Deceptive glitter in NSW budget:
Closing schools, opening jails
by Peter Mac Hard on the heels of the Federal Budget, the NSW Budget has been presented proudly by State Labor Treasurer Peter Eagan. Eagan undoubtedly enjoyed doing this straight after the miserly Federal Budget. The State Budget certainly contains better news than its federal equivalent, despite the allocation of $600 million of state funds for bailing out victims of the HIH Insurance crash. However, closer examination reveals that not all the budget glitter is gold, and that certain items are very disturbing indeed. For example, the budget contains a considerable increase in public health spending, not unwelcome but long overdue. It will do relatively little to solve the crisis in hospital bed availability, nor will it provide more hospital staff or raise their salary levels. The highly discriminatory NSW bank accounts debit tax (BAD) has been abolished. As Egan correctly pointed out, a pensioner withdrawing $10 from her account is charged 30 cents under the current BAD tax arrangements, whereas a billionaire withdrawing $100,000 is charged only $4. In short, under this tax the pensioner is charged a BAD tax rate 750 times that of the billionaire. BAD by name, bad by nature! However, the Treasurer tactfully neglected to mention that the government has waited several years to announce the removal of the tax, and has benefited considerably from the delay. Much of the new education spending is allocated to works involving private firms in the construction, maintenance and cleaning of new public schools. The government does this despite the fact that any such arrangement will provide an incentive for firms to maximise profits from these services, rather than maximise the quality of public education, and that governments can finance such works more cheaply than private firms. NSW Teachers' Federation (NSWTF) President, Sue Simpson, commented: "For the private sector to put money in, they have to make a profit. "To make a profit, schools can lose some of their land for redevelopment, school communities can lose access to the site outside school hours, and the (building) specifications can be linked to commercial interests. A feature of the budget is the emphasis on the new "e-learning accounts" which under current proposals are to be provided for every public school student in the State. However, the budget allocation for "e-learning" equipment is not accompanied by a proportionate increase in allocations for computer staff, classroom space and computer cabling and security. When pressed for a detailed explanation the Treasurer was forced to admit that he was unaware of how such a scheme would work, because he was the sort of person who drew up a budget with a piece of paper and a fountain pen! The budget provides some $257 million for construction work on new schools or the upgrading of existing schools. However, according to Education Minister John Aquilina, a large part of this will be allocated to restructuring inner-Sydney schools, which in turn will involve closing down certain public schools, some of which will undoubtedly be sold off later. The budget does little to reduce class sizes in the early years. This led Sue Simpson to remark that the gap between public schools in rich and poor areas was increasing. And so has the gap between private and public education! Budget funding to private schools is to rise by 12.6 per cent, as opposed to 5.7 per cent for public schools. The subsidies to private education are super-generous: * $186 million for the operation of primary schools; * $240 million for secondary schools; * $8 million in textbook allowances; * $17 million in back-to-school allowances; and * $36 million in interest subsidies for commercial loans. In all these subsidies to private schools total $487 million of taxpayers' funds. The state rail network is to receive $300 million, with most of this allocated to track and signalling upgrading. However, little extra funding is allocated for the employment of badly needed additional rail network personnel. Excellent performance levels were accomplished during the Olympic Games, but the dismissal of some 2000 rail staff just prior to the end of the Games saw a return to delays, breakdowns and service cancellations. The state budget will do little to rectify service defects arising from staff shortages. The state fire-fighting services are to receive welcome additional funding, but the long-standing grievances of permanent fire-fighting personnel for reinstatement of their death and disability benefits have not been resolved in this budget. The budget does little to address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, NSW has lost its leadership position on this issue, and is now spending less per capita on the reduction of greenhouse gases than either Queensland or Victoria. The budget does not increase the current level of spending on social services for the unemployed and the working poor. Nor, for that matter, does it adequately address other pressing social issues, including prison reform. One of the budget's "big ticket" items is the construction of the State's proposed new women's jail. This project is proceeding, despite appeals from prison reform groups for the allocation of funding to other priorities, including the education of prisoners, in order to reduce the recidivism rate. Ms Noha Ramadan, a spokesperson for the prison reform group Stop the Women's Jail, commented: "The Department of Corrective Services with the costs to the community of more and more prisoners. What we have is a State Government that is closing schools, and opening jails". Bridget Noonan, a representative of the Blue Mountains Community Resources Network, added: "The women who will be imprisoned in this new jail (will be) mostly there for drug-related crimes: 20 per cent will be illiterate and about 80 per cent are unemployed at the time of arrest. "Carr is doing nothing to help these people to get an education or stay out of the cycle of poverty and crime and make our community safer." Little that glitters in this budget is gold, indeed.