Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tuesday Column: Hypocrisy over carers

Spare me the sob stories.

I used to work in television. I know how it’s done.

First you find someone in need who is going go “suffer” as a result of a government “decision” – in this case Labor’s apparently heartless move to axe the $1,600 a year carers’ bonus.

Then you get that person to describe the genuinely troubling circumstances in which they live, then you get the Opposition to pile on.

Like this: “For God’s sake Mr Rudd, please rule out an attack on Australia’s carers. These are the saints in Australian society. They’re the people that pick up the load when governments and non-government organisations fail."

That’s the Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson.

How about: “I accept that it is important to maintain the fight against inflation. But the idea that carers, who are some of the most vulnerable people in this country, should be front and centre in the fight against inflation is just wrong. And for the government to say ‘we need an even bigger surplus, therefore we are cutting bonuses to carers’ is using carers as human shields in the war against inflation.”

That's from the Coalition’s former Minister for Industrial Relations Tony Abbott.

Never mind that the entire premise is wrong and that it is the Opposition (and arguably the media) who have been using carers as human shields...

The report that broke the story in The Australian on Friday was wrongly headed “Razor gang slices out compassion as carer bonus slashed”. It began: “Labor will scrap annual bonuses of $1600 paid to carers as its budget razor gang carves deep into welfare.”

The razor gang, otherwise known as the Expenditure Review Committee, was never going to slash a carers’ bonus.

There wasn’t a carers’ bonus to slash.

Not only was it not in the forward estimates – the previous government never budgeted for it continue – it wasn’t even in the budget for the financial year that we are currently in.

How could that be? The previous Treasurer Peter Costello gave the game away when he announced in last May’s budget that, as in the previous three budgets, the bonus would be paid by June 30. That’s right, June 30, 2007 - an odd date for a payment that was announced in the 2007-08 budget.

The purpose of the payment, dare I say it, was not so much to support carers as to find somewhere to stash what looked like being an embarrassingly big surplus for the financial year about to end that would otherwise go into the Future Fund and be unavailable for electoral bribery.

Carers weren’t the only people whose needs were treated this way.

Every senior citizen in receipt of a government allowance got a one-off grant of $500 paid just before June 30.

Some of them were bemused.

The 91-year old former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who isn’t poorly off, declared himself touched to receive a note attached to his cheque in which he said a government minister finally acknowledged his contribution to the Australian economy.

The mass-produced personalized note from the Veterans Affairs Minister praised Whitlam’s “hard work and contribution to the community” which it said had “contributed in many ways to the good fortune our country now enjoys”.

Three of the unexpectedly lucky recipients thought the payments were so odd they sent them straight to John Howard’s political opponent in the seat of Bennelong Maxine McKew and asked her to use them to help get rid of him.

The extra superannuation co-contribution announced in the May budget was even odder. For one year only the government doubled the co-contribution it made to the super funds of low-income Australians who put in extra money. But in order to get the money out the door before June 30, 2007 the year chosen was 2005-06. That meant that the co-contribution, designed as incentive, could be no such thing. It rewarded only past behaviour that couldn’t be changed.

Australian former Prisoners of War in Europe and their surviving widows did perhaps the best of the lot. They received an uncomfortably large one-off payment of $25,000 each; money that could only have been of use to them if they invested it - unless they were planning a lot of overseas travel.

And then there were the ghost rail projects. The Audit Office reported in February that just before the ends of July in 2004, 2005 and 2006 the Coalition authorised special grants to the Australian Rail Track Corporation, “so as to reduce the budget surplus”.

The Corporation hadn’t asked for the money and couldn’t use it. The Audit Office says it had to park it while it worked out how to use it, costing the government more than $100 million in lost interest.

All up, an estimate by the Australian Financial Review suggests the 2007-08 budget paid out $4.1 billion in last-minute one-off grants to be got out the door before the end of 2006-07 as a means of raiding that year’s surplus.

A last minute surge in revenue and unexpected under spending was threatening to push it up by $5.4 billion.

So big was the $4.1 billion last-minute flood of grants it approached the $6.3 of new spending announced in the budget for the 2007-08 financial year itself.

That’s the way in which the carers bonuses and also the seniors bonus were handed out last year – as a disposable afterthought, a last-minute means of balancing surplus-inflated books.

The Coalition leader may now say “for God's sake, if ever there's a group of people in this community that deserve to be reassured that they're going to continue to receive financial assistance in an affluent country it's got to be carers”, but he wasn’t saying it then.

Carers themselves, while grateful for the Coalition’s last-minute budget-balancing exercises, were never happy about the way in which they were being treated.

The head of Carers ACT Dee McGrath told the Canberra Times last week that “the problem with the bonus payments was they were non−recurrent and this was setting up false expectations and that is always a very dangerous thing”.

It is the Coalition should be condemned for the way in which it treated carers, not the Rudd government.

Had it recompensed them properly it would have cost it a lot more than an extra $1,600 per carer per year and it would have been a permanent part of the budget, impossible to remove and not the subject of hypocritical hand wringing and silly headlines such as “PM punishes the vulnerable”.