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.
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.
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.