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AASW opinion: Ours is a society not just an economy

Published: 9 June 2016

Our political leaders’ relentless posturing in the run-up to the election is about being good economic managers but that is never an end in itself. If society as a whole benefits from good economic management then we are being well-served. In contrast, good economic management that enables the rich to continue to get richer at the expense of common goods like education, health, income support and specialist services in areas such as family violence is dangerous.

We have to stop believing that we only have to grow economies for us all to benefit. Growth without equity, without social justice, is ultimately unsustainable either environmentally or economically.

In this election we must vote for a more equitable society. Both major parties have veered away from addressing the extremely low levels of income support for people who are unemployed or students. Payments for these groups have been dropping for nearly 20 years compared to pensioners. This has seen many people living in damaging poverty and is a terrible waste because higher income support (which is the humane thing to do), also assists unemployed people better prepare to enter the paid workforce and students to better use their study time.

In recent years Australians have strongly backed two social initiatives, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and an increasing commitment to stamp out the scourge of violence against women and children. While these cost a great deal of money in real terms, our society largely agrees that the cost is worthwhile. We do not want to just live in an economy, but in a society that supports and gives people living with disability real opportunities to be fully part of the community. Similarly we want a society in which violence against women is completely unacceptable and is relegated to being a sad footnote in history.

To make this happen governments have to spend more in real terms. It is not good enough just to redistribute funds from one welfare bucket to another as happened in the last Budget.

Finally, a healthy society looks outwards as well as inwards. We are in the midst of a global humanitarian crisis with millions of people fleeing war and social unrest and need to respond on the basis of values that respect each individual person and their rights. In this, our country has been failing on a number of fronts and this damages us both as a society and an economy. In no way is it acceptable to be keeping children in immigration detention either here or on Nauru. We are also wasting an unnecessary amount of money maintaining Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. Also our current government’s policies such as reinstating Temporary Protection Visas, the slow processing of asylum seeker and refugee applications, and bureaucratic delays that are hindering family reunions are also have an unnecessary social cost..

So this election, let's look beyond a sole focus on the economy, and ask the question "Good economic management for what?" The old Australian idea of a fair go is perhaps not a bad yardstick to measure the various promises of our politicians. It is certainly better than the economic rationalist yardstick of "what's in it for me?". As an Australian society we can do better.

Karen Healy AM
President, Australian Association of Social Workers

AASW - Australian Association of Social Workers