Abbott's ideology out in the open as Budget day looms

In Broadmeadows, on Melbourne’s outer industrial edge, last Friday a new $257 million biotech research and development facility specialising in a range of life-saving drug therapies for rare and serious diseases, including cancer, was unveiled. 

As the former Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, and a backer of the project when it was first announced in 2010, I was delighted to be there and to see the results of Labor’s $50 million co-investment in CSL Behring’s new, world-class facility.

The next morning I picked up The Australian newspaper and saw emblazoned across the front page, “Cuts to $10bn business welfare”. The story that followed was yet another foretaste of Tuesday night’s budget – “corporate welfare” to be slashed, the Abbott Government to take a “knife to industry assistance”, business to share the pain just like the rest of the community . . . and so on.

“Corporate welfare” is the pejorative term the Abbott Government uses for industry assistance, R&D and innovation. A hand-out for those who should be able to stand on their own two feet and get on with it. 

I take a different view. Public-private partnerships with industry that create new jobs, build and sustain our capabilities, and act as an enablers for start-ups, research and high-tech, high-wage advanced manufacturing aren’t something for nothing. They are strategic co-investment.

When it comes to public expenditure, we all know that governments make choices; they examine the extent of private benefit and public good (national interest).

I have absolutely no doubt that had the Labor Government told CSL in 2010 to stand on its own two feet and get on with it, there would have been no new CSL biotech facility in Broadmeadows to open last week.

All that scientific expertise and those high-quality, skilled jobs would have gone offshore rather than remain in Broadmeadows. As it is, the new facility is expected to generate more than 240 jobs – the sort of skilled work that we need in this country. It would not have happened without a commitment from government.

Yet it seems, right across what might loosely be termed the “knowledge sphere”, there is a withdrawal of government support for the very things that we need to invest in if we are to become a smarter, knowledge-based economy equipped to compete in an ever more competitive world.

As budget night approaches, the “no cuts, no surprises” pre-election mantra of the Abbott Government is fast shedding any credibility it might have had. This was nothing more than a cover for what the Coalition has long sought to disguise – its real agenda.

The Government’s true ideological underpinnings are now being starkly revealed. Hence the disconnect between the ironclad commitments before the election – no cuts to health, education, pensions – and the emerging reality.

The small-government, user-pays, market-driven mentality is finally out in the open. Australians are being prepared for a barrage of painful cost-cutting and cost-shifting as they are abandoned by government and told to stand on their own two feet and get on with it. And all under the guise of the so-called “budget emergency”, another blatant furphy of the Abbott Government.

In the field of higher education, Education Minister Christopher Pyne has been ramping up the rhetoric in favour of deregulation and making students contribute more for their education. 

How does making students pay more for their education make us a smarter nation? Our young people are already responsible for a higher proportion of the costs of their university education than most OECD countries. They contribute more than 40 per cent of the cost. How much more should they pay?

It’s no argument to say there is no disincentive to attend university because you do not have to pay immediately. Like anyone signing up to a debt, there are consequences. When you ask the bank for a loan to buy a home, your HECS debt will be taken into account. What’s the bet the bank will be reluctant to give you a mortgage if you have a huge HECS debt hanging over your head?

We know from the British experience that a steep hike in fees will deter many from going to university. People from lower socio-economic backgrounds or from rural and regional areas, especially, will think twice about whether they can actually afford it. 

Why care? Not only are the consequences for social equity a concern; so are those for our nation’s future as a smart country. We need graduates to fuel the economy, just like we need the future industries and investment to create new jobs.

In this brave new world, though, the Abbott Government will simply tell you: stand on your own two feet and get on with it. 

This piece was published by SBS, on Monday, 12 May 2014


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