Culture

The Budget Explained: How Might Joe Hockey Screw Me Over, And Do I Need To Go Live In The Woods?

Pictured: not you.

Last night was budget night, and while the wall-to-wall coverage of Joe Hockey’s panicky Cabbage Patch Kid face was a tempting invitation to turn off the TV and hide under the bed, wrapping one’s head around what just happened is important for a number of reasons. Future of the country aside, the community reaction to Hockey’s second and definitely-not-last budget will largely decide whether Tony Abbott and co. make it to the next election or begin eating themselves whole like Ouroboros snakes in a few months.

If you weren’t paying much attention, the 2015 Budget certainly seemed to lack the fire-and-brimstone of the last one. If Hockey had gotten his way with his first budget we’d all be embroiled in a Hunger Games-style battle royale for vital resources like food and Wi-Fi passwords by now, but thankfully a lunatic mining billionaire, a former Melbourne Storm prop forward, a massive, massive racist and a guy who throws kangaroo shit around for fun came to the rescue and torpedoed the budget’s nastiest elements last time.

To avoid a repeat of that unpleasantness, Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised this year’s effort would be a “dull and routine” affair, an announcement somewhat undercut by the twenty minutes of malevolent cackling that immediately followed it.

If You Want To Do Something Evil, Put It Inside Something Boring

In his address to Parliament last night, Hockey talked up Australia’s iron ore industry despite tumbling prices, highlighted tax cuts and deductions for small businesses, and said the words “fair,” “strong” and “growth” enough times to make a thesaurus weep. Apart from a shout-out to the “JOB DESTROYING CARBON TAX” and the “JOB DESTROYING MINING TAX,” and a moment where Hockey almost blew a gasket during an interview with Leigh Sales immediately afterwards, the first impression was very ho-hum.

All of which is pretty confusing if you remember how screwed Australia’s finances apparently were this time last year. According to Business Spectator’s Alan Kohler, the best way to understand the “long, grovelling apology” that is this year’s budget is by looking at the consequences of the last one, which was so reviled it spooked consumer confidence, sent the economy into the doldrums and broke the government’s approval rating. To undo all that political and economic damage, Hockey has had to completely drop all the scary talk of soaring debt and out-of-control spending he used to justify going so rogue the first time ’round, and instead pretend like the economy is suddenly doing fine and the so-called budget emergency has magically fixed itself.

He wanted people to pay attention to the budget last time and it blew up in his face, so the tactic this year is to try not to anger voters too much and just get it out of the way. All good, nothing to see here, move along.

But the budget’s still hiding a few nasty surprises if you know what to look for. Here are some of the areas most likely to hit you where it hurts:

Students & Education

Unpopular measures from last year like uni fee deregulation and $80 billion cuts to health and education are still there; they’re just not front-and-centre anymore, lurking in the fine print instead. The budget’s figures are based on assumptions that everything inside it will be passed into law, but given those measures have been knocked back by the Senate before, they’re more likely to throw the budget’s numbers out of whack than anything else.

The government’s finally going after people who finished their degrees and pissed off overseas to avoid paying HECS too, so if you’re a former student living the good debt-free life in Europe, your finances might start looking rather grim.

Leeching Off Decent Aussie Battlers Everywhere, aka. Welfare

Then there are the watered-down versions of old classics, like last year’s floated six-month waiting period for people under 30 to get the dole. That’s been canned, but in its place is a one-month waiting period for people under 25, because if you have to pick which young people to want to screw over you go with the ones least able to support themselves, amirite fellas. The new measure will effect fewer people than the old one, but a month is still a hell of a long time to live without any money, and there’s just as little justification for it now as there was in 2014.

Similarly, the GP co-payment is no more, but planned changes to the eligibility criteria for medicine subsidies could see script prices rise by up to $5 apiece, which sounds suspiciously like paying more for healthcare.

The Yarts

You’re also out of luck if you work in the creative industries, which are now subject to the whims of Attorney-General George Brandis like never before. When he’s not passing expensive and useless data retention laws Brandis dabbles at being the Arts Minister too, much the way famed dog-painter George W Bush once expressed a passing interest in Middle Eastern warfare. The Australia Council, our primary arts grant body, has had its funding stripped and moved wholesale to the Attorney-General’s department, meaning that if you’re hoping for a government grant to help fund your next movie, play or theatre project it had better tell the story of a plucky government minister-slash-lawyer who loudly believes in personal freedom and shaves his head by choice.

Besides that, Screen Australia has had its funding cut, a freeze on funding is slowly killing community radio, and SBS is threatening to pull out of digital TV service Freeview to make ends meet. So that’s good.

The budget’s biggest failings, though, are what’s not in there. Foreign aid has been absolutely gutted, with an astonishing 70 percent of our aid to Africa and 40 percent of our Indonesian aid gone, which is just a great look given the earthquakes in Nepal at the moment. There’s almost no mention of climate change or science research funding; even the government’s half-arsed Green Army program to get welfare recipients planting trees or something has had $73 million ripped out of it. As Waleed Aly and Karl Stefanovic have both pointed out since last night, the Minister for Women seems to place little priority on making women’s lives safer and more secure, and the government is still looking for ways to wash its hands of funding remote Indigenous communities by handing responsibility to states and territories that can’t afford to keep them running.

Unlike last year, the government’s not pretending we’re running out of money — funding for a $100 million WWI monument in France and a brand-new $237 million embassy in Washington DC are proof enough of that. As always, a budget is a question of priorities — what parts of a society a government deems important enough to improve, and what parts it regards as not worth the effort. By that criteria, the gaps in this year’s budget paint a pretty sombre picture.