It’s hard not to compare the no-surprises release of this year’s Victorian budget with last year’s much-maligned federal effort.
Notwithstanding predictable lines in the Herald Sun about Premier Dan Andrews rewarding his “union mates”, Andrews’ and Treasurer Tim Pallas’ debut budget has been largely well-received, offering a return to higher spending on services and a stronger role for government in developing human capital.
Two things stand out: it basically sticks to what Labor promised at the election, and it delivers on health, education and public transport — the issues people continuously tell pollsters are among their biggest concerns at election time, and which are increasingly being squeezed as Melbourne experiences continuing population growth.
Pallas announced the budget would deliver on 96% of Labor’s election promises — a suspiciously exact figure that nonetheless conveys the new government’s fealty to doing what it said it would.
The budget makes a strong start on living up to the vow to make Victoria the “education state” by delivering the largest-ever education budget of $3.9 billion. Importantly, the slated funding will be better targeted to the neediest schools — many in growth and regional areas — and the starved TAFE sector.
The final two years of the Gonski needs-based school funding agreement is, however, unfunded at this point. Pallas said the government was committed to delivering on Gonski and would continue to pressure the federal government to commit to the final two years of the agreement.
The health system will receive a boost of 6.2% in the next financial year, with a new women and children’s hospital for the western suburbs, four suburban hospitals receiving upgrades and mental health services gaining an extra $118 million. There is almost nothing for hospital IT upgrades, however.
Spending on infrastructure is down from $27 billion to $22 billion, though a chunk of this is down to abandoning the East West Link.
It also provides funds to a range of social issues long underfunded by Australian governments, such as dedicating $81.3 million to support survivors of domestic violence and $10 million to GLBTI issues, including Australia’s first Gender and Sexuality Commissioner.
Victoria will spend $935 million to help non-government social and community services organisations meet pay-rise obligations to workers in a range of fields including disability support and child protection.
Overall, spending growth will increase from 2.5% annually to 3%, while the government predicts revenue will grow by 3.4%. All this will be done while maintaining a surplus, provided revenue predictions, reliant on strong property growth, hold up.
Whether or not you like what they stand for, the Andrews government can’t be criticised for not sticking to their guns — from promising to scrap the East West Link to plowing the state’s strong revenue back into services, so far they appear to be sticking to the script.
This is in strong contrast, of course, to the federal government, which announced before the election it would not cut ABC or SBS, wouldn’t increase taxes, wouldn’t close any Medicare Locals and would cut the company tax rate — and has broken each of those promises, among others.
Then there have been unpopular surprises like the Medicare co-payment, which was eventually killed off, but not before squandering a great deal of political capital.
The federal government appears to have learned its lesson, and is offering a no-surprises budget this time around. “You will see next week’s budget. It is measured, it is fair, it’s responsible,” said Joe Hockey.
“We gave commitments. We gave commitments that households would not carry the burden of changes in the budget. We are sticking to that. It’s a terrific budget. It is focused on jobs, growth and opportunity.”
Of course, Abbott promised before the 2013 election to be a “no surprises, no excuses government, because you are sick of nasty surprises and lame excuses from people that you have trusted with your future”.
Compared to the Commonwealth, Victoria certainly appears to be in a good financial pasture — for the moment, at least — making Andrews’ and Pallas’ job easier.
It’s indicative of how we see electoral promises, however, that much coverage of the Victorian budget has noted that the government is actually just doing what it said it would do.
Tony and Joe will no doubt be watching jealously.