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May 15, 2014

Forget chaplains, what could you do with a quarter of a billion dollars?

With a quarter of a billion dollars being pumped into the school chaplains program despite the rest of the budget being under the pump, we wonder what you could do with the money ...

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At a time of budget austerity, when even the aged pension is under attack from a government desperate to fix its “budget crisis”, when the unemployed will be refused assistance for six months at a time, when students will be burdened with punitive debts for higher education, all but the most important programs came under the microscope, surely?

Well, not quite: as we reported in our budget-night coverage, there was one program that not merely emerged intact but was given massive new funding: the school chaplains program. That little initiative, established by the Howard government and left mostly intact by Labor despite a High Court challenge, was given an extra $245 million over four years …

Moreover, the government stripped reporting and administrative requirements from the program, “to allow funding recipients to better focus on delivering chaplain services”. If only that relaxed approach could be applied to all governments grants — just hand over the money, let them get on with it, who needs to check if the money is actually being spent meeting the goals of the program?

And, by the way, remember that to fund this program, the government is borrowing an extra quarter of a billion dollars, which means it will also face higher interest charges — about $12 million over forward estimates, we suggest.

But we can think of a number of programs that would be a better use of a quarter of a billion dollars than sending chaplains into schools — and we think readers can too. Here’s some starters:

  • Restoring the $146.8 million cut from science agencies, including $111 million cut from the CSIRO;
  • Funding the $170 million that higher degree students will be required pay under a new “student contributions” component of the Research Training Scheme;
  • Restoring the $87.7 million stripped from redundancy payouts for employees of bankrupt firms covered by the Fair Entitlements Guarantee, under the guise of “aligning redundancy payments to national employment standards”;
  • Partly restoring $407.6 million in savings from reduced water buybacks — the government prefers to fund uneconomic private irrigation infrastructure rather than water buybacks, despite the Productivity Commission repeatedly demonstrating funding irrigation infrastructure was far less cost-effective at addressing water over-allocation than buybacks;
  • Paying for 3% of the cut to foreign aid over coming years; or
  • Restoring the $53.8 million cut from the Partners in Recovery program for people with severe and persistent mental illness.

And the interest could pay for:

  • Restoring the $3.3 million Australian Animal Welfare Strategy Program dumped by the government — who cares about animal welfare, right?;
  • Partly restoring the $21.7 million saved by the abolition of the Australian Climate Change Science Program, “merged” with another environment program as part of the government’s purging of any mention of climate change; or
  • Reversing the $10 million cut to the Bureau of Meteorology, which annoyingly keeps showing that Australia is getting hotter.

Send your suggestions for what other programs you think might be better off being funded than the school chaplains program to boss@crikey.com.au. We’ll send the suggestions to the Treasurer …

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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