Video: Public sector workers ‘very frustrated’ over 0.3 per cent pay increase: Unions NSW (Sky News Australia)
By now most people are familiar with the broad strokes of the budget: the record debt and spending, incentives to hire young people, and significant tax cuts that most benefit high-income earners.
But in the hundreds of pages of economic policy, there are a few dot points that haven’t got as much attention.
Guardian Australia has rounded up some of the most important, but less well known, elements of government spending in the 2020-21 budget.
Christmas Island reopening
Australia’s immigration detention centre on Christmas Island has been reopened to hold “unlawful non-citizens” who are unable to be deported due to Covid-19 international border restrictions.
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The government will provide $55.6m over the next year to reactivate the North West Point detention facility.
The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said in a statement that “250 high-risk detainees, including those who have been convicted for crimes involving assault, sexual offences, drugs and other violent offences, will be transferred to Christmas Island”.
Under Australia’s migration act, foreign nationals convicted of a crime carrying a jail sentence of more than 12 months, or who are deemed – at ministerial discretion – to have failed a “character test”, are liable for forcible removal from Australia.
Christmas Island was recently reopened to quarantine planes full of Australian residents, repatriated from Wuhan, China, during the early days of the pandemic. It is also currently housing the Tamil Biloela family, including two young children, who are fighting deportation back to Sri Lanka.
No money has been allocated to the centre for the following three years, suggesting the government plans for only a temporary reopening.
Lacklustre support for women
Acknowledging that women had made up a majority of people who lost their jobs during the pandemic lockdown, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, announced a “women’s economic security statement” in the budget on Tuesday.
It includes $240m over five years for ill-defined programs to support women entering science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or Stem – roles. A women’s leadership program and mentoring “opportunities” for female entrepreneurs were also announced but not clearly defined. The government will expand the eligibility criteria for parental leave, and has included $24.7m for an expansion of the heavily criticised ParentsNext program. It will also establish a council to help address sexual harassment in the workplace.
There was nothing for older women, who make up the fastest growing group of jobseekers, and nothing to make childcare more affordable – a key measure for encouraging women into the workforce. Per Capita calculated the $240m for this package to be 0.038% of the total budget deficit.
With warnings that Covid-19 could set back women’s equality by a generation, the women’s economic security statement has not been well received by women’s groups. Georgie Dent, the executive director of the Parenthood and contributing editor for Women’s Agenda, calls it “insulting” and “shameful”. “There is no escaping that this budget fails to deliver for women,” she writes.
Advocacy groups Fair Agenda and Women’s Safety NSW have also slammed the government for providing no new funding for victim-survivors of domestic violence.
“The government invited experts to brief them on what’s required to improve women’s freedom from domestic and family violence, and they appear to have completely disregarded our advice,” Hayley Foster, chief executive of Women’s Safety NSW, said.
Arts sector misses out
In an unsurprising development for the decimated arts and culture industries, which still await the allocation of the $250m rescue package promised by the federal government in June, the arts did not get a mention in last night’s budget speech.
Looking deeper, a portfolio budget statement in fact shows a decrease in arts funding up to 2024.
The estimated actual spend for the industries in 2019-2020 was $723.6m; in 2020-2021 there will be a boost to $898m, but in the following years it falls back to $714.3m in 2021-2022, $716.3m in 2022-2023 and $704.4m in 2023-2024.
According to federal budget measures, the eight federally-funded arts institutions – including the National Library, the National Gallery, the National Museum and the National Portrait Gallery – will receive one-off boosts in 2020-2021 amounting to $22.9m in total, with nothing planned for the following three years.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance said: “Arts and entertainment workers, already shaken by widespread ineligibility for jobkeeper payments, should be aghast that they have again been bypassed by a big-spending budget that provides no roadmap for the sector’s restoration.”
In a statement on Wednesday, the Greens spokeswoman for the arts, senator Sarah Hanson-Young, said tax cuts were “completely meaningless” for arts and entertainment workers, who had suffered the second-highest loss of payroll jobs, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, and have been largely excluded from jobkeeper.
“The Morrison government has failed the arts and entertainment industry and now a generation of artists will be lost on their watch,” she said.
Substance abuse left out of mental health boost
The government significantly boosted funding to mental health programs in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the budget barely referenced alcohol or substance abuse programs.
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Wait times for drug and alcohol treatments have ballooned since the start of the pandemic, especially for services in Victoria, where residential substance abuse facilities have had to drastically reduce capacity. Service providers told Guardian Australia they feared the worst was yet to come.
However, drug and alcohol treatments received no significant increase in funding, despite an increase in alcohol use during lockdowns and 200,000 to 500,000 Australians already unable to access treatment each year.
“The allocations in this budget highlight a government focus on the implications of Covid-19 on mental health, while assuming that it’s had no impact on [substance] dependence,” Sam Biondo, the executive officer of Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, said.
“The anxieties relating to Covid-19 and the impact of recession will result in increased at-risk alcohol and drug use and subsequent treatment demand going forward.”
Audit office snubbed
Before the budget, the auditor general wrote to Scott Morrison asking for more funding to deliver 48 performance audits a year. The Australian National Audit Office was responsible for uncovering sports rorts and the massive overspend on land at Western Sydney airport.
The audit committee, which is controlled by Coalition members, backed the call for more funding but it fell on deaf ears. Tuesday’s budget contained no new money for the audit office.
Instead, the agency will have its resources fall from $112m in 2019-20 to $98m in 2020-21. Much of the cuts will fall on performance audits, the budget for which shrinks from $33.4m in 2019-20 to $28.9m in 2023-24.
And instead of the 42 performance audits delivered last year, the audit office now expects to deliver 40 audits in 2021-22 declining to 38 by 2023-24.
Fishing for fishing nets
The government has committed $14.8m over four years to remove discarded fishing nets – known as ghost nets – from Australia’s northern waters.
Nets that are either lost or discarded at sea can travel huge distances, entangling and killing marine animals such as fish, turtles, rays, sharks, dolphins and even whales.
Given they can survive for years and even decades while travelling through currents, ghost nets can import pests from oceans across the world to Australian waters.
The Northern Territory sometimes experiences a “marine debris season” when large volumes of ghost nets are pulled into their waters.
Private health insurance for millennials
The government has significantly expanded the upper age limit for dependents on health insurance plans.
Previously children were allowed to be listed under their parents’ plan only until they were 24, but this has been extended by seven years to 31.
Young Australians are increasingly going without private health insurance as premiums rise. Notionally this change means adult children are more likely to transition directly to their own private insurance coverage plan, improving the continuity of cover.
The government has also removed all age limits for dependents with a disability, allowing them to remain on their parents’ plan indefinitely.
This is part of a $19.5m commitment over four years to “improve access to and affordability of private health insurance”.
More bad news for Aunty
The Morrison government has extended the ABC’s funding freeze beyond 2022.
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According to the budget papers, the ABC’s operating budget drops from $880.6m in 2021-2022 to $866.5m in 2022-2023, which represents a 3.7% decrease in real terms from 2020-2021 to 2023-2024.
The ABC has already made significant cuts to staff and services after an $84m indexation freeze was announced in the 2018 budget.
The government has partially restored the indexation in the ABC’s next triennium funding cycle in 2022, but it falls short of the figure needed to maintain the ABC’s budget and more cuts are expected.
The latest freeze comes on top of the $783m in funding the ABC has lost since the Coalition came to power in 2014.
The ABC said the budget allocation did not include funding for the enhanced newsgathering program, which has been provided since 2013 and been renewed twice by the Coalition government.
“The initiative has given the ABC the ability to deliver more tailored and local news to communities and to bring news from across the country to a national audience,” the ABC said.
“It has enabled job creation at a time when commercial news media are rationalising their services and contracting or amalgamating regional news resources. Overall, it’s estimated there are currently 69 positions supported by the funding.”