Generally speaking, the budget bodes ill for most marginalised sects of society: pensioners, artists, educators, the unemployed. But I will continue to focus on millenials, since it is with one brilliant stroke that this generation will consolidate its historically-positioned aversion to conservative politics. This is done in a number of ways. Firstly, there is some credence to the suggestion that young people are entitled. Neoliberals love to use that word, and it is because it connotes a toddler or infant demanding something of their parents. We – the younger generation – don’t know any better. We have been raised to believe we were special, that everything would be given to us. The traditionalist behavioural management technique for a whining toddler is tough love. Take away benefits, and people will figure out that they can go out there and earn their privilege. This is the basic logic underpinning the conservative position on young protestors. The only true part of this narrative is that we were told we were special when we were younger. It wasn’t coddling – as much as spin might retroactively make it so – but it was meant to be endearing. Our parents benefitted from the advantages of an egalitarian society, and they believed they were obligated to provide us with the same: you can be whatever you want. Do what makes you happy. How many times have we heard that before? And yes, that culture remains with us. What neoconservative columnists and politicians have missed entirely is that entitlement isn’t an egocentric notion: I, and most people I know, acknowledge that in taking advantage of free education or universal healthcare, we are obligated to contribute to society in return. This is something I am happy to do. I am willing to accept that when I am taxed that money will be spent on those who need the help.
Which is why it is so confounding that business, the military, the coal industry and the mining sector get away with virtually no cuts whatsoever. We’re meant to share the burden. It’s meant to be a fair budget. Well, it fundamentally isn’t. Young people – people in my close and extended family – will be undertaking university study in the next few years. They will be expected to pay up to 60% more in university fees than I had to, and I am currently saddled with a debt in the tens of thousands of dollars. Now, I acknowledge that I went to university of my own volition and I can contribute. However, this was tempered with the HECS-HELP scheme, the interest on loans of which basically keep pace with inflation. Now that this indexing will climb to the same rate at which the government borrows money, I will pay an extra $600-$1000 in interest each year for about a decade. Now consider how much that interest would swell if my university fees were increased by 60%. Now consider how much that interest would swell if I did a law or medicine degree, which are usually four times as much as your average Arts degree. This is not a small amount of money. My younger counterparts will be paying off their university debt for decades.
And what of equity in university? How will these fee increases affect those from the rural and regional areas who rely on low-cost education to become contributing members of society? As generalised as this sounds, the fact remains that in many rural communities there is a huge dependency on welfare. Education is a powerful mechanism for moving rural young people out of this “culture of dependency”, if we want to use the neocons’ own language. When this lifeline is broken, this means more people will rely on benefits and won’t be able to break away from the cycle of poverty that perpetuates itself. So this is not only cruel, but it is counter-productive. Education is a public good. It can address inequality and inequity, and betters society by generating specialised skills. This is, indeed, the market-focused argument, but it is a persuasive one. We – as a society – acknowledge that education is a common good. We have benefited from it for decades. Now this government seeks to undo it? Based on the idea that user’s pay? Society will pay, and it will pay dearly. Instead of having an aspiring doctor, who will make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (of which a good measure will be recirculated into the tax-system and economy), and who will improve the health of those around them, we will have…? Consider what cuts like this will do, systematically, to the opportunities provided to those in society from low SES backgrounds. And what of the converse? Will universities become elitist institutions once again, where the sons and daughters of millionaires network and earn scholarships? The conservative right will often talk about values. What values will these cultures generate? That everyone is entitled to an opportunity to learn, and to contribute to society? I seriously doubt it.
Unemployment benefits: youth allowance will now be inaccessible to anyone for six months. So, struggling to find a job? Struggling to pay your rent? How about a vitalising cut to your welfare lifeline? Feel like getting a job yet? Ah, that’s right. There’s an unemployment crisis. Ross Gittins – an economist – wrote an illuminating article recently where he debunks the government’s logic. The notion at the top end is that forcing young people into dire straits will magically push them into jobs. The assumption is that young people on youth allowance are using it to circumvent working. Hardly true: I would encourage the government to find any young student on youth allowance who can get by on youth allowance alone, coupled with the need to study full time. As Gittens points out, the unemployment rate for young people is double that of the general populace. It is endemic. What is entirely – nay, blindly – forgotten, is that jobs are not there. Markets – and therefore jobs – are created. In fact, the trend in Western countries since the Reagan and Thatcher Era has been growth where money is consolidated: not growth where it isn’t, i.e. the unemployed. There has been nothing the government is considering that will assist in jobs-growth. They’ve already slashed the billions of funding for the renewable energy sector – a sector which employs 20,000 workers in a globally growing innovation industry. So now young homeless people will need to compete with these workers. What else? Ah yes, 16,000 public sector jobs to go in Canberra. So the tally is now at 36,000. $80 billion from schools and hospitals? I wonder where all those nurses, teachers and doctors will go.
This is nothing if not ideological. In the shimmering gaze of the Liberal party’s hued periscope, the notion is that unemployment is somehow contingent upon government spending, which is a perplexing position to take, given that the government sector is the largest employer in the country, and that health, education, transport industries are public domains. This is complemented (exacerbated) by an unfettered belief that the free market – the private sector – will magically counterbalance this scale. I don’t know what the influx of tens of thousands of skilled and professional unemployed will do to the marketplace in quantitative terms, but I can wager a guess that it will not be good for my generation in the short to medium term. And once you’re unemployed, or homeless, that is a perpetual cycle of inequity that is very difficult to break out of. Governments can actively assist in creating jobs: and have done so, resoundingly and effectively, in the past. But that is not the priority of this government. What is the priority of this government is to buttress the financial, coal and mining sectors of the Australian economy. These sectors are concentrated in high-wealth or high-growth areas, like Western Australia, or the Melbourne CBD, and assist those who are already in the industry. Victoria doesn’t have a lucrative mining industry. Neither does Tasmania. Victoria and Tasmania are two states with serious unemployment issues, and so no government funding here. “We don’t do corporate welfare” – no, you do mates rates. If a car factory in Geelong were to go under, it is not your responsibility. If the mining sector tax exemptions or diesel subsidies were to be touched… Well, just don’t. That will hurt Gina and her $15 billion/year income.
The nail in the coffin is the defunding of trade-training institutions, and youth employment projects initiated under the Rudd and Gillard Governments. These are initiatives to equip young tradies with tools to work with, or to keep vulnerable kids in school. They fall through a seriously big crack in this budget. And what will a worsening unemployment crisis encourage young people to do? Exactly what it did to my generation seven years ago: go to university. Ah, you mean the university that is now a privatising loan scheme that will indebt young Australians for most of their working lives? Yeah. When we view young people as commodities, they can be traded heinously as such. The Liberal Party represents business interests, and this is where – unflinchingly – they believe economic progress is made. This is where the benefits are rerouted (which is odd, considering we’re not meant to be giving money to businesses). All other sectors fall by the wayside. It’s ideological on a broad front, and it perpetuates cycles of youth unemployment and poverty. But congratulations if you’re a ballet dancer, a military jet, or the daughter of the Prime Minister.
When you live on very little money, you realise how important it is. When you go without food, you realise how important it is. We have taken our egalitarian system for granted for decades. By removing affordable healthcare, or by removing affordable education, Gen Y will not immediately cope. We will learn, through our adversity and our trials, that these things are a privilege AND a right, and that we owe it to society to ensure that our own tribulations are not passed on to younger generations; that the benefits of our supported youths will be recirculated into the wellspring of common good and that everyone deserves the opportunity to do the same. If there is one redeeming feature of this government, it is that they have committed such a monumental fuck-up that the left in Australia is guaranteed to be a powerhouse in Australian politics for our lifetimes. Young people now, more than ever, recognise the fundamental hypocrisy, unfairness, incompetency, nastiness and blind ideological arrogance of the right and in the long term the Liberal party will pay the price.
David Owen is a secondary school history teacher who has a BA (Hons) in History and a major in Political Science from the University of Melbourne.