The budget of the Commonwealth of Australia is a major political document. A moral statement of our national priorities. The utmost expression of the functioning of our democracy. And a document that will likely make or break the career of Australia’s current prime minister. All these are true facts about the budget.
But a budget is also a window into weirdness. A peek at the distinct peculiarity created by the collision of political and bureaucratic process.
For example? Well, squeezed between announcements on migration and announcement on tax integrity, we find a special measure — for those about to “go the tonk”.
Professional cricketers coming to Australia for the 2020 Twenty20 World Cup will, the government has decided, be immune from visa charges. And so will officials associated with the tournament. What a generous gesture.
The budget impact of the foregone revenue is $500,000 in 2019-20 and $800,000 in 2020-21, which seems oddly high and has me wondering just how many people cricket teams travel with these days.
As well as helping out that crucial group of Australian stakeholders — foreign wicketkeepers — the 2019-20 budget does something for student pilots. No more will this key voting demographic be trapped on the tarmac. This budget lets them soar! The maximum debt that student pilots will be allowed to take on for practical flight training will rise from $104,440 to $150,000. (This one saves the budget money — $700,000 over four years.)
While the budget sends some Australians into the sky it consigns others beneath the crust of the earth. An underground physics laboratory will be established to support astroparticle researchers to do dark matter research. Does it make sense to study the universe from below the ground? Must dark matter be studied in a subterranean environment? What happens if you expose it to light?
The budget is silent on all these questions, just as it is silent on the question of why this underground physics laboratory is being established in the quaint Victorian town of Stawell. Yes, Stawell. The place famous for the running race. Frankly, this whole measure has the smell of something that was introduced into the budget on April Fool’s Day and, by accident, never removed. If the Treasury japester who wrote this budget measure is reading, congratulations on your prank.
The next announcement reads less like a prank and more like an episode of the ABC TV show Utopia. The government is announcing a National Faster Rail Agency.
Not a Fast Rail Agency, mind you. Just “Faster”. After all, a certain minimum threshold of velocity must be crossed to be deemed “Fast”, whereas “Faster” is merely a relative expression. As in “the tortoise is faster than the snail”.
You can just imagine some dogged bureaucrat digging in their heels and denying that any of the accepted global standards for Fast had been met, before yielding and begrudgingly permitting the nomenclature to include “Faster.”
The budget is an enormous document that is full of announcements, only a handful of which we normally focus on. But looking at the budget in total reminds us of the sheer number of decisions a government must take. It is easy to pay attention only to those few big items everyone else focuses on — the stuff that is endlessly reported, fought over and obscured by vitriol.
Running underneath the partisan debate is a serene flow of weird and wonderful choices. It’s nice to be reminded that, beneath all the shouting, a government is still a process for quietly getting lots of little things done.