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Things That The Government Can Apparently Still Afford As It “Runs Out Of Money” For Medicare

If they really want to save cash, they're doing it wrong.

[Update April 23: In light of the Federal Government’s just-announced decision to spend $12.4 billion on 58 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which only fly in good weatherare plagued by design flaws and will probably end up costing us even more, we decided a re-post was in order.]

Do you think we spend too much money on maintaining Australia’s world-class healthcare system? Concerned that letting people go to the doctor for free is a bit much?

If that sounds like you, now you’ve got something else to smile about (other than the fact that no one bothers you at parties): health costs have gone up in the last ten years, and the government is sending out warning signals that all their “wasteful” healthcare spending is not long for this world.

Tony Abbott’s former health advisor, Terry Barnes, has proposed a $6 fee for visits to the GP, and while the government is shying away from outright support of the proposal, Minister for Health and Looking Like An Overgrown Baby Peter Dutton took about eight seconds to go from “no way we’ll ever do that” to “look, we kind of actually might, hey”. Meanwhile, Treasurer Joe Hockey has come out saying that Australia is due to “run out of money” to pay for Medicare, unless it has a full and frank discussion with a red permanent marker.

Leaving aside the fact that charging for GP visits is a slippery slope that would drive more people into already-overcrowded hospital emergency wards, or that health spending in Australia takes up only half as much GDP as it does in the United States, or that we spend lots of money on healthcare because, you know, good  healthcare is worth spending lots of money on, Hockey’s claim that we simply don’t have the money is a bit rich when you look at some of the big, cash-hungry projects the government is backing.

If Hockey’s looking to wield Treasury’s sacred Pain Is The Cleanser Rolling Pin of Fiscal Responsibility, he could maybe start in places where they’re actually just blowing wads of money on ridiculous crap.

Broken Submarines, Dodgy Planes And Other Shiny Things That Go Pew! Pew!

If Adelaide’s known for one thing besides churches and being beige, it’s for building big friggin’ submarines. The government-owned Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) runs a massive shipyard in the Port of Adelaide, the lynchpin of a naval building project expected to cost taxpayers up to $250 billion over the next 30 years.

The shipyard’s got a pretty stellar record of building high-quality vessels at low cost; vessels like the six Collins-class boats, which make up our current submarine fleet. But those custom-built subs, which originally cost around $6 billion, have suffered a series of minor setbacks — like almost sinking out at sea because of shoddy welding, and the engines conking out and having to be completely overhauled.

It’s not as bad as it sounds, though: half of those borderline-unseaworthy submarines didn’t get much chance to endanger their personnel, because they’ve spent years in dry-dock with no one to fill them.

HMAS Rankin, seen here preparing to dive by taking a really deep breath.

HMAS Rankin, seen here preparing to dive by taking a really deep breath.

Naturally, we’ve learned from this costly mistake, and accepted that building custom-made submarines in freaking Adelaide is both more expensive and less efficient than buying them ready-made from a professional overseas contractor. That’s why the SEA 1000 future submarine project, the Navy’s plan for the next 30 years of Australian submarine capability, involves building twelve new custom-made subs in Adelaide at a projected cost of up to $40 billion. It’s also why that top-quality shipyard is building ship parts that don’t fit the $8 billion worth of destroyers being built there. (Maybe they should hire some of the mechanics and engineers who used to build Toyotas in Adelaide until the company upped sticks after the government cut subsidies to the car industry?)

Meanwhile, the Coalition is set to buy eight Boeing P-8A Poseidon planes from the US for $4 billion, as well as between 50 and 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for up to $16 billion. While this is a step up from trying to build the damn things ourselves, the guy who the Pentagon pays to test stuff like this has basically declared the software in both planes to be garbage. The Poseidon in particular has been found ineffective for surveillance, as well as for finding and destroying submarines. This could be a problem given the Poseidon’s primary purpose, which is costing the government $4 billion: for surveillance, as well as to find and destroy submarines.

Here’s an idea: why not sidestep the need for those specific planes by selling the old Collins boats to other countries? At least then we’d know their submarines weren’t worth worrying about.

Or we could just hire Maverick from Top Gun. DANGER ZONE.

One-Use Lifeboats, Leaky Fishing Boats, And Just All Kinds Of Goddamn Boats. Boats Boats Boats.

You thought we were done with boats? We are by no means done with boats.

Remember when Tony Abbott announced that one of his big plans to Stop The Boats was to buy them all from Indonesian fishermen? Pretty stupid, right? You’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to think of something more short-sighted than – oh wait, we just spent $2.5 million on lifeboats to send asylum seekers back to Indonesia, never mind.

The boats, which to be fair are really, really orange, cost about $200,000 each, and each come with one free diplomatic incident with Indonesia. The best part? We get one use out of them! Because once we use them, they’re in Indonesia! Who probably aren’t super-keen to send them back to us!

Hopefully the Indonesian people smugglers never figure out that the nice new non-leaky people-ferrying boats they now have would be perfect for, I dunno, ferrying large numbers of people across the ocean. It’s not like the guys who coax ancient boats full of holes to Australia for a living could jerry-rig an engine onto a brand-new lifeboat and pilot it the hell back.

All knotty questions of morality aside, processing asylum seekers in Australia — as opposed to running Alcatraz-style island prisons in the middle of third-world countries thousands of miles away — would save a metric buttload of money. In May, then-Department of Immigration and Citizenship (now Border Protection) Secretary Martin Bowles told a Senate Estimates hearing that processing asylum seekers onshore cost about one-fifth of doing the same thing offshore. The same department estimated that running our open offshore detention centres would cost the government $2.124 billion in the 2012-13 financial year.

So that’s what, $1.6 billion being wasted a year? A bit more? Is that how you maths? That’s probably how you maths.

We Give Money to Hugely Profitable Mining Companies Because Shut Up

As we all know, the mining industry is the most Australian thing to ever Australia. It gave us a couple of cartoonish supervillains like Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer, that movie about the dog, and some of our most-loved dirtpiles. It also makes an absolutely lunatic amount of money: BHP Billiton posted a 30% decline in profits in the 2012-13 financial year, and still made $12 billion. Twelve billion dollars. That’s $380 a second, every second, for a year. That’s Scrooge-McDuck’s-swimming-pool levels of money. They’re doing okay is what I’m getting at.

Rio Tinto executives quietly enjoy their day off.

These huge profit postings make it a little hard to understand why the government is falling over itself to give these companies all sorts of free stuff. The Commonwealth gives the rough equivalent of $4.5 billion a year to the mining industry – a figure that’s gone up by half a billion dollars in the last year alone. While that figure includes $492 million of taxpayer’s money just straight-up handed to the world’s most profitable companies, it also includes cash the mining industry saves by getting a break on taxes and fees everyone else has to pay. Take petrol, for instance: your average punter pays 38 cents in tax for every litre of fuel they put in their car, while under the Fuel Tax Credits Scheme mining companies get the lion’s share of that money refunded to them by the government to the tune of $2 billion each year.

It also includes $1 billion given to the country’s dirtiest power stations each year under the Energy Security Fund, an initiative that claims to help electricity generators “adjust to the carbon price and move to cleaner technologies” — presumably because nothing changes bad behaviour like giving a billion dollars to those who behave badly. There’s so much free money flowing to mining companies in subsidies that Environment Victoria have identified a potential $15 billion in savings over three years, which could be ours just by making mining companies pay the same taxes as everybody else.

When the reality of that sinks in, alongside the fact that one of Australia’s largest mining magnates holds at least five seats in federal Parliament, feel free to go outside and smack your head on a lamppost for a few minutes.

George Brandis In: The Magical Taxpayer-Funded Bookshelf

George Brandis, for those playing at home, is the Attorney-General, Australia’s premier lawmaker. He’s also Minister of the Arts, and when he smiles he kind of looks like the animal villain in some Disney film set in the forest. That last fact aside, it stands to reason a guy with that particular job description would need a few books; Parliamentary records, legal texts, stuff like that. He also needs a place to put them, since books are bulky as hell. So it’s fair enough that he spent $12,808 of taxpayer dollars on books like The Best Australian Political Cartoons, right? It’s important for a government minister to have a book of cartoons to hand because The Arts, yes?

The weighty tomes you so nicely bought for George include Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, a political thriller co-written by ABC reporter Chris Uhlmann called The Marmalade Files (no, really), and John Howard’s autobiography, Lazarus Rising. That last one makes the old PM seem like the kind of cheapskate who wouldn’t just give one of his own ministers a copy of his damn book — until you remember that George used to routinely refer to Howard as “the rodent”. So… yay, I guess?

Brandis also blew a cool $22,000 on some dope bookshelves to house all those fly reads – $7,000 for a custom-made set while he was in Opposition, and another $15,000 when the government changed hands because the old bookshelf was literally too big to move. In defending the purchases Brandis described himself as the “Minister for Books,” which makes him sound like the cool old wizard from The Pagemaster. Sadly, he isn’t.

Pictured: not George Brandis.

Pictured: not George Brandis.

This difficulty probably could’ve been avoided had George’s staffers all pitched in a few Christmases ago and bought him a freaking Kindle. It costs a fraction of the $15,000 that monstrosity did, and you can carry it around with you! In your hands! And it only weighs a teensy bit as much as $13,000 worth of books your mates wrote! What sorcery is this?

Alex McKinnon is a Sydney-based writer and journalist, and former editor of The Star Observer.