By Peter Bugden
ST Vincent de Paul Society leaders believe many of the recommendations of the Federal Government’s Commission of Audit would lead to greater inequality in Australia.
The recently released Commission of Audit report recommends spending cuts to a range of government services and payments.
Family payments, child care, health care, education, unemployment and pension payments, aged care and the National Disability Insurance Scheme are among the targeted areas.
The St Vincent de Paul Society’s national president Anthony Thornton said, “It is inequality that we must reduce, not social expenditure.”
“Many of the recommendations of this report are a recipe for rising inequality,” he said.
“That is not the kind of Australia that people of good will would be hoping for.
“What we expect of government is that it ensures that everyone has access to a place to live, a place to learn and a place to work.”
The society’s national chief executive Dr John Falzon said the organisation stood “in solidarity with the people who carry the greatest burden of inequality”, and therefore rejected the adoption of what he described as “the United States path of further entrenching inequality”.
“This is not the time for government to walk away from its responsibility to make sure that people enjoy the right to the essentials of life such as health, affordable housing, education and jobs,” Dr Falzon said.
“In this respect governments must do what markets cannot.”
Dr Falzon said the recommendations of the audit report, if adopted, would lead to the humiliation of “the people we stand with: people living with a disability or caring for a family member with a disability, people experiencing homelessness or housing stress, single mums, older Australians, people carrying the burden of inequality through unemployment or who are struggling to survive on the minimum wage at the low and insecure end of the labour market”.
“These recommendations will rip the guts out of any notion of a fair and egalitarian Australia,” he said.
“We are being told that this is for the good of the country but you don’t build a strong country on the backs of the poor and you don’t build people up by putting them down.
“You don’t help people into jobs by forcing them more deeply into poverty.
“Austerity measures seek to destroy all that has been won by collective struggle and human hope.
“It is a good time to ask ourselves: What kind of society do we want?
“Do we want an Australia based on commercial transaction? Or one based on solidarity and compassion?
“The purpose of government is to provide the opportunity for people to come together to do what they can’t do individually for the common good. This, it seems, is precisely what the Audit Commission is against.
“The audit report is therefore deeply offensive to the people we assist and stand in solidarity with. They are crushed already and now they will be crushed more.”
Catholic Health Australia has backed the Commission of Audit’s recommendation for the Health Minister to lead a 12-month review process towards agreement on actions for the reform of Australia’s health care system, but queried the audit report’s dealing with advanced care directives.
CHA chief executive officer Martin Laverty, speaking on behalf of Catholic not-for-profit health and aged care services who care for one in 10 Australians in a hospital and aged-care service, said there was urgent need for new health reform.
“The commission was right to encourage the Health Minister to develop a framework to bring all aspects of the health system – public and private hospitals and community-based services – into a co-ordinated strategy to give better patient care,” Mr Laverty said.
“The commission was also right to encourage yet another look at how universal health coverage can be most effectively delivered, including whether this can be achieved under Medicare Select, the option of universal health insurance last proposed by the Bennett National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission in 2009.
“With a multitude of recommendations of the Bennett Commission not implemented, and now with even more health reform proposals arising from the Commission of Audit, the Health Minister should adopt recommendation 18 and develop a future health strategy.
“A future health care strategy should be built on principles of putting the needs of people – not the system – first. The strategy needs to be financially sustainable, but recognise the needs of the most disadvantaged within the community and not result in the creation of a two-tiered health system.
“A future health care strategy should also address drivers of chronic illness and avoidable hospital admissions by understanding that social factors contribute to a person’s health and well-being. Action on social determinants of health will stem illness and future health costs.”
CHA also supported most elements of the commission’s recommendation which proposed changes to aged-care access means-testing and creating new ways for older people to access equity in their homes to meet aged-care costs.
“Those who have capacity to contribute to their aged care costs will increasingly need to. The commission’s proposal to allow some older people to access equity in their homes to fund their care is one way in which quality aged-care services can be provided,” Mr Laverty said.
He said the Government should work in partnership with not-for-profit health and aged-care providers in determining which of the commission’s recommendations should be adopted.
CHA questioned the commission’s decision to make the case for advanced care directives.
It said the commission’s terms of reference on “scope, efficiency and functions of government” made discussion on end-of-life care appear out of place.
Mr Laverty said though thorough care planning at end of life was crucial, governments should not impose its views for economic reasons.
“End-of-life decisions are deeply personal,” he said. “They require sensitive and considered thought. The health and pastoral professionals who work in Catholic hospitals and aged-care services support people on a daily basis in making advance care plans.
“We hope the Commission of Audit was not trying to cast end-of-life decisions as a requirement of economic efficiency.
“The commission specifically encouraged government to put in place mechanisms that would see more people aged over 18 adopt advance care directives. CHA does not promote use of directives, but does encourage use of advance care plans; there is a difference between the two.
“Government should be cautious not to mandate a particular requirement for people to adopt care directives.”
The National Catholic Education Commission, in responding to the audit report, acknowledged the continuing commitment of the Government “to the modest funding increases available within the school funding envelope from 2014 to 2017”.
The NCEC said proposals to move responsibility for school funding entirely to state and territory governments would require careful scrutiny.
It said the test would be whether the proposed arrangements would better support quality schooling in Australia.
NCEC executive director Ross Fox said the Commission of Audit school funding proposals cast doubt on the continuation of long-standing needs-based funding arrangements that had supported Catholic schools across Australia.
“It is unclear whether the funding disparity facing students with particular needs, such as students with disability, will be addressed by these proposals,” Mr Fox said.
He said the prospect of government funding for Catholic schools beyond 2017 not keeping pace with school costs, including teacher salaries, was a significant concern.
“If funding does not keep pace with school costs, parents are likely to face significant fee increases – creating a potential barrier for some families to catholic education,” he said.
The NCEC said that, for more than 40 years, Commonwealth Governments had been committed to funding non-government schools, including Catholic schools.
“This direct funding relationship has provided security and certainty and allowed Catholic schools to focus on education outcomes,” it said.
“We look forward to working with the Government on school funding arrangements beyond 2017 to ensure all schools are adequately supported.”