Beer, cigarettes and cruises – the government’s attack strategy

May 15, 2014

It didn’t take long for the implications of the Coalition government’s first Budget to sink in. Within moments of Treasurer Joe Hockey resuming his seat, representatives of every sector from community welfare to big business filed out to front the media. What they had to say came as no surprise to anyone – business liked the Budget. Almost no one else did.

Arguably, it’s the flagged changes to Medicare that caused the most outrage – the $7 ‘co-payment’ for GP, pathology and some Emergency Department visits, and the $5 increase to medicines. Deservedly so, too. The government would have us believe it’s about spreading the ‘heavy lifting’ in order to resolve the ‘Budget emergency’ and move us quickly back to surplus. The logic is inconsistent, though. If the GP charge is all about helping out the fiscal bottom line, why earmark $5 out of every $7 to go into a medical research fund? For that matter, why not just continue to fund the CSIRO?

The numbers are one thing. Consider this, though – the government is effectively asking every single Australian to make a decision about their own health, no matter how unqualified they are. Does your kid have abdominal pains that cause him to scream? Flip a coin – heads it’s wind, tails it’s appendicitis. How about this – it’s flu season. Pay for the FluVax now, or take the risk that you won’t need to see the doctor later for an antibiotic prescription?

Ludicrous? Yes. Dangerous? Absolutely.

Oh, but no one would be so silly, would they? Mr Hockey certainly doesn’t think so. He’s got it all worked out. You see, it’s about whether we’re selfish or sensible. Why, that $7 isn’t so much to ask. It’s the equivalent of giving up a couple of beers or a third of a pack of cigarettes. Really, who wouldn’t make that sacrifice for their own health, or that of their family?

See what he’s doing there? It’s a rather nasty piece of character assassination. In so many words, Hockey laid down a series of assumptions – that people on low incomes are not concerned for their health, that they’d rather spend their money on beer and cigarettes than on their families, and that they need to take a good hard look at themselves. He didn’t quite come out and call them ‘bogans’, but the inference was practically screaming to be made. And we all know that bogans are lazy, selfish dole bludgers, right?

On Tuesday night, Hockey gushed about how wonderful it would be for people to know that their contribution to the Medical Research Future Fund might one day save their children’s lives. Today, he’s playing hardball, running back to the tried-and-true formula of ‘blame the victim’. He wants to be able to argue that if people suffer as a result of Medicare changes, it’ll be their own fault.

Then there’s what on the agenda for the aged pension – including the family home in the assets test, indexation against inflation, and a rise in the qualifying age to 70. Seniors groups are up in arms. Every one of these changes is potentially destructive. The family home has historically been exempt from the assets test, and for good reason. It’s often not until near retirement that a housing loan is paid off, and in the current housing market, the value of any given house is likely to be considerably inflated from its original asking price. A house bought for under $100,000 thirty years ago could now – conservatively speaking – be worth more than $500,000. If that value is included in a person’s assets, it would render them ineligible for the pension. Their only option would be to sell that home, downsize, and invest the remainder. Even for those of us who are younger, that’s a hugely stressful undertaking, with no guarantee of a good outcome.

Raising the retirement age also places a burden on older people. The idea is predicated on the fact that we live longer. What it doesn’t take into account, though, is that we are not living better. Medical science has become very, very good at saving lives, but it’s still playing catch-up on how to improve the quality of life for people over 60. It shows in the strain on our aged care system, where there is a dearth of available medium-care facilities – and what there is often exists in an uncomfortable middle ground between low-care ‘retirement villages’ and high-care beds.

Again, though, the government’s got an answer to objections. According to Deputy PM Warren Truss, senior just want to have their cake and eat it, too. The argument goes like this: people retire, they cash in their superannuation, go on cruises and spending sprees, and when the money’s gone, cry poor and hold out their hands for welfare. They’re just sponges. They should ‘learn to live within their means’.

Well, of course. Heaven forbid that people who have worked all their lives and put as much money into their superannuation as they can afford be allowed to actually enjoy their retirement. And let’s not mention how they often use substantial amounts of superannuation to pay off debt.

What Mr. Truss deliberately didn’t say is that money put into superannuation is taxed going in and coming out, not to mention income tax over the years. People have already contributed three times over to their own retirements. There’s also the fact that many simply don’t have enough superannuation to see them through, whether as a result of being in low-paying jobs, or simply because Australia didn’t even have a compulsory superannuation scheme before 1992.

It’s niggling little details like this that the government wants kept out of public discussion. Every pensioner and every low-income earner with children who get their faces on The Project, A Current Affair or any of the morning shows, everyone who wants to know why they are being targeted for such draconian measures, is another slip in the polls. (Despite what any government MP says, they do watch those figures.)

This tactic – blaming those who will be worst affected – is nothing short of bluster and bullying. It’s Hockey and Truss working as a tag team to kick people when they’re down. And it’s a huge mistake. Had the government stuck to its original strategy of attempting to accentuate the potential for positive outcomes, it would still have been an unpopular Budget, but that’s all – and unpopular things go away in politics.

That opportunity’s been lost, however. The Budget is irrevocably cast as not merely strict, but outright vindictive. The government has a huge problem on its hands, now. Opposition parties have flagged their intention to block key legislation (notably, Medicare changes), and the Coalition may well find itself facing Hobson’s choice – to ride it out, and risk paralysing the government, or pull the trigger on a Double Dissolution, and risk losing government altogether.


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