Budget Night is one of those weird Canberra spectacles. Journalists emerge from the lock up, where they have been held for six hours, cut off from the internet and holed up with the Budget papers. And then the treasurer appears at the despatch box, tasked with making the government sound wonderful.
Last week, there was certainly a need to sound wonderful. An election is due in the next 12 months. As the clearest statement of a government’s intent, the Budget sets up a lot of the premise for the upcoming campaign.
Gone are the days of Tony Abbott’s and Joe Hockey’s Budget emergency. The debt and deficit disaster is history now. The only emergency that matters is the one in the opinion polls.
And what do you do when you are faced with electoral defeat? Cue up some personal income tax cuts, spread so far out over the forward estimates – the projection for years after the present budget – as to be basically meaningless. Just make sure there is something small to kick in from July.
In the lead up, the government was touting their “Boomer friendly” Budget. At least they know their base. What they should have said was bland.
But not bland in the “it doesn’t really matter way”. Bland in the sense of being completely devoid of vision or character.
If you believe the government, the economy is in great shape, jobs are being created and next year treasurer Scott Morrison will deliver a slender surplus.
Why, then, should we accept a cut to the ABC of $83.7 million over four years? The government wants to freeze the national broadcaster’s funding over forward estimates and subject it to another efficiency review. It will be the 10th review in 15 years.
Morrison says the ABC has to “live within its means”. (He also revealed himself to be a fan of Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, hoping that it would survive Aunty’s funding cut.)
Cutting ABC funding is a pretty clear statement that a government has no regard for the intelligence and education of Australians. It sends a loud and clear signal that the government doesn’t see the importance of Australians telling Australian stories, of grappling with our national identity in intelligent, accessible forums.
The ABC’s managing director, Michelle Guthrie, told ABC staff after the announcement: “In the coming year Australians will head to the polls for the federal election. More than 80 per cent of Australians value the ABC – a point that shouldn’t be lost on anyone seeking government.”
SBS will have funding returned after the government couldn’t legislate to allow it to accept more advertising. It isn’t a real increase.
But it’s not just the ABC facing cuts.
Since coming to power, the Coalition has cut more than $50 million out of the Screen Australia budget. Now, the government is putting $3 million towards the “development of Australian film and television content.”
The government has also announced a $140 million fund to encourage big Hollywood productions to film in Australia. It’s good for local workers and tourism, they say.
It smacks of cultural cringe, investing in others to make Hollywood blockbusters rather than investing properly in Australian film.
National institutions will also face cuts. While the National Gallery is getting some money to help with refurbishments, the National Archives and the National Library will lose 10 and 12 staff respectively.
Making all of this worse is the $48.7 million over a four years earmarked for the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage to Australia. As the debate whether we should change the date of Australia Day has reached the mainstream, this decision shows a government not interested in any kind of reckoning about our country’s past.
Cuts to the arts and libraries and the ABC might seem like prudent budget measures, victimless crimes with no real effect, but they are not only detrimental to the cultural life of the country, they reveal what kind of vision the government has for us: a vision of a blank face being crushed by the boot of parochialism forever.
When I covered the Budget in 2016, I wrote in the Herald that, “For most young Australians, this Budget is not for us. We don’t benefit. We haven’t been offered our election pitch.” I could write the same again, and note once more the lack of action on housing affordability or climate change.
It is good that there will be more places at universities for regional students and that access to Youth Allowance will be made easier for them, but it’s hardly a consolation in an environment which has prioritised cynical survival-instinct politics over the kind of long-term thinking students and young people need.
It’s a shame for students that the Budget isn’t required to include tables of opportunity costs. It would cast very different shadows over what kind of Budget a government can get away with presenting.
Over the next 20 years, the cost to the Budget from lower income tax receipts as a result of fewer students going to university will be between $2.2 billion and $3.9 billion, modelling commissioned by Universities Australia claimed.
The Cadence Economics report found that the total economic impact of the higher education sector funding freeze would be between $6.9 billion and $12.3 billion over the next two decades.
Belinda Robinson, Universities Australia chief executive, told The Guardian: “It’s a simple equation – less university funding means fewer skilled graduates, a hit to labour market productivity and less tax revenue for government.”
But to see that, you’ve got to look beyond the ballot box at the next election and the Budget bottom line next May.
And at the moment, the Turnbull government doesn’t have the right vantage point.
Jasper Lindell is Woroni’s political columnist and a former news editor