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budget 2011 thin ray light

The stand out feature – albeit a long overdue one – in the federal budget is the $2.2 billion for mental health.
As John Mendoza, the former Chair of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health, pointed out, it has taken four budgets under the Rudd/Gillard government to deliver on an issue they claimed was a priority from the start.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott quite rightly is claiming some credit for “shaming” the government into action on the issue. He went to the last election with a better policy. Nonetheless, inaction and inadequate funding under successive governments explain the resource problems in the sector today.

If governments are overawed by current health costs, they need to prepare for the impact of mental illness: it affects one in five Australians at some point in their lifetime. Around one million adults and 100,000 young people live with depression each year. Depression is currently the leading cause of non-fatal disability in
Australia, but only 3 per cent of the population identifies it as a major health problem. Seems it has taken awhile for governments to identify it as a major budget issue.

Postnatal depression affects 16 per cent of new mothers (granted, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd provided approximately $85 million towards work on perinatal depression as soon as he got into office). And the statistics go on.

The money is a drop in the ocean given the magnitude of this problem, but the resources are welcomed.

While the budget had additional funding for some other health initiatives, such as hospital reform, regional health measures, diagnostic imaging services etc, the medical research sector is enjoying a reprieve after anticipating unwarranted cuts to the NHMRC budget. Apparently, there is a slight increase in the budget for the
NHMRC but funding for projects and fellowships and so on is essentially maintained at existing levels. The overall result is testament to a well-run campaign by the sector but the government should never have contemplated such cuts.

Treasurer Wayne Swan argues this budget is about ensuring Australians “succeed in the good times as we did in the bad – by choice, not by chance”. But not all his choices bode well for families or those sectors affected by a two-speed economy or a stronger dollar (think manufacturing, tourism etc).

The Treasurer’s speech highlighted the need for an expanding and more productive workforce. Key to this was investment in vocational education and training and removing barriers for workforce participation.

Swan claims addressing the entrenched disadvantaged is a budget focus but some of the pettier items pick on the most disadvantaged in our community, be it those on disability pensions or mothers with young children.

The Labor government certainly hit the easy targets like single parents, young people and those on disability pensions. Some single parents are predicted to lose up to $60 per week and some young people up to $40 per week.
Hearing Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey lament the $2 billion worth of cuts to family payments made me wonder which political party was actually the party of labour and families tonight.

Treasurer Swan’s fiscal goal is a return to surplus (apparently on track for 2012-13 despite being deeper in the red now than previously expected). Swan is wedded to the Holy Grail of budgeting but most Australians recognise that, in recent times, the surplus has become more of a political goal than an exemplar of economic
responsibility.

The government has slashed $1 billion out of the public service and has cut $3 billion from defence. (Will this play out in theatres of war like Afghanistan, we wonder?) But these are cuts that are unlikely to generate too much political heat.

Luring skilled migrants to regional areas seems to be the main item being spruiked by the government in the immigration portfolio, thus, deflecting from the omnipresent issue of asylum seekers, well at least for a night.

Senator Bob Brown said the budget was a “missed opportunity” while Joe Hockey described it as built on a ‘house of cards’. Both descriptions remind me that on budget night you can be sure nearly every cliché is taken out for spin. Usually you get “smoke and mirrors”, “death by a thousand cuts”, “sticks and carrots”.

As commentators sifted through the metaphors and economists checked the details plans, the drinks and parties were in full swing in Parliament House last night. But the government’s hard sell has only just begun: the public is one thing, but getting some of these measures through the Senate will be another.

Natasha Stott Despoja is a director of beyondblue and a director of The Burnet Institute.

Read all of Business Spectator’s 2011 federal budget coverage here

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