Rethinking Australia’s social contract

Barney Zwartz on Anglicare’s The Cost of Privilege report, and how the pandemic provides a chance to rethink Australia’s social contract.

One of the tragic, unexpected consequences of the year lost to COVID-19 has been an increase in despair among Australia’s worst-off. So the CEO of Anglicare, Kasy Chambers told a public conversation in Melbourne hosted by Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier last month.

Before the pandemic, most Anglicare clients – one in 19 Australians, according to Chambers – felt their situation was “just the way it is, some people are rich, some are poor”.

Then the Federal Government showed what was possible with its JobKeeper program and many extra forms of support for the unemployed, homeless and other disadvantaged people. Some of these people have felt that ending these programs on March 31 and reducing support nearly to pre-pandemic levels reveals what the Government really thinks of them – not much.

“The Government showed during the pandemic what we could do if we tried, bringing welfare to just under the poverty line for the first time since 1994. It meant people could buy a fridge or fresh food. One told me she had bought her daughter a birthday present for the first time ever,” Chambers said. “People now feel that cutting this support shows what the government really thinks of us.”

Many welfare and social justice advocates want to see the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink the social contract in Australia. Chambers says poverty is to some extent a government choice. Anglicare has produced a report, The Cost of Privilege, pointing out that superannuation tax concessions, negative gearing, lack of capital gains tax, private education rebates, family trusts and the like means the Government forgoes $135 billion dollars a year, with more than half the benefits going to the richest 20 per cent.

Now is absolutely the time for a discussion about whether Australia is using its revenue the best way.