In two weeks, NSW treasurer Daniel Mookhey will hand down his first Budget. This is an important moment for the new Labor government: an opportunity to signal their key priorities through their decisions about resource allocation and stimulate a public discussion about outcomes and trade-offs in the context of fiscal constraint.
In the coming days, I suspect we will be overwhelmed with headlines about ‘Budget winners’ and ‘Budget losers’.
This reductive framing, wheeled out several times a year by media of all stripes for commonwealth and state Budgets sets up the merits of public policy and resource allocation through a selfish lens.
Put simply, we are asked as individuals: are you a Budget winner, or a Budget loser?
At its worst, this type of commentary is overly simplistic and crass. Single mothers? Well, eligibility for the (very modest) single parenting payment was marginally increased in the last commonwealth Budget. Guess they are winners! The gas industry? Facing a small lift on the tax of their windfall profits. Losers! A brief Google search produces pages upon pages of these headlines.
This competitive framing is an enemy of good deliberative public policy.
Firstly, Budgetary figures need deep context to be meaningful. This includes consideration of the immediate and long-term service and system-level pressures that different line items face. For example, maintaining the same level of recurrent spending on major health services might not get picked up as a ‘win’ or ‘loss’ by the media, but in the context of an aging population might represent a real cut to the capacity of those services.
Secondly, framing individuals as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ is not only crass but undermines our capacity to imagine that policy that lifts the floor upon which a country’s citizens stand, that generates positive outcomes across society, is absolutely consistent with our individual gain.
The allocation of public resources towards projects and policies that allow everyone the opportunity to flourish and thrive produces benefits for all of us. Social welfare innovator Hilary Cottam argues that ‘social systems cannot treat the individual but must focus on the collective within the wider environment’. To put it simply, when we all do well, we all do well.
In contrast, the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ framing invites us to assess the merits of political decisions only in terms of the explicit material benefit they confer upon us as individuals, and only in the short-term at that. When we are so used to this framing, and so unfamiliar with a media discourse that contemplates public benefit, we struggle to have important national conversations about our future, such as the Voice to Parliament, because our capacity to imagine success is diminished.
We can’t only blame the media, though. Indeed, policy wonks have fed this frenzy for years through confected excitement about the Budget, throwing ‘watch parties’ and tweeting up a storm. This spectacle is unhelpful, even if those involved don’t have bad intentions.
It reduces what could be an inclusive, ongoing discussion about the merits of resource allocation, to a one-off opportunity to perform and navel-gaze within a small group of political watchers. When such intellectual pageantry takes hold, the policy community risks losing sight of the role of government as a catalyst and facilitator of people’s capacity to live good and meaningful lives.
State governments are responsible for delivering so many of the basic services that we enjoy in this fortunate country, and providing for our most vulnerable. I am hopeful that in this NSW Budget cycle, we see more commentary that reflects a broader idea of ‘winners’.
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