Human Rights and the Federal Budget

By Right Now

Aspects of the Federal Budget 2020-2021 have raised serious concerns for human rights in Australia. The following is a short overview of Right Now’s initial views on the budget. 

Refugees

The Morrison Government cut Australia’s refugee and humanitarian intake by 5,000 to a record low of 13,750. The budget claimed this will save $911 million over the next four years. 

These savings will be counteracted by the offshore processing regime, which is set to cost $1.19 billion for one year with $55.6 million going towards reopening an immigration detention facility on Christmas Island. 

For those seeking asylum in Australia, the government has reduced assistance through the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS). The SRSS was cut in half from last year to just $19.6 million and is down from $139.8 million in 2017-18.

The Refugee Council of Australia (RCA) has provided a breakdown of the budget and its effect on some of the most vulnerable people in the world. 

Kon Karapanagiotidis, the CEO and founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), captured the feeling of activists in a video posted to Twitter, saying, “I am actually in shock how cruel it is.” The ASRC has reported a 400% increase in asylum seekers accessing their foodbank since the pandemic began.

This is a truly devastating development in Australia’s already poor treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. 

Housing 

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to many human rights issues in Australia, prominent among these is homelessness. The budget revealed that – far from addressing this issue – $41.3 million will be cut from homelessness services from July 2021.  

Around one in every 200 Australians is currently homeless, this has been rising for years. At the same time, homelessness services have been on the decline, particularly those for Indigenous Australians. Every day homelessness services have to turn away 253 people due to a lack of resources

Many economists believed that investment in social and community housing could kill two birds with one stone, addressing homelessness while creating new construction jobs. 

Homelessness Australia Chair, Jenny Smith said, “homelessness services are already under enormous strain … The economic ramifications of this pandemic will continue well past 2020. Slashing $41 million in homelessness support in July is senseless and cruel.”

Unemployment 

With the JobSeeker supplement being more than halved to $250 a fortnight, the 1.6 million Australians currently out-of-work are faced with the prospect of the payment returning to the pre-COVID-19 rate of $40 a day — forcing many into poverty — on 31 December 2020.  

With the possible end of the JobSeeker supplement, the budget introduced a $4 billion wage subsidy scheme called JobMaker. This will see the government pay businesses $200 a week when they hire previously unemployed staff aged 16-29 and $100 a week for someone aged 30-35. This scheme will last a year.

Alison Pennington, Senior Economist with Centre for Future Work, warned that without strong protections, “the hiring credit will lead to batches of up to 450,000 young vulnerable people being churned through low-skilled, low-paid work every 12 months.”

JobSeeker with the full COVID-19 supplement or a similar program could continue, as it is likely to cost $34 billion by the end of the financial year. This is barely more than the $31.6 billion in tax breaks to support businesses announced in the budget or the $31.9 billion of government investment given primarily to small and medium businesses.

More needs to be done to ensure that people not currently working, particularly those with disabilities, do not languish in poverty or become exploited by employers. 

Environment

Treasurer Josh Fyrndenburg in his budget speech said, “we are also helping to unlock five key gas basins starting with the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory and the North Bowen and Galilee Basins in Queensland.”

The government was telegraphing a ‘gas-led recovery’ before the budget, announcing $52 million for the gas industry in September while also decreasing investment in solar and wind last month.

Amanda McKenzie, Climate Council CEO, said before the release of the budget, “the Federal Government should not be throwing taxpayer money at gas. Gas is expensive, polluting and a poor public investment.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) said of the budget, “mining companies are winners, taking around 45% of the fuel tax credit scheme, which is worth $15 billion to them over the forward estimates.”

ACF added, “The fuel tax credit subsidy, which allows multinational mining companies like Rio Tinto, BHP and Glencore to pay zero tax on their off-road diesel use, will cost Australians $33 billion across the forward estimates.”

Climate change is a threat to the world and Australia has one of the highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions globally. The budget shows that the Morrison Government will not only fail to move towards renewable energy but will offer rewards to fossil fuel companies and polluters. 

It is important to note that environmental groups and many other advocacy groups were not allowed into the pre-budget lockup.

Women

Women have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, disproportionately experiencing unemployment and working in occupations most impacted by COVID-19.

However, the budget’s only scheme explicitly assisting women was $240 million for cadetships and job creation, under the Women’s Economic Security Statement. In comparison, the government is spending $249.6 million on domestic waste management.

Danielle Wood, Chief Executive of the Grattan Institute, said of the spending “this is a Budget that is spending more on recycled rubbish than it is on women.”

Furthermore, domestic violence has been on the rise during COVID-19. The budget did not provide any new funding for domestic violence services, relying on previous policies announced at the start of the pandemic.

On top of this, one of the major policies in the budget — tax cuts — were previously reported to benefit men twice as much as women.

COVID-19 does not affect everyone equally and the gains made concerning women’s rights are at risk if proper recourse is not made to ensure financial security and provide essential services.

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