A smoke and mirrors budget
by Anna Pha After six and a half years of cuts and closures, Treasurer Alan Stockdale's "goodbye austerity" budget promises Victorians a "social dividend" of increased spending on health, education and social welfare as well as tax cuts. But is it really "goodbye austerity"? Stockdale points to a budget surplus and a state debt that has almost been wiped out. Victorians have paid and continue to pay a high price for these rosy statistics. During its two terms of office, the Kennett Government has closed 370 schools, sacked 9,000 teachers, sacked 28,000 public service employees, closed hospitals, slashed staffing in the health system and privatised many important public assets (raising $32 billion). Victoria has the lowest level of social expenditure of any State in Australia and the budget fails to rectify that situation or address the social and economic problems facing the people created by the Government's policies. There is $199 million for school capital works and computer support but no additional money where it is most urgently needed, in schools, for smaller classes, specialist assistance and welfare coordinators. The budget provides for an increase of 0.02 per cent in the wages bill for education — meaning any pay rise for teachers would have to be funded by further sackings and larger classes. Likewise, in the health sector, any wage rise would result in fewer nurses and longer waiting lists for hospital beds. The promised additional health funding is largely earmarked for capital works, but without the necessary resources for the additional staff to run them. There will be considerable pressure on staff to accept lower wages — most likely through individual contracts or the contracting out of their work. The annual "productivity dividend" (obliging government departments to reduce spending by 1.5% per annum) remains in place, despite the budget surplus. This is likely to result in the loss of another 300 full-time equivalent jobs in the government sector. The additional funds required for public housing are not there. "In Victoria the legacy for our children will probably be no debt. But our children will also be left with NO service infrastructure", said Karen Batt, Branch Secretary of the State Public Services Federation Group of the CPSU (SPFS). The one area where the Government does make an attempt to restore some of its former cuts is in "law and order", with a promised increase of 400 in the police force. There will be 300 more prison places, more freeways, lots more bricks and technology but not the resources for staff to provide urgently needed services or begin to repair the damage and reverse the austerity measures. The tax cuts are to payroll tax which will benefit medium to large businesses. Household expenses will remain as high as ever. No tax reductions there. The fundamental policies of the Kennett Government are not being changed. Austerity remains the order of the day for the working people of Victoria. The concentration on capital expenditure (as against staffing and service provision) suggests the Government is putting public assets in good order for the next round of privatisation. All the talk about a "social dividend" and "goodbye austerity" is to hoodwink the electorate that all the pain was worthwhile and that Kennett really has their interests at heart. But nothing could be further from the truth. If re-elected, the Kennett Government will continue with its austerity measures, its pursuit of "small government", and privatisation program (water, education, health services, etc). Kennett, proudly serving his capitalist cronies, will do his best for Victoria Inc.