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Poverty: the missing issue of the election campaign



27 August 2013

"Whether a party's policy will condemn entire groups to sustained poverty is at best a minor note in the overall songbook of campaigning," argue Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer and Madeleine Finn.
"Whether a party's policy will condemn entire groups to sustained poverty is at best a minor note in the overall songbook of campaigning," argue Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer and Madeleine Finn.

"It's the economy, stupid" is once again the refrain of the upcoming federal election. But there is a lot more to handling the economy than managing deficits and balances. Choices about how money is spent matter enormously, especially for those who are most marginalised and vulnerable.

In the contemporary world, individuals' life chances can be drastically affected by forces over which they have no control - changes in the global economy or radical shifts in the availability of work in the fields in which they trained. And any one of us can be drastically affected if we, or someone we care for, become seriously ill or disabled.

So what is on offer from the rivals in the run up to the election in terms of addressing these structural vulnerabilities? The answer to that question seems as absent as the sense of justice that would have us insist on its centrality to the way our country is governed. Whether a party's policy will condemn entire groups to sustained poverty is at best a minor note in the overall songbook of campaigning.

One reason this question is receiving so little attention is that poverty and distributional issues are not considered "sexy". They don't have the same photo or by-line opportunities as sinking boats and mud-slinging politicians. But it is also invisible from campaigns because the public just does not know enough about the policies of the various parties, and their implications for poverty and distribution.

Take for instance the shortage of public housing. Currently there are as many as 173,000 households on state and territory public housing waiting lists. If government investment had been maintained at the levels of the 1980s, today there would be more than 200,000 public housing units for rent. Where are the election debates in which those vying to represent the people tell us about their plans to turn this around?

In relation to disability, there is ample evidence that having someone with a disability within a household significantly reduces income - in fact increasing the risk of poverty between four and 16 times. Both the ALP and the Greens do a reasonably good job at including adequate measures for people with disabilities in their poverty alleviation policies, recognising the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and as such recognising the rights of people to participate in all areas of life. By contrast, the Coalition has indicated that the National Disability Insurance Scheme is affordable only in a stronger economy and omits any reference in its policy to rights to participation, or inclusion in education or employment.

Impoverished lone parent families are another invisible issue in this election. The majority are headed by women, make up 20 percentof Australian families. Recent reforms to welfare policies changed Parenting Payments to the less generous Newstart allowance, which has had harmful consequences for them and their children. But those concerns are largely ignored by the policies of the two major political parties. While the ALP has hinted at a return to Parenting Payments, they have put forward no other policies. And the Coalition policies are even more deficient, with no mention of single parents. The continuation of current policies is likely to exacerbate the poverty experienced by those households.

And then there are the issues that most of us don't even connect with life chances and wellbeing, but that have a critical impact not only on Australians but also on people in the developing world whose lives our laws effect. In this regard, it is worth Australian voters being mindful that the policies decided upon by our political parties will also have consequences for poverty elsewhere - and on people who have no influence over those policies.

At the end of the last Parliament, the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 2013 (Cth) was awaiting debate in the Senate. Melissa Parke, Labor party member for Fremantle and minister for international development observed that "the bill will be very important in assisting developing countries to access vital medicines." Indeed, anyone in the know appreciates that intellectual property law can have a critical impact on whether people in Australia and other parts of the world have access to affordable medicines. But who gets to be in the know? Yet again, this issue sits amongst those that are absent from the deliberations of "the people" in our so-called self-governing democracy.

When we vote, we would do well to remember that we are voting not only on how the future treasurer will balance the budget. We are voting on access to medication, housing, education, and the chance of those at the social and economic margins to live a decent and dignified life.

It's difficult to say if the absence of any substantive debate about the implications of the policies on offer for poverty and inequality is indicative of the narrow field of vision of politicians, the electorate or the media. Each can easily blame the other for shaping its agenda. But that also means that each of those three parties is capable of intervening and reshaping the agenda so that we start to talk about things surely do matter to us: whether kids from disadvantaged backgrounds will have genuine access to higher education; how people with disabilities could be enabled to participate in the social and economic life of our country; or, what type of policies would actually eliminate or ameliorate Indigenous poverty.

Surely elections - those all too rare occasions when the people get to communicate to our political representatives the kind of country and future that we wish to create - are the times to be debating these issues.


Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer is Director of the Human Rights program area at the University of Sydney and co-founder of the Australian arm of Academics Stand Against Poverty Oceania, who today released a major report outlining the implications for poverty of the policies of Australia's three major political parties. Madeleine Finn is an MA candidate at the University of Sydney.


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