So often in politics, the real significance of policy blueprints can be detected in the issues that are silenced, rather than the matters given accent. The federal government’s Intergenerational Report is no exception.
It highlights challenges and economic threats that the Abbott government is ready to manage and dodges others that it would rather forget.
The biggest dodge in the IG report is the potential for climate change to undermine the health and welfare of Australians, as well as the finances of future governments.
The report tells us that Australians born in 2050 will live to an average age of around 100 years.
This prediction is based, of course, on demographic trends and assumptions that ignore the rising frequency of droughts, bushfires and environmental catastrophes.
One of the world’s leading climate scientists, Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University, believes the government’s forecasting is dead wrong.
“If we keep emitting carbon dioxide on the trajectory we are on now, I can guarantee Australians will not be living to an average age of 100 in the next century,” he said.
“Moreover, it is very likely they will have shorter life spans than they have today.
“Large areas of Australia will be uninhabitable by 2100 because of extreme heat, more bushfires and coastal flooding.”
While the report recognises climate change as a challenge, its importance is overlooked in most of the government’s long-term forecasting.
Government ignores global warming – again
Rather than acknowledging the grave risks to environmental and economic security highlighted by climate scientists, the IG report treats global warming as an appendage – not a central concern – of the government’s long-term planning.
The IG report is the most tangible evidence of the government’s reluctance to manage environmental threats with the same urgency and concern that marks its approach to balancing the budget.
The government observed the following about climate change in the IG report:
Some economic effects may be beneficial – where regions become warmer or wetter this may allow for increased agricultural output – while others may be harmful.
While such observations might seem balanced, they also indicate that the government is taking an imprudent approach to dealing with climate change risks.
Professor Steffen argues that as average temperatures rise, the negative impacts of climate change intensify and outweigh any positives.
“Most of the positive impacts are more likely to be concentrated in the northern hemisphere,” he said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott described the government’s approach to climate change as “sensible, rational and realistic”.
He accused the Opposition and Greens MPs of undermining the “expertise of the Treasury officials” who prepared the IG report.
“We want to achieve the best environmental outcomes without endangering economic outcomes,” he told parliament on Wednesday.
Professor Steffen said the IG report was unrealistic and flawed because it failed to grasp that the economy was a product of the environment.
“The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment,” he said. “The government’s priorities are upside down.”
Superannuation tax breaks in sights
While climate change was the big issue muzzled by the IG report, the government indicated it was open to reconsidering its controversial tax breaks on superannuation.
The current tax arrangements heavily favour wealthy retirees at the expense of workers earning less than $180,000 and cost the government billions of dollars every year in foregone revenue.
Although the Coalition promised at the 2013 election that it would not erode any superannuation benefits during its first term of government, the IG report indicates that it may be open to reconsidering that commitment.
“The Government will consider several aspects of the superannuation system as part of the review of the tax system,” it stated in the report.
Treasurer Joe Hockey said that proposals for reforming tax rules on super would be included in the tax white paper to be released next month.
The debate over tax breaks on super has divided the superannuation industry.
Industry funds are pushing for tax concessions to be reduced for wealthy Australians, while advocates for self-managed super schemes are arguing for their retention.
Dr Zachary May, directory of policy at Industry Super Australia, said the government’s decision to review the existing tax breaks was welcomed.