Every federal budget is a policy document, but this one will be even more so than usual.
The Morrison government will look to manage the ongoing fallout from the pandemic, as well as paper over political cracks that have opened on key election battlegrounds.
Tuesday’s budget speech will be as much about cementing Australia’s COVID “comeback” as it will be about paving the way for Scott Morrison’s electoral fightback.
Big spending on infrastructure
The budget is expected to feature more than $10 billion in spending over ten years on major infrastructure projects such as roads, rail and freight.
The government says the spend will create local jobs and boost productivity in the COVID-affected national economy.
Some projects include $2 billion for a new freight hub in Melbourne and another $2 billion to upgrade the Great Western Highway between Katoomba and Lithgow in New South Wales.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has the unenviable task of balancing more spinning plates than most – unemployment and underemployment, skills gaps, health spending, welfare, industries hurting from lockdowns – while also tackling a fast-growing list of political imperatives that threaten to cloud the government.
With exactly a year until the next federal election is due, at the heart of the budget will be the government’s responses to policy issues that have been dogging it for months; the aged care and disability royal commissions, stunted wage growth, housing affordability, and perceptions the Coalition doesn’t work for women.
With an election due by May 2022, Tuesday may be the last proper budget – pending an early or ‘mini-budget’ – before Mr Morrison takes Australia back to the polls.
There’s a few problems the Coalition needs to fix to be returned for a fourth term.
The federal government is still to respond fully to the aged care royal commission, which demanded dramatic overhauls of how that system is managed in Australia.
Mr Frydenberg has flagged a budget package above $10 billion to try and fix a “broken” system in which 800 people died from COVID-19 last year.
In Tuesday’s #Budget2021, the Morrison Government will provide more funding for essential services, including mental health, disability support and more than $10 billion over the forward estimates for aged care. pic.twitter.com/cWdN7dXPGh
— Josh Frydenberg (@JoshFrydenberg) May 9, 2021
On Sunday, Aged Care and Health Minister Greg Hunt promised “a very major package”.
He also revealed the government would “respond in full to the royal commission” on Tuesday, an unusual step to include directly inside the budget.
It’s understood Mr Hunt will provide further details of the royal commission response on budget day.
He said it would be “the largest package in Australian history” for aged care, but even $10 billion would fall well short of the $40 billion independent health policy experts say is needed to truly fix the issues.
Women’s cabinet taskforce
In response to escalating scandals – rape allegations, sex inside Parliament, disclosures of harassment and bad behaviour – Mr Morrison announced a new taskforce of women inside his ministry.
Among its stated goals was to bring a gender lens to the budget, ensuring equality considerations were taken into account.
One of its unstated goals was to fight perceptions the Morrison government wasn’t paying attention to women.
A parade of announcements has followed, all to be included in a 50-page ‘statement on women’ in the budget, outlining policies on the gender pay gap, superannuation inequalities and domestic violence.
Maximising the marketing opportunities around Mother’s Day falling just 48 hours before the budget, the federal government geared its weekend media drops around women.
It was most obviously seen in Sunday’s women’s health announcement on breast cancer, endometriosis and pregnancy issues.
But Saturday’s housing announcement came through the same lens, with Women’s Safety Minister Anne Ruston and Women’s Economic Security Minister Jane Hume lending their names to the press release detailing boosts to assistance for single parents.
“Because so many single-parent families are led by women, a woman’s home will now be her castle as well,” Senator Hume said.
Labor’s shadow housing minister Jason Clare claimed the Family Home Guarantee announcement was “not the Mother’s Day present the government wants you to think it is”, noting it would help just 2500 families a year.
Labor’s shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers claimed the government “sees Australia’s women as a political problem to be managed, and not a genuine area for investment”.
Blunting political attacks
Mr Frydenberg’s third time in the budget hot seat may be his bumpiest yet.
From his first, promising to get “back in the black” with a surplus, followed by the pandemic putting Australia into its biggest ever deficit, this Tuesday will see Mr Frydenberg having to make economic predictions – taking into account closed borders, unpredictable lockdowns and a fast-decaying trade relationship with China – and lead a recovery, as well as fighting off electoral barnacles.
After Labor attacks that the government wasn’t doing enough to stimulate job growth, the ABC reported the successful JobTrainer program would be extended another year.
Last week, Mr Frydenberg essentially admitted Labor had struck a chord with the public with its signature child care policy, announcing the Coalition’s own package after the government previously said such reform wasn’t needed.
With mounting concerns over housing affordability, retirement incomes and digital safety, and escalating criticisms those issues haven’t been addressed already, Mr Frydenberg’s budget will include reforms.
And with the government being pummelled by essentially every state premier over a lack of federal quarantine facilities and lagging vaccine supply, don’t be surprised if Tuesday contains new packages to paper over those cracks.
This week will see the government shift into the next phase of its COVID recovery and re-election plan.
How these key policy areas are addressed by Mr Frydenberg, and received by the public, will go a long way to determining the success of both ventures.