The 2017 Federal Budget is a whole lot better than the 2014 shocker. But it’s still disappointing because the Government has missed the opportunity to effectively reset its priorities and show real vision.
This budget is especially disappointing for Tasmania. There’s no money for the UTas STEM project, no money for light rail, no money for the new Bridgewater Bridge and no money for water infrastructure. Tonight’s budget goes to show that Canberra doesn’t really care about Tasmania, and that the Tasmanian State Government has failed miserably to do its job to make the case with its Liberal Party colleagues for much greater investment.
Significantly, the State Government never even bothered to put in a funding submission for the STEM project, despite the benefits that this would bring to Tasmania and Hobart, and the fact that the Prime Minister said it was the State Government that needed to drive the project.
Also relevant is that this budget throws billions of dollars at rail projects on the mainland but there’s nothing for Hobart light rail – again because the State Government hasn’t asked for it. There’s also no Hobart City Deal and no Defence work for Tasmania.
The decision to slash funding for universities is appalling and will without a doubt result in higher fees for students and fewer people attending university. Indeed the University of Tasmania will, by 2021, be losing $11.7m annually in funding and students will be paying $11.3m more in fees. Likewise the change to the HELP repayment threshold will mean that people earning just above the minimum wage will have to start repaying their uni debts almost immediately, which is grossly unfair.
The Government has made some changes to the schools funding model but it’s still well short of the extra $5bn a year that David Gonski originally recommended in 2012. And in any case the Productivity Commission revealed that Tasmania has been ripping funding out from schools and using the federal money to claim record investment. The bottom line is that school funding has been going down in recent years and there’s no solid evidence that this is about to turn around anytime soon.
It is good news, however, that the Government is lifting the freeze on the Medicare rebate for GP visits. This is something that I and many others have been campaigning on for a long time. But the indexation will be phased in and there’s no backdating, so the rebate is still significantly behind inflation. More good news is that the National Disability Insurance Scheme is being fully funded. I’m also pleased to see that the Government has backtracked on cutting the Child Dental Benefits Schedule and provided $3m over three years in extra funding for Tasmanian palliative care. But more needs to be done. For instance there is some welcome investment in mental health but the sector remains chronically underfunded and needs significant reform.
I also welcome the ongoing and indexed funding for affordable housing, as well as the additional funds for homelessness services. While the $1bn National Housing Infrastructure Facility is a step in the right direction, it’s well short of the $10bn over 10 years that has been recommended by the sector. And while the measures to help first home buyers are a good start, the Government still refuses to tackle effectively systemic issues like negative gearing and the problematic capital gains tax discount. Moreover, about half of all the money Tasmania receives goes straight back into federal coffers to pay the interest on our state’s long-standing housing debt. This debt must be waived immediately.
There’s also no boost in funding for CSIRO or the Australian Antarctic Division, and no extension to the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme. It remains unclear if the Macquarie Island rebuild is additional money. And it’s disappointing that after Tasmania was hailed by the Prime Minister as potentially the nation’s battery, and a study announced into expanding Hydro Tasmania, there’s nothing to support this in the budget.
This budget is also a missed opportunity to raise the abysmally low levels of government pensions and payments. Instead it cuts in real terms Family Tax Benefit rates for at least two years. And the Government continues to demonise job seekers which will only put more pressure on social service providers. The decision to deny welfare for disabilities caused by substance abuse is cruel and counter-productive.
All of which points to a government with its priorities out of whack and the examples just keep coming. For instance there’s no reversal of the devastating $1.2bn in cuts to residential aged care. Yet again the foreign aid budget has been used as a piggy bank for the Government with yet another cut that will have devastating consequences. The Government is squandering billions unnecessarily on defence and security. And we continue to spend billions on offshore processing which is wasteful and cruel.
The bottom line is that Australia is a rich, clever and fortunate country. We can do much better than all this, and its way beyond time for the Federal Government to start understanding and demonstrating this.