Finally, we may be getting somewhere.
Martin Parkinson’s recent speech about the budget’s future sustainability really hit the nail on the head.
But the Treasury boss could be forgiven for being somewhat bemused that some political commentators are talking about it nearly a month later.
While his speech controversially dragged up the no-go area of the GST, a more important point was to raise the potentially-widening gap between what Australians expect from their government and what our politicians can realistically deliver.
Equally, there’s a growing gap between what people want from government and what they are prepared to pay for public services.
These are crucial issues to address with an ageing population and rising health costs.
Yet it wasn’t the first time Parkinson had signalled a warning.
“We need to have a considered, mature national conversation on the role of government, the sustainability of our tax system, and our preparedness for the global changes that are occurring,” he said in a speech 18 months earlier.
If Australia couldn’t do that, it ran the serious risk of being overwhelmed by the challenges it faces.
That speech, minus the GST no-no, attracted relatively little attention.
But now Australians are finally being forced to have that long-awaited conversation.
Rumours abound the Abbott government’s first budget on May 13 will impose a $6 co-payment on visits to the doctor, one of a number of measures it might need to bring some order to the nation’s finances.
Another is lifting the pension age to 70.
Treasurer Joe Hockey has indicated spending on older Australians was a key focus of the national commission of audit.
We’ll know for sure when its report is released next Thursday.
Hockey says the age pension is the largest and fastest growing government program by “a fair margin”, already swallowing 10 per cent of all commonwealth spending.
Four out of five Australians over the age of 65 receive a full or part pension. When the concessionary health card is taken into account, just 14 per cent live without some sort of government assistance.
And despite providing billions of dollars in taxation concessions for superannuation, the situation is unlikely to be much different in 2050.
On top of this, aged care is the eighth largest category of spending while the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is tenth.
At the same time the percentage of people of working age, expected to fund the retirement of their elders, will almost halve between 2010 and 2050.
“Policies must be changed, either now or more dramatically in the future,” Hockey said in a speech this week that set the tone for his first budget.
Working longer? ‘No thanks’
But if the latest Essential Research poll is any indication, waiting until 70 before getting the age pension has little community support.
Seven out of 10 respondents were against the measure. That figure rises to eight of 10 within the age bracket of those most likely to work longer (45-64 years).
Generation X may have reason to bleat about having to work longer, but some few baby boomers might not be feeling the love of government as well.
The first wave of retiring boomers, born in 1946 and in the post World War II era, started collecting their pension in 2011.
However, the boomer period is deemed to stretch all the way to those born in 1964.
The most recent pre-budget talk is that anyone born in 1959 and beyond will have to wait three more years to get the age pension, rather than the elevated eligibility age that applies from 2023.
Those born in 1964 will have to wait until 2034 to retire.
While the boomer tailenders were privy to free tertiary education, they were too young to really enjoy what being a boomer is all about – the ’60s.
The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the “Summer of Love”, women’s lib, Woodstock and the first man on moon were a few of the events in a decade that changed the world.
All the more galling is that tailenders were fed a line early in their careers that this computer-age thing would result in early retirement and more leisure time.
You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
(*The writer is a baby boomer)