The federal budget’s tagline is ‘securing Australia’s recovery’.
It could have been titled ‘trying to secure Scott Morrison’s re-election’, as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg returned a budget aiming to cauterise the government’s bleeding wounds and neutralise looming political fights before an election expected within a year.
Mr Frydenberg described Australians economic recovery as “remarkable” in a budget night speech in which he spoke of plunging unemployment and avoiding “catastrophic” health outcomes seen overseas.
Much of the budget sees the continuation of older policies: Another extension of the low-and-middle-income tax offset, delaying a scheduled tax rise; continuing business instant asset write-offs; more first-home buyer incentives; reannouncements of infrastructure projects outlined last year. They’ve all been successful policies, Mr Frydenberg said, and the government wants to keep them going.
But the real story of the budget is action in areas where the government has been less successful.
Radical overhauls to aged care and mental health, a new focus on women’s economic and safety issues, and new commitments on veteran’s affairs and child care see the government looking to tidy up its deficiencies, or blunt potential lines of attack from Labor.
It could easily be seen as a “fix-it” budget, one that hopes to address shortcomings before an election due by May 2022.
On aged care, Health Minister Greg Hunt has promised “generational change” in a $17.7 billion reform over five years.
Finally responding in full to the aged care royal commission, called after shocking cases of elder neglect were brought into even sharper focus as COVID ripped through care homes, the government has been under immense pressure to fix a system Labor has called “broken”.
Some $11 billion of the funding won’t flow until 2023, when the government expects to introduce a new Aged Care Act.
However, $2.3 billion in the next year sees 80,000 new home care packages, new funding tied to minimum care and hygiene standards, new rules mandating three hours of daily care per resident, and hopes to recruit thousands of new workers.
Labor has hammered the government with horror stories of “maggots in wounds” of aged-care residents.
It’s yet to be seen whether $17.7 billion – less than half the $40 billion estimated by the Grattan Institute to implement the royal commission recommendations – is enough.
Mr Hunt pushed back on criticisms of falling short, noting the royal commission never suggested a funding amount, but only reforms.
He also said the aged-care system would shortly get more funding than the entirety of Medicare, with government projections that nearly a quarter of Australia’s population would be in care by 2057.
On mental health, a $2 billion investment will massively boost suicide prevention, early intervention and psychology services, including “universal” aftercare for those attempting self-harm and half a billion dollars for an adult version of the successful youth Headspace centres in 57 locations nationwide.
Several senior government sources said they thought this measure, part of $1.4 billion for mental health treatment, could be the single most important measure in the budget.
About $3.4 billion in women’s safety, economic and health measures headline a special ‘women’s statement’, a new feature in this year’s budget.
Funds for women escaping domestic violence, legal services, plus programs to get single parents in their own homes and boost superannuation savings are all in there.
The government has also dedicated $9 million to implement the findings of the Respect@Work sexual harassment survey, and $3.5 million for a report into harassment and culture in Parliament.
The government says it would have done all this even without recent scandals around its response to Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape, and the cavalcade of other sexual harassment concerns inside Parliament.
Labor’s Katy Gallagher said earlier on Tuesday she doubted it.
Despite the new funding, Mr Frydenberg fielded several tough questions in his budget lock-up press conference about why there wasn’t more for domestic violence.
One journalist noted there was $80 million for “data collection” on those issues, but just $12.6 million for the ‘Safe Places’ emergency accommodation program for those fleeing domestic violence.
On child care, Labor has already accused the government of “imitation” of its policy.
Aside from the tax cuts and the infrastructure spend, it’s not hard to see this budget as preparation for the next election.
In his press conference, Mr Frydenberg smiled when asked that question, declining to engage but coyly responding “I’ll leave that to the commentators”.
But this budget leaves Labor little room to rage.
Inevitable opposition criticisms will come that it’s too little too late; that the aged-care package is smaller than independent estimates projected, that the women’s safety reforms fall short, that their childcare policy falls short of Anthony Albanese’s; but targeted funding in key areas might be enough to help the government shrug off the problems that have hung around its neck for months.
The coming weeks will determine if the budget does enough to fix the damage.
“Australia is coming back,” Mr Frydenberg said in the opening line of his budget speech on Tuesday night.
After a rough few months for Scott Morrison, they’ll be hoping the budget puts the government on its way back, too.