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The Hirst Report – The 2014 Budget

Ned Hirst

The 2014 budget is an act of bastardry. I deliberately avoid the familiar trope “political bastardry” because I think it’s worse than that. It is sheer, old-fashioned interpersonal nastiness. There are arguments to be had about its fiscal prudence, but this government is the anti-Robin Hood. They’ve burnt down Sherwood Forest and redistributed the money amongst the plutocracy.

When Joe Hockey says this budget represents the end of the “age of entitlement”, he is talking about welfare. The dole has been restricted, the retirement age has been raised, a wait for Newstart allowances imposed and the income threshold for the repayment of HECS debt lowered. However, there is another, far more sinister form of entitlement which the budget doesn’t only ignore, but actively fosters.

In 2013, Bronwyn Bishop was asked a question about the Gonski reforms at a pre-election event in Mona Vale. The reforms, she reportedly claimed, were “dumbing down” the schools of her electorate, Mackellar, in North Sydney. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted her as asking voters, “Do we want our schools to be the same as Tasmania’s?” Answering her own question with, “No, thank you.” She also apparently answered a question about increasing public transport on the North Shore by saying that it would result in an increase in visitors, which local residents didn’t want.

The idea that rich people are entitled to send their children to better schools and live in enclosures free from the pestering of the less wealthy is offensive. It is unfair. And if the proposal to deregulate university fees passes the Senate, it will not just apply to secondary education, but will mean that the rich are set up for better tertiary education, and perhaps better lives. The egalitarian meritocracy that Australians like to think we have fashioned, free from the shackles of rigid British social structures, will disappear. The entitlement of the rich is the age of entitlement that needs to end.

On the day after the budget, I – like many others – laid a flower on the coffin outside the Chancellery building. I did so without much concern about what the deregulation of university fees is going to mean for me. I think I’ll be OK – two years of increased fees won’t make much difference now that I’m here. And I am likely in the bracket of privileged people who would be able to attend university anyway. However, there are people who cannot. And more still who will consider the debt simply not worthwhile.

I don’t want to live in a country where the family situation into which you were born determines your career. It is not only inequitable, it is detrimental to the entire country. If our society is to prosper into the future, the people attending university should be the most capable and most intelligent, not the most wealthy. This is so obvious, it’s hardly worth saying, but when government policy is antithetical to the very most basic tenets of common sense, that’s when it’s worth saying the most.