Cut, cut

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read this story.

‘The Business Council of Australia has urged the Government to consider making cuts to the disability pension to pay for flood damage in Queensland and Victoria.'

The BCA represents the top 100 companies in Australia, and they seemed to be advocating taking money from disabled people (and from foreign aid) to pay for flood damage, rather than pay the proposed flood tax themselves.

A closer look at their budget submission suggests that this was a crude representation of their actual proposal. In a 136-page recommendation on general fiscal management, there is one paragraph which suggests an overhaul of the welfare system as part of broader economic reforms. In his radio interview on ABC’s AM, BCA chief Graham Bradley was betrayed into some oversimplifications and misapprehensions of a system which he probably has little need to understand, yet his remarks were still more moderate than the storm they feulled implied.

Nevertheless the thrust of the BCA’s submission is an exhortation to the government to fulfil its promise of a return to budget surplus by 2013, and to do this through decreased spending rather than increased tax.  Like the coalition government in the UK (Margaret Thatcher with a green rinse) and the school-closing Republicans in the US (things really were better before civil rights), many in Australia would rather the government used our taxes to pay our debt (which is comparatively low) than to pay for things we need.

Compassionate spending, where there is little return on the dollar, is the privilege of a generous and humane society – and one of the low-hanging cherries easily plucked when rigour is de rigueur. But even if disability pensions and foreign aid fall into this category (they might not), surely schools, libraries, clinics, post offices and trains don’t? Aren’t these basic to our civilisation? As Ross Gittins argued last year, “Everything comes at an (opportunity) cost. So successful has Costello been at demonising all government debt - state and federal - that we've failed to invest in enough economic and social infrastructure. Our debt level is minor, but we're living in the worst house in the street.”

I wonder how long the experiment will last (here, there, and anywhere) before it fulfils Margaret Thatcher’s dark vision of society: that there is no such thing.