Political leadership and the morality of budgets

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Leaders have two primary responsibilities: create a compelling vision of the future, and create an environment in which people can flourish. Neither is fully effective without the other. While what leaders say creates an image, what they do speaks far more than their words.

Political leaders often talk about their vision for the future, particularly during campaign mode when they wish to attract votes. But where they spend our money, articulated in the budget, paints a bigger picture.

While campaigning crafts an image of how leaders want to be seen, budgets show who they are, and give deep insight to their moral universe. Budgets demonstrate the quality of ideas and shape the future of our society. They are leadership writ large, using the very blunt instrument of tax collection and distribution for shaping attitudes and behaviour.

An underlying principle of budgeting must be to live within our means.

 It is clearly irresponsible to spend what we do not have, passing the obligation to repay into the future. It is also evident that budgets cannot help everyone, pander to everyone, or satisfy everyone, and so there are always ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. But fairness requires that leaders ensure the losers are not those who are unable to speak up. Justice requires leaders help the powerless more than the powerful, the haves helping the have nots.

The recent Australian budget introduced a levy on fuel to fund building and improving roads—a sensible user pays approach. But the same principle applied to health care falls down badly. Taxing the sick by introducing a levy to fund future medical breakthroughs seems heartless. In the same budget they made education dearer and unemployment harder and harsher, suggesting that people ‘learn or earn.’ This really amounts to study or starve.

My observation here is not on the rightness or wrongness of the choices made by the government as they battle to keep spending under control and pay down debt. What I want to highlight is that the choices made are leadership statements. They reveal what matters more than words ever will.

Great leaders care for their people, not just ‘the mission’. While some political parties see their mission as ‘building a better country’, others focus on ‘looking after the workers’—and then both waste inordinate energy (and money) arguing over who is right.

The answer is somewhere in between. It is not a binary choice between the country or the people, between learning or earning, between welfare or work. The answer lies in both, reducing debt while minimising impacts on the poor, for example. This may mean putting aside grand legacy building schemes in the same way others are being asked to put aside (say) disability care or education reform.

The budget is not just an economic statement. It is a moral statement, as it frames a view of society and humanity and how we can live together.

Leadership that focuses on productivity, starting with the view that a person exists to serve the state, finishes with disenfranchised discouraged people.

When leaders start by doing good for their people—creating an environment in which people can flourish—they implicitly do good for the country. By so doing they balance the long and short term, learning and earning, welfare and work, and hence foster a richer, deeper and more sustainable culture.