way to reduce abuse of drugs than humiliating random testing and harsh punitive measures.

Instead of that kind of thinking about the future of work, this government once again resorts to the old, thoroughly disproven idea of corporate tax cuts as job creators. But, far from trickling down, this just means those at the very top keep sucking the rest of us dry.

So, sure, this Budget isn’t as bad as it could have been. It’s a far cry from Tony Abbott’s 2014 declaration of war. But, as a Labor Budget delivered by a Liberal/National Government, it is fit for the 19th century, when we need 21st century solutions to 21st century challenges.


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