This past week has again seen the federal Labor government give major business groups front row seats at its table — this time for one of our most important discussions of the year: how to fund the national response to the floods that have devastated thousands of our communities on the eastern seaboard.
Promoted as an effort by the Prime Minister to raise corporate dollars, the Flood Taskforce consisting of 13 business and industry leaders has, of course, become an important forum for debating what should happen to the federal budget in light of the major financial pressures arising from these tragic national events. The Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry — yes, all of them are there. And of course their views matter.
But, some of the most important voices have been shut out of the room — including the voice of the thousands of community services across the country — and the people they help — who are directly affected by and responding to these floods. We are the non-government community services and charities that provide assistance to people in financial trouble, people seeking jobs, people who are homeless, those families and individuals needing counselling support, and much more.
So, to be clear, the voice for the community and social services sector, the Australian Council of Social Service, has a view. And the sector should be included in the decision-making process, not least because of the extraordinary role we are playing on the ground to help those most affected by this tragedy.
The personal costs of the floods are beyond measure. And in economic terms, there is still more time needed to put a price on what needs to be done to help where we can. But it is clear that the bill will be large. The government today will outline how it intends to fund the response to the floods and the impact it will have on our national budget. The Prime Minister is talking in austere tones about making “very difficult decisions”. We hear talk of major funding cuts, with the federal government sticking to its position of needing to return the federal budget to surplus in 2012-13 as if somehow this is written into the Australian Constitution. It is not. In this, we are in full agreement with the AIG and the ACTU.
We need a sensible and mature response to this national crisis. This means flexibility and balance — flexibility about the surplus and balance between how to fund important responses now to meet immediate needs arising from the floods, and the need to keep our focus on the long-term health of our nation.
ACOSS supports the proposal to introduce a flood levy. However, it must be introduced fairly, and applied only to those who can afford to pay. It should also not be open ended — that is, the nation must know that the levy is directly related to helping those devastated by the floods, and no more. The federal Opposition should not be tempted to play politics with this important issue with alarmist rhetoric about the budget bottom line.
ACOSS also supports tackling the waste that remains in our national budget.
When the Labor government made its commitment in May last year to return the federal budget to surplus by 2012-2013, ACOSS supported this approach. ACOSS has long highlighted the waste that exists in our national accounts: tax loopholes, unfair tax concessions, poorly targeted subsidies and the like. Just a few weeks ago, we met with the Treasurer to make our case for tackling this waste so that the government could invest in important national infrastructure — the physical and social infrastructure needed to set a strong future direction for our nation: investing for adequate, more secure retirements, creating a more equitable personal income tax system, and improving the affordability of housing.
We recognised that reducing this waste would not always be popular, particularly with some powerful interests in town, but we argued that the broader Australian public would strongly back greater fairness and equity in who pays for what, and how. Our view was supported by a recent survey by one of our members which found that 84% of Australians want the tax summit later this year to crack down on tax loopholes that overwhelmingly benefit wealthier individuals.
We strongly oppose any suggestion that cuts should be made to important services to fund responses to the floods — many of these services have been so vital to our flood response and are now in greater demand. We also oppose a line-by-line slash-and-burn approach to our national budget that is not driven by the longer-term objective of building a fairer and more equitable society. For example, should we fund the response to the floods by slashing funding to services? No. Should the recovery be funded by starting to tackle some of the tax breaks for higher income earners? Absolutely.
Since joining ACOSS some six months ago, a week does not go by without me hearing from hard-working community service colleagues that they are tired of being taken for granted by governments. And, yes, it was taken for granted that, in the response to the floods, community services and charities would be there, on the ground, without question doing what it took to help those affected. Of course, we are there. But the role of community services — like that of other sectors such as business and unions — extends well beyond the essential services delivered to people in need on the ground. Our experiences of working on the front line in a crisis such as the recent floods and in the everyday lives of those affected by homelessness or poverty is coupled with our extensive economic and social policy expertise and a determination to promote greater fairness in the national interest.
The Rudd government acted quickly to the global financial crisis to harness our expertise by establishing a community response taskforce. Our contribution helped in ensuring that Australia weathered the GFC economic storms better than most countries. So to have been excluded from the current discussions about how to fund our response to this national crisis is therefore particularly disappointing. The voice of the community and social services sector should be heard.