All governments have been doing it. State governments, for instance, have long left country (but not city) fire-fighting to volunteers. And have long underfunded the upkeep of public schools, believing parents and citizens can be left to make up the shortfall. But it’s been a particular trick of the federal Coalition government as it struggles to return its budget to surplus when there are expensive, vote-buying tax cuts to be covered.
If you’re wondering why, despite his contrition at having taken an overseas break his spin doctors tried to keep secret, and his freely dispensed “thoughts and prayers”, Scott Morrison remained adamant for so long that all that was needed was already being done to help the firefighters, it’s because he knows that too much generosity on the feds’ part could see his precious budget surplus whittled down to nothingness.
Since its election in 2013, this government has been insistent that the budget should be returned to surplus by cutting government spending, not by explicit increases in taxes (hidden tax increases caused by bracket creep are okay, of course, because the punters don’t notice ’em).
Its first budget in 2014 was a long-term plan to improve the budget by what the bureaucrats call “cost-shifting”. Much of the cost of health and education was to be shifted onto the states’ budgets. Some was to be moved to your household’s budget via the $7 charge for visits to the doctor. That budget was so badly received most of those plans were reversed. But Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and his accountants have continued to limit the growth in government spending by penny-pinching in ways that voters wouldn’t notice or object to.
They’ve got welfare dependency to “its lowest level in 30 years” not by getting the unemployed into jobs, but by using petty excuses to suspend people’s dole payments. How do these unfortunates live without money to live on? They fall back on their families or go cap-in-hand to the Salvos or Vinnies. Get it? The feds are cost-shifting to charities – the same community groups whose grants they’ve cut back.
According to a recent survey of its members’ staffs by the Australian Council of Social Service, 76 per cent of staff dealing with housing the homeless reported an increase in demand, as did 71 per cent of those providing financial counselling and support (aka money). Respondents to the survey said the unmet demand naturally had adverse impacts on the community. Where people fall through the cracks they can end up in hospitals or the justice system (cost-shifting to the states).
I’ve been reading about how many small country towns are relying on newly formed charities for their supply of water. More broadly, the desire to limit government spending encourages politicians to ignore reports warning of looming troubles and push problems off into the future. Some of the foreseen problems fail to materialise, but many eventually reach crisis point and can no longer be ignored.
The aged care royal commission is revealing the shocking results of one attempt to keep government small by relying on for-profit providers, underspending on the provision of home-care packages and on policing institutions’ adherence to the rules.
Which brings us back to our truly heroic volunteer firefighters. Morrison’s reluctant decision to pay them $300 a day for a maximum of 20 days is the least he can do to acknowledge their loss of income (or annual leave) while serving their communities.
His reluctance – and anxiety to emphasise it’s not a payment of wages – is understandable, however. Behavioural economics is clear that paying people to do what they formerly did without payment can kill the motivation to donate your services for noble reasons. Morrison has stressed that this response to a problem of unprecedented severity shouldn’t be seen as setting a precedent.
Good luck with that. If climate change is making drought, heatwaves and bushfires bigger and more frequent, the horrific events of this summer will become a regular occurrence – meaning the days of leaving bushfire fighting to unpaid volunteers are numbered.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.
Ross Gittins is the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.