While the headlines of this budget are all about jobs, growth and opportunity, there are always a few curveballs tucked away inside the hundreds of pages of budget papers. There are novel ways to find savings, and some interesting projects that are getting injections of federal funding. Here’s a quick list of some of the smaller, stranger items we spied:
Consensus needs no centre. The budget line for the controversial Australian Consensus Centre that the University of Western Australia rejected for funding over the weekend makes interesting reading. “The Government will provide $4.0 million over four years from 2014-15 to help establish the Australian Consensus. The Australian Consensus, which will be based on the Copenhagen Consensus approach, will bring together leading economists and other experts to deliver advice on the costs and benefits of solutions to national, regional and global challenges.” We didn’t realise “consensus” could be bought so cheaply. Or perhaps the lack of the word “centre” reflects the current homeless nature of the PM’s pet project.
Awards come at a cost. The budget also includes $2.4 million of additional funding for the Australian Honours and Awards System. According to the budget papers, the money will “support the increasing number of Australians recognised each year for their outstanding achievements and contributions to society and the introduction of new medals such as the National Police Service Medal”. No mention of knights and dames, but surely they are part of the reason we have an increased number of Australians (and British princes) receiving awards.
Climate action and debt. One of the stranger parts of Budget Paper No. 1 is a small section called “Impact of climate spending on debt”. Apparently the government has been stung by criticism that, instead of raising revenue from a carbon price, it is instead borrowing money to pay big polluters to undertake carbon abatement measures (that they were going to take anyway, but that’s another story). So it has included an effort to explain how little of its Direct Inaction funding is actually coming from borrowings, complete with a table “Impact on debt — climate spending as a proportion of total spending” that purports to show Direct Inaction is adding just 0.1% to government debt. What’s better demonstrated, perhaps, is Greg Hunt’s hypersensitivity to the charge that he’s simply wasting money pretending to do anything about something Tony Abbott thinks is “bullshit”.
History books are costly. History is supposedly written by the victors, and the government is committing $12.7 million over seven years to the Australian War Memorial to produce official histories of Australia’s most recent military involvements. A six-volume Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq (2003-11) and Afghanistan (2001-14) and a single volume history of peacekeeping in East Timor (1999-2012) are due to be published by July 2022.
Money to defend tobacco laws. The government will spend an undeclared amount of money to defend litigation from five foreign countries challenging Australia’s plain packaging laws in the World Trade Organisation. The amount is kept under wraps “to protect the Australian Government’s position in any litigation”.
Deeper and deeper into the quagmire. In addition to spending $700 million trying to bomb Islamic State back into the Stone Age and train the Iraqi Army we trained so well up until 2008, we’re spending an extra $106 million maintain and defend Australia’s embassy in the rapidly failing state of Iraq. Apparently it’s “crucial for our growing diplomatic, political and operational needs in Iraq”. Deeper and deeper into the same quagmire, it seems.
Bock bock. The “laying chickens and meat chicken levy” has been increased to 0.03 cents per day-old chick for meat chickens and 1.4 cents per day-old chick for laying chickens. That’s to facilitate repayment of the industry’s liabilities from avian influenza.
Nuclear waste capacity to increase. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation will receive $22.3 million over three years for “interim radioactive waste storage”. The money will go towards increasing the amount of nuclear waste that is stored at the Lucas Heights facility for up to 45 cubic metres of intermediate level waste and 1200 cubic metres of low-level waste. The money means that ANTSO can continue to store additional radioactive waste beyond 2017, when current storage facilities are expected to reach capacity. The government is also spending $26.8 million over four years to repatriate intermediate level radioactive waste from the UK by 2019-20 in accordance with an intergovernmental agreement between the two countries. The budget papers say the waste will be stored at Lucas Heights “pending transfer to the future National Radioactive Waste Management Facility”. The new national facility isn’t budgeted for.
These things don’t sell themselves. With business enthusiasm for the free trade agreements the government has been hyping for a year now somewhat underwhelming, the government is going to waste … sorry, spend $24.6 million “to promote business understanding of the recently concluded FTAs in North Asia”. Just think what they’ll have to spend to convince us the appalling Trans Pacific Partnership isn’t bad for Australia.
East West Link. It’s the road that won’t go away. As was reported this morning, the government is still allocating $3 billion to the project that the Victorian government has said it will not build. The media statement from Warren Truss and Jamie Briggs labels the East West Link “a project of national significance that will create thousands of jobs and reduce congestion for Victorians”. It does feature a hint that the money could go to another project, ending “the Commonwealth Government wants to invest in major infrastructure projects of national significance in Victoria should the Victorian Government come forward with credible options”.
Cuts to innumerate Tele scare stories about disability pension. The budget is forecasting lower spending on the disability support pension, with a real decrease of 0.5 per cent from 2014-15 to 2015-16, because there aren’t as many people on it. Given that the supposedly exploding number of people on disability pensions is a standby front page for the News tabloids, we expect they’ll … well, they’ll probably keep on making it up as they always have.
Stockpile of drugs replenished. The National Medical Stockpile will receive a boost, with $34.2 million over the next two years to replenish the “strategic reserve of medicines, vaccines, antidotes, and protective equipment for use in the national response to a public health emergency”. Which is a relief, given Labor wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on vaccines and thermal imaging equipment (remember those at airports?) for that swine flu pandemic that turned out to be less fatal than the normal flu.
Fines increased. Starting on July 31 this year, penalty units (read: fines) that are issued at a Commonwealth level will increase from $170 to $180, with indexation in line with the consumer price index introduced to ensure future rises. The government estimates that this will add $45 million to government revenue over forward estimates.
Visas, cigs up. Passport and visa costs are a popular source of revenue for cash-strapped governments, and this budget is no exception. Visa application charges will go up, raising another $400 million. And people aged 16 and 17 will be issued 10-year passports instead of the current five-year passports — thus saving money. But the priority processing fee — for those who need a passport in a hurry — is also going up.
Pap tests scrapped. The government has scrapped twice-yearly Pap tests, to be replaced with a five-yearly Human Papilloma Virus test for women aged between 25 and 74. This is basically budget neutral, costing $13,000 over four years from 2015-16. In the scale of the budget that’s like finding change down the back of the couch.
MH370 search funds. The government is also budgeting for the possibility that missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 won’t be found in the current search area, with $50 million put aside for 2015-2016 on top of the $43.9 million spent in 2014-2015.
What does this drawing remind you of? The budget overview document contains a number of illustrations. On the page “Investigating Threats”, which explains how metadata will help stop the lurid threats of child porn and terrorism, this illustration is apparently intended to explain how that will work. Except that it makes no sense whatsoever. Perhaps there’s a caption missing, or a silhouette of a jihadi was left off, or there was a bit in the middle that got cut during the Photoshopping. We’re not sure.
*With additional reporting by Bernard Keane and Tom Westland