Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19 has been better than predicted, so what can we expect from this year’s Federal Budget? RMIT academics share their expert view on where the cash can be splashed for the greatest benefit.
The 2021-22 Federal Budget will be handed down on Tuesday night, and many experts predict gender equality to be a major focus.
Economics lecturer Dr Leonora Risse said placing a gender lens on the budget was crucial in ensuring the economic recovery was fair all.
“Placing a gender lens on the budget recognises that men and women tend to work in different industries and take on different roles within households and society, meaning that a policy can have a different impact on men and women even if it’s not intended to be gender-specific,” Risse said.
“Cutting the pink tape on women’s workforce participation, increasing paid parental leave for dads, and boosting the availability of childcare and early learning, aged care and disability care are key policies that would lift women’s workforce participation and fuel Australia’s economic recovery.”
Risse said that “cutting pink tape” included the tax and transfer settings that oftenmade it financially unviable for second income earners to work more than three days a week.“A gender lens shows it’s largely women who take home only around 10% of these additional days’ earnings, by the time they factor in a tapering of tax benefits and the added childcare costs,” she said.
Emeritus Professor and economist David Hayward said women would be the big budget winners.
“This budget will be remembered as the first genuine care economy budget, recognising the need to lift the number of people employed in everything from childcare and disability to mental health, as well as the dire need to turbo charge pay, conditions and qualifications,” Hayward said.
Young people cannot carry the economic load
Youth unemployment during the pandemic remained high, increasing the risk of future unemployment.
Today’s young people will be the ones paying off the large debt accumulated during the pandemic, said senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, Dr Kathryn Daley, but they cannot do it if they are un or underemployed.
“We need to see investment in strategies that create real jobs for young people, such as funding for graduate jobs and employment pathways,” Daley said.
“Low to middle-income families are living in extreme poverty. The cost of living – particularly housing – is pushing many into a state of precarity.
“Investment in housing security, childcare and food relief schemes reduce the immense stress that some children and young people are living in.
“Simple measures like this alleviates stressful home environments, which prevent longer term issues such as homelessness, early school leaving, and unemployment.”
Funding for local infrastructure for connected communities
COVID-19 highlighted how living locally and 20-minute neighbourhoods could help people meet their daily needs.
RMIT Centre for Urban Research (CUR transport expert Dr Chris De Gruyter said high-quality walking and cycling infrastructure had never been more crucial but funding was mainly a state and local governments responsibility
“Cycling projects in most Australian states and territories represent only around 1% of total transport spending, well below the United Nations target of 20% dedicated to active travel,” De Gruyter said.
“The Federal Government could help Australia reach this target by funding walking and cycling infrastructure in local areas, supporting and investing in the 20-minute neighbourhood concept.”
Sea and tree changes offer a reset for large cities
Lockdown inspired an exodus of Australians swapping the city for sea or tree change in regional towns and cities.
This should inspire the Federal Budget to think about how to relieve pressure on Australia’s largest cities, said Associate Dean of the RMIT Sustainability and Urban Planning program, Associate Professor Andrew Butt.
“Opportunities for the decentralisation of work and better transport links are evident and projections of lower population growth in large cities suggest now is the time for this investment,” Butt said.
“This requires infrastructure support, including through telecommunications and housing diversity.
“Working with the states and territories, the Federal Budget should target housing choice and affordability in Australia’s regions.”
National approach for climate action now
Butt said regional landscapes also offered significant opportunities to meet climate change challenges.
“National approaches to create new energy landscapes, including large scale solar and wind, should be a priority, along with support for supporting infrastructure,” he said.
“While many of these goals require state and territory regulatory support, the economic motivations should be driven by Federal investment and taxation incentives.”
To genuinely address climate change and Australia’s international obligations, changes to national governance and policy are required, said CUR’s Associate Professor Wendy Steele.
“To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, national action is needed to drastically reduce emissions in areas such as energy, transport and agriculture and to develop resilient communities in our increasingly vulnerable cities and regions,” Steele said.
“The priority initiative that the Federal Government should fund in the upcoming budget are changes to the Australian Federal Relations Architecture to include Climate Action as core business of the National Cabinet.
“We can do much better than ‘every state for themselves’ with action on climate change – but this requires national leadership, commitment and investment.”
New plan needed for nation’s mental health and wellbeing
Dr Chris Maylea from RMIT’s Global and Social Studies Centre said a successful Federal Budget ensured that all Australians had their basics needs met by increasing JobSeeker from $566 per fortnight to a liveable wage.
“COVID-19 taught us that more hospital beds and more wellness apps won’t fix Australia’s mental health crisis,” he said.
“We don’t fix our mental health crisis with counselling.
“Ensuring everyone’s basic needs of housing, income support and social connection is critical in improving the nation’s mental health.
“What we are doing now is not working. The 5th National Mental Health Plan was meant to be a road map for fixing Australia’s mental health system, but it hasn’t worked.
“We need a new approach focused on prevention, early intervention, and providing basic human rights.”
Second act of support for arts and culture
The arts and culture sector were one of the hardest hit and slowest to recover from the impacts of COVID-19.
More than $135 million has been slated for the sector in 2021/22 Federal Budget, said senior lecturer in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing Dr Meg Elkins, despite more than a third of the 2020-21 budget being unspent.
“The Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund and SupportAct are the two major initiatives being heavily promoted in this 2021/22 budget,” she said.
“As JobKeeper has finished, artists and arts support workers are left without formal safety nets to create their own livelihoods.
“SupportAct provides some level of financial benefit, in the form of $2000 grants, but others outside the music industry are having to find even more entrepreneurial means of finding support.”
Story: Chanel Koeleman and Caleb Scanlon