There is no doubt that a media driven campaign to whip up concern about the possibility of the non-existent Carers Bonus being ‘cut’ in the upcoming Budget played a key role in the government’s decision to announce a few weeks ago that a ‘one-off’ payment of a Carers Bonus will be paid again (for what will be the fifth ‘one-off‘ time in a row). The Canberra Times’ Peter Martin outlined in detail just how shonky the campaign was against the alleged possibility of ‘scrapping’ the Carers Bonus.
Having given themselves a pat on the back for getting a win for carers using a publicity campaign based on a false premise, it looks rather like the mainstream media are lining up for another pre-Budget campaign, this time pushing for an increase to the Age Pension (which currently sits at $546.80 a fortnight).
Now there’s no doubt that many people on the Age Pension are struggling enormously, as a recent Senate Committee report highlighted, and a move to increase the Pension would be very welcome for many (even though one shouldn’t be blind to issues that might arise from doing so in the context of an economy facing inflationary pressures and an effort to cut growth in government spending). However, singling out the Age Pension ignores people on other pensions who are struggling just as much, including the above-mentioned carers on Carers Payment, and people with significant disabilities on the Disability Support Pension.
The payment rates (as well as things like income tests) for all these pensions are generally aligned. Increasing the Aged Pension in isolation from other payments will create one more anomaly amongst an already over-complicated welfare system. Of course, we could push up the basic pension rate for all these groups – something I’d sure few people would oppose in principle. But the cost of course would be many times greater again.
The other problem with just pushing up the base rate of the Age Pension is that, while many people on this Pension are undoubtedly facing major hardship, not all of them are. The housing affordability crisis means some of those who are renting their home or are yet to pay off their mortgage are in serious trouble. But many of those who own their home outright are not in such difficulty. The income tax concessions for older Australians also mean that some people can be doing relatively well whilst still claiming part Age Pension. I’m sure most of these people are more deserving than plenty of others, but my point is that just giving across the board payment increases in response to populist and over-simplified media campaigns – as we saw with the campaign on the carer’s bonus – is not necessarily a good way to get the most effective outcome for those most in need (or very good economic management for that matter).
The Senate Committee has it right in recommending a broader examination of all the factors, including the adequacy of Rent Assistance, for people receiving the Age Pension, rather than taking the easily populist option of calling for an across-the-board rise in the base rate.
I don’t want to complain too much. The mass media will always want to run populist campaigns from time to time as a way of generating stories and kudos for themselves, so I’d much rather they do it to get more assistance for people like carers and aged pensioners, rather than some of the other topics that been pushed in the past, like promoting tax cuts for the rich or urging the government to start a war or running law and order beat-ups or vilification campaigns against vulnerable minorities.
However, governments and politicians are often rightly criticised by media commentators for acting in a kneejerk and irresponsible way when they make decisions based on political pressure or what might be popular rather than what is good properly thought through policy. We can hardly expect governments to take rational, evidence based decisions if the media also want to behave as players and help create those political and public pressures in the first place.