Security Council doesn't provide bread

The government finished last week mildly euphoric after what Foreign Minister Bob Carr described as its "big, juicy, decisive" win in the United Nations.

And indeed, winning the Security Council seat was a cause for real celebration for Australia - except of course for the opposition, which had been hoping the home side would lose.

Praising the result with faint damns Tony Abbott opined that it probably wasn't a bad thing and we should try and make the best of it, but was clearly outdone by Joe Hockey, who said that it mightn't be a bad thing - if the United Nations could help to stop the boats. This man may well be our next treasurer and still aspires to be our Prime Minister. Can we shrink any further?

But perhaps his myopic tunnel vision could come in handy, because no matter how well Australia may be regarded internationally, not everyone has reason to celebrate. Last week the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) released a report which said that 13% of the population - more than one in every eight Australians - was living below the poverty line.

This did not mean, as it might to the poseurs who complain to the media that they are still struggling on $150,000 a year, that they couldn't afford the private school fees or the annual overseas family holiday; it meant that they were unable to pay for heating or medicine or even regular meals. It meant that they had to rely on private charity, already hopelessly overstretched in its efforts to fill the gaps left by the government of one of the richest countries on earth.

Some 2.2 million of our fellow citizens, more than 600,000 of them children, are trying to make do in the kind of hand-to-mouth conditions we normally associate with refugee camps. How could it come to this in an economy which, we are frequently told, is the envy of the industrialised world?

The quick answer is that it is because these people are not only destitute, but almost powerless - at least in a political sense. They are not the middle class whingers whose causes the shock-jocks take up; for starters, they would be hard-pressed to find the money for the phone call. Their voice, when it is heard at all, is usually channelled through organisations like ACOSS which, worthy as they are, are not the priority of governments preoccupied with chasing the swinging voters of middle Australia.

And it is this imperative which has led to the ridiculous situation in which some 70% of Australians are now on some form of government welfare.

Of course, almost all the poverty stricken 13% generally receive some benefit or other. But that still leaves well over half the population sucking on the public teat while already enjoying what is considered to be an adequate living standard. Some of them probably need it to stay afloat and some of the other handouts are aimed at stimulating ailing sectors of the economy or providing incentives for reform and improvement.

Nonetheless, there is still an awful lot of taxpayers' money devoted to greed rather than need. If the need were less pressing, this misallocation could perhaps be justified on the grounds of Realpolitik, but if the ACOSS figures are right - and they have not been seriously disputed - the situation is urgent, even desperate. But there is no sign that the government is treating it as such; so far the reaction has been muted and indirect.

At the weekend Treasurer Wayne Swan wrote a rather smug article about how much worse things were in the United States than they are here. And Employment Minister Bill Shorten suggested that yes, perhaps the Newstart allowance - the dole - was inadequate. But quizzed later, he made it clear that the government had no immediate plans to increase it, and fell back on the mantra that the very stinginess of Newstart was a positive; it encouraged the unemployed to find a job. Well, they might want to, but if they can't afford to travel - or even to dress decently - their chances of doing so are somewhat limited.

This is the Catch 22 facing the forgotten 13%. Well, perhaps not entirely forgotten; but for the time being they have definitely been consigned to the too hard basket. Newstart currently stands at $246 a week - just 42% of the statutory minimum wage. To bring it up to even half the minimum wage would cost nearly $2.5 billion a year - and that's at a time of low unemployment and is just for those actively looking for work. A great many of the 13% would still miss out altogether.

Dealing with all of them would require the sort of money that only comes with a boom time bonanza. And it appears the boom is well and truly over. Projected revenue for this year is down by about $4 billion, mainly due to falling prices for coal and iron ore and lower company profits. There is no reason to panic; by any rational measure Australia is still in very good shape. But with the government's obsession with delivering a surplus, at least on paper, there is not much room for largesse.

Swan has made it clear what the government's priorities are for next year - an election year. They are education reform, following the Gonski report; the National Disability Insurance Scheme; and continuing the roll out of the National Broadband Network. All are unquestionably worthwhile objectives with the potential to bring huge long term benefits, both economic and social. But it would be fair to say that they would rate fairly low on the wish list of those who keep their kids home from school because they cannot provide them with a cut lunch.

And as for the United Nations Security Council - of course it's splendid that Australia has won something, and we're all applauding. But if you have to choose between the bread and the circuses, most people will go for the bread first.

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