What does an Albanese Labor government mean for students?

Ahead of the budget, it's important for students to take a look at the government's time thus far with a critical lens.

 

Disclaimer: Gerard Buttigieg is a member of National Labor Students (NLS) and the Australian Labor Party.   

I remember vividly the anxiety and unease which filled the Springwood Royal Hotel on the night of 21 May. Months of constant campaigning and agitation to get rid of Scott Morrison and his stale, conservative government had come to a head, and no one could even imagine another three years of a Coalition government. When the time came for Antony Green to informally declare Anthony Albanese as Australia’s 31st Prime Minister, a wave of relief rushed over my comrades and I. We had done it — Labor was in power again for only the fourth time since the Second World War. Progressivism had won.  

Yet, it’s now been five months since Morrison and his cronies got sacked, and with Jim Chalmers’ first budget just around the corner, it is an apt time to critically and honestly evaluate what this government actually means for students across the country. 

So far, Labor has enacted desperately needed policy which hits the basics, cleaning up the mess left by nine years of Coalition rule — such as arguing for a lift in the minimum wage, implementing 20,000 additional university places for variously disadvantaged students, abolishing the cashless debit card for welfare recipients, lowering the cost of medicine within the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and just recently announcing an increase in funding for JobSeeker. And, while the Treasurer has announced that his first budget will be a ‘wellbeing budget’ focused on the social responsibility of fiscal policy, rather than neoliberal policies, the Albanese government is still simply not doing nearly enough for young people.

Students are facing ever-increasing university fees and are racking up a lifetime in student debt. They are struggling with a cost of living crisis that is seeing inflation spiral, while real wages stagnate and are starting to fall behind. Rampant casualisation and poor worker representation (specifically, continually declining union density) mean that students are faced with a labour-market which is becoming increasingly insecure, and subject to the wills of capital. Concurrently, housing affordability is becoming a distant reality for many students who can barely make rent, if they can afford to live out of home at all. The effects of severe economic insecurity and a lack of government support for young people under the previous Liberal-National governments has had drastic effects on their health. Between 2017 and 2018, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reported that 15 per cent of those aged 18-24 experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress. Recent research by 89 Degrees East shows that young people aged 18-29 are the least satisfied with their overall wellbeing. Poor wages, high cost of living, insanely expensive university fees and declining mental and physical health – this is the reality for students living in Australia. Realistically, it doesn’t leave much to be inspired by. If Labor truly wants to orient their first budget in nearly ten years towards a focus on wellbeing, then the Party has to start thinking about a bolder and more uncompromising agenda. 

Economic policy 

One of the aspects of Albo’s ‘small target’ strategy for the 2022 election was a reversion to the Hawke-Keating ideology of fiscally responsible economic management, a parroting of mainstream conservative economic thinking. The Albanese government is moving in positive directions — it’s begun a review into the Reserve Bank, currently lifting interest rates at no benefit to the general public or the future of young people, a move consistently at odds with economic consensus. The Government has also been cracking down on tax avoidance from multinational corporations, who have been getting away with such fraud for too long (according to the ATO, 33% of companies did not pay a single cent in tax from 2019-2020). However, there is still much left to be desired.  

The most obvious flaw in the new government’s economic plan is its dogmatic commitment to the Turnbull-legislated Stage 3 tax cuts. Not only are these tax cuts economically unsound – even the ‘right-wing’ Chalmers is leading the opposition to them within the government – they are extremely detrimental for the government’s ability to properly fund the public services and progressive reform that impact on the wellbeing of people struggling, particularly students. Greg Jericho, a policy director at the Centre for Future Work, claims that not only have we seen how bad high-income tax cuts affected the cost-of-living crisis in the UK under Liz Truss’ exemplar neoliberal mini-budget, but in fact our forthcoming ones are even worse. What’s more, the existing taxation plan will gut our progressive system, flattening the rate of tax to 30 per cent between those earning $45,000 to $200,000 a year. That is the difference between someone who is struggling to put food on the table and someone who can afford to go to Europe every summer holiday. That is a dystopian economic future for students, whose burden it will be to shoulder the $243 billion in costs over the next decade of these tax cuts, on top of their already precarious economic circumstances. In fact, due to the new budget not extending the low and middle-income offset, those earning less than $126,000 (the case for the majority of young people and students) will likely be paying more in tax, in relative terms, than those benefiting the most from the Stage 3 cuts. 

It’s somewhat comforting to know that there is indeed debate within the government on whether we should go ahead with this ridiculous policy. However, it is unclear whether the party’s stance will change.  

Climate and energy 

Climate change is an imposing reality to young people everywhere, and we are getting increasingly anxious about what our future looks like. Considering this, Labor’s position on climate is depressing. While superior to the Coalition’s (a low bar to begin with) — whereby now we have some sort of enshrined legislative commitment to emissions-reductions — 43 per cent by 2030 frankly does not match the scientific consensus on what needs to be done to prevent irreversible damage. For Australia to meet its commitments to the Paris Agreement, it would need to reduce emissions by at least 50 per cent this decade. To help limit warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, it would need to do so by 75 per cent. What’s more, Albanese’s approval of new oil and gas projects undoes a lot of the work an already low 43 per cent target would achieve.  

If the Albanese government wants to act in the interests of those who will actually face the consequences of devastating climate change in years to come, it should follow the lead of its progressive Labor state counterparts such as Queensland, who have legislated a 70 per cent reduction target for 2030, or Victoria, who have committed to between 75-80 per cent by 2035, as well as 95 per cent renewable electricity in the state within the same timeframe.  


The Voice to Parliament 

Taking a step back from the deserved criticism that the infant Labor government has received from this article, one issue in which Albanese should be applauded and supported for is his commitment to accepting the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full. A First Nations Voice to Parliament will indeed bring much needed catharsis to Indigenous peoples across the nation, and it will provide material as well as symbolic change to help reconcile the issues that Indigenous Australians face. There is no doubt that Indigenous people are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to higher education. Based on the 2016 census, only 42 per cent of Indigenous people aged 25-34 had completed a tertiary qualification (compared to 72 per cent of non-Indigenous people). At the University of Sydney, Indigenous people make up only 0.9% of the student population.

A Voice to Parliament values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, knowledge and culture, putting in writing their ability to influence legislation and policy to provide a better material outcome for Indigenous communities. A referendum on a Voice, spearheaded by Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, will make history. 

When asked for a statement on supporting the Albanese government’s intentions regarding the Uluru Statement, National Union of Students (NUS) Indigenous Officer Zebediah Cruickshank spoke to the responsibility of the Left in student activist circles: “Don’t believe the convenient lies of the Trotskyist counter-revolutionaries, the Voice to Parliament has the majority support of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We cannot let them call themselves progressives while they are on the same side of history as Pauline Hanson.” 

There is much to criticise the Albanese government for in regards to the wellbeing of young people, but student activists should separately rally in support of a forthcoming referendum and the meaningful change that it will create for Indigenous students in this country. 

What next?

There are many things left untouched in this article, such as the continuing existential threat of nuclear proliferation under Albo’s Prime Ministership through the AUKUS deal, the future of collective bargaining and the trade union movement, what that means for young workers, and so on. The fight for free education remains one of the most, if not the most, important goals for student activists to orient themselves towards. However, I think it is important to reflect on what will actually create the meaningful change that students need under Albanese’s government. I believe in Labor governments because I believe in the power of meaningful, progressive and practical policy. Yet we cannot wait for this government to act boldly on its own – dedicated and committed grassroots activism, both within and outside of the Labor Party and labour movement, must continuously push for this government to enact the policies that will improve the wellbeing of students and others at a disadvantage in this country. 

The government’s current plan may have its strengths, but is realistically weak and not nearly as progressive as it needs to be in order to tackle the crises we as young people face. It can and should be better. Agitation from students and activists alike will do that.