As if we needed any more evidence that you can screw over young people but not their parents, this week furnished it in spades. A day after revealing that $2.8 billion would be taken from universities and students, the government has revealed it will spend an extra $2.2 billion on school funding, in an effort to finally end the incessant war that Labor has waged against it on school funding since the Gillard years.
Even combined with the $1.2 billion it deployed in a similar effort in the last budget, this doesn’t match Labor’s commitment to go the “full Gonski”, but Turnbull’s response to that is to hire David Gonski himself to review funding allocations. It’s not Gonski’s undoubted expertise that Turnbull is hiring, though — it’s the right to use his name as a kind of human shield against Labor’s attacks.
What in effect has been a near-complete surrender on school funding by the Liberals is being lauded as a stroke of genius by plenty in the media, although the really savvy play is a different kind of backflip: the Liberals will now be the party of the “private school hit list” with 24 schools targeted for “negative funding growth” and other private schools receiving lower funding growth than government schools.
The Liberals have backflipped so many times on this issue that it appears to have infected Labor, which has performed its own backflip and has gone into bat for Catholic schools that will miss out on funding. Labor might imagine relatively poor Catholic systemic schools as being the beneficiaries of this defence, but it looks a lot like a defence of bloated institutions like Joeys and Riverview in Sydney. They’d be smarter to let the angry right within the Liberals go into bat for their alma maters, which is a definite possibility.
Either way, no one’s talking about higher education cuts now, even though, in the end, many parents will cop it one way or the other as kids whose families can afford it turn to the bank of mum and dad to avoid even bigger student debts.
Why didn’t the government wait until next Tuesday to reveal the extra $2.2 billion, like it did last year with its extra $1.2 billion? That more or less sunk without trace amid the focus on the looming election, other budget measures and the government’s insistence it was all about “an economic plan”. A repeat of that mishandling was out of the question. And it wants next Tuesday to be all about infrastructure — in particular, the ridiculous boondoggle of the inland rail line between Melbourne and Brisbane. The government is already getting static on this piece of pork barrelling, so selected journalists with short memories and no grasp of rail economics have been briefed to puff it up — according to one Australian reporter, it is a train line no longer, but an “inland rail network” (can “steel Mississippi” be far away?) that private investors are ready to back. Peculiarly, none of these investors have at any stage been prepared to front money for the project, but that’s always been the way of the inland rail line — the insistence from backers that the private sector supports it, but the absence of even a single dollar of actual money to demonstrate that.
It should be interesting to see how billion dollars (at least) to be wasted on this project will be treated in the budget — it’s not investment in productive infrastructure that will yield an asset, but more akin to a bribe to the National Party not to make trouble for a precarious government; in that sense, it is very definitely recurrent spending, because this is hardly going to be the last time the boys from bush demand the waste of taxpayer money in their electorates.
Where does this leave the deficit? Clearly the government will be (literally) banking on higher growth forecasts to offset its additional spending, the deletion of its zombie savings from the budget bottom line and the retention of its tax handouts to multinationals — plus shifting as much infrastructure spending as it can credibly manage onto the budget capital account. So take next Tuesday’s deficit figure with plenty of salt and a giant asterisk.