THERE was a time when Budgets were carefully protected, worked out in great confidentiality and announced on Budget night.
Public servants were guarded in what they said, information was protected right up until the time the Treasurer stood up to speak.
The only exception was that journalists were allowed into a locked area for a few hours before the release so they would have an opportunity to carefully examine the proposed expenditure.
A great delight for journalists was to find out a detail before Budget day. It was a coup that happened rarely. A Budget leak would lead a bulletin, make the front page of a newspaper and be picked up by other news outlets. A witch hunt would follow through the public service.
This changed in recent decades. Carefully orchestrated media plans now govern the release of the Budget. Only the façade of the secrecy, the lock-up and the announcement still remain.
Politics trumps process. This is even more pronounced in an election year. Having the community feeling good positive vibes about the Budget before the inevitable “we cannot afford it” profligacy call of the opposition. What else can an opposition do when many ordinary people are feeling like Christmas has come early?
Budgets determine where, when and how community money should be spent and how much and from whom it should be collected. However, it is also about the fairness of the distribution of the largess, setting our standards of living and ensuring the liveability of the city.
Last year, the lead Budget media release was “Better Health Services for Canberra”. This year, one of the key announcements made before the Budget was by Health Minister, Simon Corbell, letting us know that an additional $5.3 million of our taxpayers’ money would be spent on improving the hospital care within the emergency departments of our hospital system.
These funds over the next four years will include the employment of “six new trauma specialists and a nurse at the Canberra Hospital”. Health is invariably a key election priority.
Another early Budget announcement in health this year was an investment of 54 new full time staff in hospital emergency. A recent Productivity Commission report found the ACT had the worst performance in the country.
It was telling that the local branch president of the AMA, Prof Steve Robson, urged the government to ensure funding of trauma services was not at the expense of “less glamorous areas of care”. “Less glamorous” equals less politically sensitive.
Greens Party Education Minister Shane Rattenbury also announced an additional $20 million into government schools in Gungahlin. He suggested the need followed an increase of 44.8 per cent in the Gungahlin population over the last five years along with a 66.8 per cent increase in school enrolments.
Gungahlin also happens to be a large part of the closely contested seat of Yerrabi.
With the debate over light rail so dominant in this election, the Greens and Labor are seeking to enhance their chances to do well enough in this seat to counter losses in other areas and thus secure government for another term.
In the same electorate (which also extends to parts of Belconnen) Transport Minister Meegan Fitzharris has announced an upgrade of nearly $10 million to Aikman Drive to improve access to Belconnen. She pointed out “with the development of Lawson, continued growth in Gungahlin and a new public hospital being built on the University of Canberra campus, this upgrade is well-timed and will improve connections in and out of Belconnen”.
These are just a few examples. With announcement after announcement the Liberals are forced on to the back foot. Shadow Treasurer Brendan Smyth responded with last election’s vote-winning formula: “Any suggestion that Andrew Barr will look to ease pressure on rates increases should be viewed with extreme scepticism.
“In an election year you would expect Andrew Barr to claim he’ll backtrack on the pain he’s inflicting on residents”.
At least Smyth has examined the issue in more depth than was presented at last election.
Rather than relying just on rate cuts (which were a trade-off for other more complicated indirect taxes) he has targetted failure to deliver a trade-off.
“Remember the twisting and weaving in last year’s estimates hearings where Andrew Barr claimed he would abolish conveyances, then we were going to have the lowest rate, then he refused to give a firm date on its abolition at all,” he said.
This is an election-year Budget. The announcements are critical to government. On the other hand, Smyth has summed up the Opposition approach: “Andrew Barr is tripling rates and he cannot be trusted”.