13 May 2021

Budget is good for Canberra but what about the unis, National Archives and social housing?

| Ian Bushnell
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University Avenue, ANU

The Australian National University: forced to make cuts across the campus. Photo: Martin Ollman.

It’s a pity it’s taken a pandemic to do it, but Josh Frydenberg’s expansionary Federal Budget is good for Canberra, as it is for the country.

The pre-announced funding for infrastructure projects, including light rail, continued what Chief Minister Andrew Barr called a recent shift to a more collaborative approach from the Commonwealth and acknowledgment that the national capital deserves its fair share of investment.

Also welcome is the public service jobs boost and extra funding for the national cultural institutions, with one notable exception.

For Canberra’s growing innovation sector, the Digital Skills Strategy to drive the greater adoption of digital technology, enhance cybersecurity and support emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence is significant.

In addition to being the nation’s political capital, Canberra can also lay claim to being the knowledge capital, being home to four universities, CSIRO, the national institutions and the corporate memory of the public service. So it is disappointing, although not surprising, that the university sector, which has suffered big revenue hits due to the closure of borders and loss of international students, is being left to fend for itself.

And what has the National Archives of Australia done to be completely ignored? Except perhaps plead its case in public for more funding so it can preserve historically significant material that will soon be lost forever.

READ MORE Federal Budget: 5,000 new APS jobs to keep Canberra economy buoyant

The Australian National University is the ACT higher education sector’s jewel in the crown. The hit to its bottom line has forced it to cut programs right across the campus, including science and medicine which, in the middle of a pandemic and economic slowdown, seems plain stupid.

Both the ANU and University of Canberra are globally recognised universities. The lucrative international student market has been important to diversifying the ACT economy, with higher education worth $1 billion a year.

ANU vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt says these students not only pay to study but also spend millions in the local economy.

He says the ANU cannot even offer the course places that are now open to Australian students because the university cannot fund them and that the border closures limit its ability to recruit staff from overseas.

By any measure, it is not business as usual, yet, unlike other businesses that have literally profited from government support such as JobKeeper and aren’t about to pay the millions back, universities like the ANU have got nothing from a government that seems to harbour a deep antipathy to the sector.

You would think a government that wants to create jobs and future industries and bolster the nation’s human capital would see the universities, particularly research ones like the ANU, as powerhouses worth investing in. Our competitors in other countries certainly do.

It’s a standout fail in an otherwise worthy Budget.

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The other notable absence is extra money for social housing beyond the $124 million to the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, which distributes funding to the states and territories.

In the context of the current real estate boom and the growing need for affordable housing, most agree it won’t even touch the sides.

The ACT Government is in the middle of its public housing renewal program, but welfare organisations say this won’t meet the 3,000 dwelling shortfall the Territory faces.

The Feds could have forgiven the Territory’s $120 million historic housing debt or allowed it to repay the principal and refinance the rest at today’s super-low interest rates, as Mr Barr repeatedly argues.

That would give the Territory the means to do more.

A social housing boost would also feed the economic recovery. However, the Federal Government’s preference is for incentives to increase homeownership, despite the huge amounts needed for deposits and borrowing, consigning more low and middle-income earners to the rental market.

In Canberra, that means crippling rents or homelessness.

But overall, this is a Budget designed to consolidate the economic recovery that includes the national capital and thankfully ditches the debt and deficit mantra that has blighted politics and economic management for too long. It is also likely pitched at an early election.

Whether the Coalition has traded in the debt truck or just parked it out of sight until needed remains to be seen.

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There’s always many “what about…” for things that people think are worthy. The budget isn’t a bottomless pit and there will always be trade offs. Most of the problems with housing affordability in this city is solely the fault of the ACT government, expecting the commonwealth to fix it is misguided.

In one generation we have become totally reliant on the government looking after us. What happened to looking after yourself?

HiddenDragon6:21 pm 14 May 21

“Whether the Coalition has traded in the debt truck or just parked it out of sight until needed remains to be seen.”

That particular vehicle has gone from the Menzies House carpark and is down the road at 9 Sydney Avenue. It now runs on biofuel, might be rented out as a Mardi Gras float to raise a few bucks, and, in finest Canberra traditions, has a Queensland rego (in the name of J. Chalmers).

Current estimates are that federal, state and territory government debt will peak at about 1.8 trillion. The idea that we will grow our way out of this as we did in the boom (in many senses of that word) years after the WW2 are sadly deluded – the parallels are just not there, so the next couple of years are going to be about as good as it gets.

Geez Ian, some people will never be happy, no matter how much is spent.. despite looking like it, there’s not a bottomless pit of $$$. How about you just be grateful for what is being done. I am.

I do find it funny that so many activists and advocates for single areas seem to always have the reaction to any increased funding of:
“Yeah, that’s nice but I really need more”.

One wonders whether any amount of funding from other people’s money would ever be enough.

The government’s budget sees excessive deficits being maintained for decades, with no major structural reforms and no idea how to make the economy more efficient over time.

Ah, but who cares, that’s someone else’s problem right.

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