The ACT budget, it’s big, it’s bad and it’s ugly, and there is a lot of ground to cover, so I think we’ll start at the all important bottom line.
Chief Turnip (and treasurer) Stanhope has announced a budget surplus of $120 Million for this financial year, and an expected budget deficit of $80 million at the end of next financial year. He has also announced a raft of cutbacks, school closures, and increased rates and taxes. This had me wondering, how can you have a surplus, cut expenditure, increase monetary intake, and end up with less money? Perhaps I should step back a bit in time to answer that.
Prior to the announcement of the budget details, information had been slipping out of the Stanhope office saying that there would be a surplus, and that the budget would be tough. The opposition were saying something along the lines of a $300 million deficit, and economic mismanagement by the Stanhope government. Yesterday morning I rang Mike Frame (who is filling in for Mike Jeffreys on 2CC’s breakfast show) to say that I was inclined to agree with the opposition about the deficit (and the implied creative accounting), as I couldn’t understand how we could have a surplus, as Stanhope was indicating, and yet need a tough budget with lots of cuts.
Since getting home from work yesterday I have spent a fair bit of time looking at budget reports and press releases, and it is now very clear to me that we do have a deficit, and a rather considerable one. At the moment the ACT government is using the “Australian Accounting Standards” accounting method, which indicates a surplus for this financial year, but the figures for future financial years (and future budgets) use the “Government Finance Statistics” accounting method, which is the standard (and more accurate) method for Australian governments. This means that the surplus figures which Mr.Stanhope is throwing at us are a furphy , and a smokescreen of good (albeit misleading) intentions. The opposition were correct when they said we have a deficit and that the government is using an unusual accounting system to make a surplus. The opposition have been saying this for many months, unfortunately it appears to have been buried in the other bad news in the budget.
I rang Mike Welsh (on 2CC’s drive show) to discuss this portion of the budget yesterday afternoon, as Jon Stanhope had been on there deflecting criticism and painting a picture of himself as the unpopular magic safety fairy who knows exactly what we need, and ignores the fact that he is responsible for the mess he is cleaning up, and that his solution is awful (or in his words, responsible andneccesary ). Jon was followed by opposition treasury spokesman Richard Mulchahy who, naturally enough, raised the points about Stanhope creating the mess in the first place, but more interestingly went on to talk about how the government has run down certain services.Mulchahy raised the interesting point that his daughter is in primary school, and her class is a composite class of three year levels.
When I rang Mike I told him about primary school when I was there (1999), in which it wasn’t uncommon to have composite classes containing two year levels. This has problems, but can be dealt with as the developmental levels of the children in adjoining year levels tend to overlap. Generally mixing multiple classes of this type and sorting by skill level for certain classes where peoplenoticeable progress differently (maths for example).
Unfortunately this would not be as easy or as practicable with three year levels in one class. If I take an example of combining years four, five and six in one class (the senior primary years are more likely to be combined in my experience) then you have a mix of students who range from struggling to understand long division, through to nearly understanding algebra. Whilst it would be almost perfectlyfeasible to put a group like that in skill level arranged maths classes, it would be nearly impossible to deal with the difference in ages (from 9 through to 12 in my example) when you have sportingactivities , or the more practical science experiments. There is also a severe difference is psychology in this age range, which makes it harder for teachers to handle the class.
Whilst some of this could be attributed to smaller enrollment numbers, it also highlights the fact that the government consistently tries to get away with a bare minimum of funding, resources and teaching staff. They seem to forget that education is an essential service, and this cheapskatebehaviour , no matter how economically sensible it may be in the short term, disadvantages a generation of students, and effectively society as a whole when these students leave school and go into the workplace. It also makes it harder for students to progress on to tertiary education, as they have a harder time grasping concepts in primary and secondary schooling, which means they learn less, and have less time to practice and perfect concepts.
Unfortunately this budget takes this cheapskate behaviour to a new level. Over the next three years the ACT government plans on closing 39 schools. According to the ABC  the list of school closures reads as follows:
Schools to close at the end of 2006:
- Chifley Preschool
- Flynn Preschool
- Flynn Primary School
- Giralang Preschool
- Giralang Primary School
- Hackett Preschool
- Hall Preschool
- Hall Primary School
- Macarthur Preschool
- McKellar Preschool
- Melrose Primary School
- Mount Neighbour Preschool
- Mount Neighbour Primary School
- Reid Preschool
- Rivett Preschool
- Rivett Primary School
- South Curtin Preschool
- Tharwa Preschool
- Tharwa Primary School
- The Causeway Preschool
- Weston Creek Preschool
- Weston Creek Primary School
Schools to close at the end of 2007:
- Cook Preschool
- Cook Primary School
- Gilmore Preschool
- Gilmore Primary School
- Kambah High School
- Page Preschool
- Village Creek Preschool
- Village Creek Primary School
Schools to close at the end of 2008:
- Dickson College
- Higgins Preschool
- Higgins Primary School
- Holt Preschool
- Holt Primary School
- Isabella Plains Preschool
- Isabella Plains Primary School
- Melba Preschool
- Mt Rogers Primary School
This list is quite appalling and alarming, and not surprisingly the education union has vowed to block the closures with industrial action. I’m understandably upset about Reid Preschool closing as it is my preschool, and one of the oldest in Canberra (if not the oldest). I’m also annoyed about Dickson College closing, not just because I went there, but because the plan for distributing those students is ludicrous. More on that in a moment.
Looking at that list, a lot of the preschools and primary schools are in the Belconnen area, which isn’t surprising considering that the bad idea West Belconnen Super School  is going ahead.
I outlined my reasons for disagreeing with the Super School concept in the linked article, but as I look at this list I see yet another problem caused by these consolidations and closures, health, both now and in the future. Again, more in a moment.
I’m annoyed about the closure of all of these schools, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to a bad situation, which doesn’t appear to even take census data about family trends into account. I’m going to highlight the example of Dickson College closing here, as I went there, I understand the area, and it is probably one of the more ridiculous closures.
Dickson College is the only college in the inner north of Canberra, and has a student population of 558 according to the last census. This does not include the multiple specialty programs which Dickson is the North Canberracentre of, including the Secondary Introductory English Centre , which brings the English skills of new secondary aged students from foreign backgrounds, with little or no English knowledge, up to scratch for mainstream schooling. Dickson is also responsible for the SITE program  (I can’t recall or find the meaning of the acronym)
which caters for year 9 and 10 students who, for one reason or another, cannot handle mainstream high school, and instead use this system to get through years 9 and 10 and progress into College. I would estimate that these students add another 50 or so students to the college, which equates to 600+ displaced students.
And the government’s idea? Expand Campbell High School so that it caters for years 7-12. I have a news flash for the government, Campbell does not have room for extra students. To start with they would need to expand the buildings…but there’s no room for that unless we plan on removing the space required to fit the students outside during breaks, or perhaps the government intend on removing the school oval, which destroys the P.E. program, and makes it even harder to fit in students. Admittedly Reid Oval is just across the (busy main) road, but Campbell has enough trouble keeping students on school grounds without requiring them to cross the road at lunch time if they wish to use the oval.
This actually looks like the beginning of the end of the college system in the ACT, as it is virtually impossible to cater for two different school attitudes (strict, formal high school & casual, student oriented and relatively relaxed college) in the one place, especially when college students have free lines and don’t need to wear a uniform, which removes the “easy to spot intruder on high school grounds” principle of high school playground supervision.
It is also impossible to realistically fit years 11 & 12 in to the existing Campbell facilities. The Gym is in use constantly with the high school students as it is, the assembly hall is not big enough to cater for the extra students…and did anybody consider how the heating system will be extended from supplying just the existing Campbell buildings to also supplying the extra buildings required with extra students.
I can guarantee you that the government forgot that students in year 11 and year 12 tend to start driving cars, and need a parking space. Campbell’s existingcarpark is only big enough for staff and a couple visitors, Dickson’s student carpark is bigger than Campbell’s existing carpark, and Campbell doesn’t really have room to build an extra carpark , especially if they are going to build extra building for the student influx. Traffic in that area is a nightmare on a good day, and I highly doubt that the Australian War Memorial will be overly impressed if it is harder for people to get in and around that area if the high school next door gains a few hundred drivers who want to use the tiny street which runs between the two and is the only entry/exit.
I was also going to mention health. All of these school closures mean more that students will be crammed into less space. In school this may make it more difficult for teachers to take expanding classes outside for some physical activity, especially as larger classes are harder to control, and mixed year level classes pose an even bigger challenge. Outside of school, combining schools makes independent sport less attractive.
For example, suppose that at the moment a student lives 15 minutes walk from their primary school, and they have soccer practice at 5pm, at a location 20 minutes drive away from their home. In this case the student may finish school at 3pm, get home at 3:15pm. A working parent may be able to get home at 4:30, and be able to drive the student to soccer practice.
Now, with a combined school system the school is likely to be further away from the student, and this may make it more feasible for a parent to drive their child to school (especially seeing as this would stretch and already stretched school bus system over the breaking point). In this case we will assume that the school is two suburbs away, and 15 minutes drive from home. In this case the parent has to be at the school by 3pm, which cuts their income as they have to leave work earlier (especially if a parent needs to drop the child off at school as well). This decrease in family income, and increase in car costs through increased distancetravelled will probably push many families to the point where they decide that they can’t afford to pay for sport after school.
The result here is children who are less inclined to be active, and therefore have more health problems when they are older, and become more of a burden on the health system than they would otherwise have been.
I’ll leave the final word on education to Clive Haggar, president of the Australian Education Union (ACT Branch), in an ABC news article.
The head of the ACT branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU), Clive Haggar, has questioned how public school teachers will be able to maintain education standards given the cutbacks.
“Tasmania is at the bottom of the pile when it comes to national outcomes in education and our schools in secondary are going to be staffed on the same basis as Tasmania, so it’s a dreadful outcome for our secondary schools,” he said.
“It is going to take us years to get over this Budget, if in fact we are ever able to do it.”
Mr Haggar says it is the worst Budget since the introduction of self-government.
“It in fact destroys all of the gains that we’ve made over the past five years,” he said.
“It certainly puts the Stanhope Government on a par with Jeff Kennett in Victoria and the damage he inflicted on the public education system down there.
“But the key point for us is how are we supposed to drive a quality system with $12 million worth of job losses in our schools?”
Rates and Taxes
Another factor which is going to make life more difficult for the public is a raft of increased rates, and new taxes. Kerces at The RiotACT  had this concise summary of the increased rates and new taxes:
The revenue raisers in the budget are:
* a 6 per cent increase in rates as well as future rate rises being indexed to the Wage Price Index. Mr Stanhope said this would amount to an average increase of $1 a day per household;
* a new fire levy of $84 per year which will be included in each household’s general rates notices. It is expected this will raise $20 million a year. People on low incomes will only pay half of this;
* changing the eligibility criteria for the Home Buyer Concession Scheme (presumably meaning less people will be eligible);
* a new call-out fee for false alarms for the fire brigade of $200 per residential and $500 per commercial building;
* an increase in the ambulance levy currently charged to health funds for individuals and families who have ambulance cover. This levy will now be $85 per individual and $170 per family. People on pensions will not be charged this levy;
* full cost recovery for ACT Workcover’s services and successful prosecutions;
* a Utility Land Use Permit will be introduced for sewerage, water, electricity, gas and phone lines;
*development application fees will be raised; and
* a water fee will be introduced “through an increase of 30 cents per kilolitre in the water abstraction charge” (I couldn’t work out what this meant).
All I can add to this is “ouch”.
The Arboretum Goes Ahead
Around this time last year the Chief Turnip announced a really big tree garden (he must have a thesaurus to have found the word “Arboretum”) right in the middle of a really big drought. I rang Mike Frame (who was filling in for Mike Welsh on 2CC’s drive show at the time) to object  to this silly idea, and thankfully I wasn’t the only one in Canberra who didn’t like it. Twelve months on, and the arboretum has escaped the public conscience in amongst a supposed cancellation and other bad news for the government. Unfortunately the Chief Turnip continues to show his arrogance byignoring the wishes of the public (and showing his ignorance for the term “public representative”) by committing money to the arboretum. Apparently he is going to spend $6 million over two years on it, and will even be having six different species of tree planted there in the coming months (credit to Kerces for spotting that one…many newsorganisations misunderstood the funding and thought the arboretum was shelved).
We’re not technically in drought any more, but there is still a water conservation effort being pushed by the government, and just yesterday The Canberra Times reported  that Stanhope wants Canberra’s gardens to only contain native plants, which are generally less thirsty. Oddly enough, I could be sure that a big tree garden would consume a lot of water…I guess logic doesn’t come into decisions for unpopular magic safety fairies.
The ABC picked a very interesting statement from health minister Katy Gallagher (loopy lady, silent g) to use in their TV news last night. Effectively she said that the government would find ways of saving money in health by removing free services and cutting spending. It’s hard to tell whether or not that was in context, or whether it was even accurate, but looking at the $752 million being given to health this year, and the various projects which that will fund (most notably $416,000 for buyingtamiflu, just in case the unpopular magic safety fairy has to save us from a bird flu outbreak). There does appear to be a lot of money being thrown around for no apparent gain. Katy pledged “additional funds” for cutting elective surgery waiting lists, but couldn’t elaborate on how they would do it. There is also $3.15 million being wasted on what looks like an advertising blitz about mental health, surely that money would be better off going to Beyond Blue or the mental health system.
Other Things From The Budget
It was interesting hearing Chief Turnip Stanhope on the radio talking about an increase in police numbers, and getting the cost wrong. The error was pointed out by Richard Mulchahy. It is also interesting to see that the budget papers seem confused about the issue as well, being unable to decide if they are adding 60 or 107 police officers.
The Turnip’s obsession with pointless public artworks is highlighted in this budget. Something in the range of $250,000 will be wasted on this. I’m sure it’s nice to have a city that has nice things in it, but wouldn’t it be better to have a good budget and working essential services?
More funding for fixed speed cameras (raises money, doesn’t solve speeding though…only mobile camera operated by police who are willing to chase can do that), more money for security cameras (hopefully these work a tad better than the ones in Civic).
500 public housing properties to be sold (although more will be bought…apparently…I just can’t trust that assurance).
Public service to shrink.
Superannuation contributions for new public servants to be lower than everywhere else in the country.
And many many things which escape me at this time.
You know something is very very wrong when the unions all come out and blast a Labor government over the same issue at the same time, and with such a wide range of subjects. Chief Turnip Stanhope has been saying that he is willing to accept that people will not be happy with the budget, and for once I agree with him. I don’t, however, agree that this is as responsible as he asserts. It isblatantly obvious that the Stanhope administration has been an economic disaster since taking power in 2001, and there is no doubt that the government is in financial trouble, but surely there is a better way than this abomination of a budget. I’m not surprised that former treasurer Ted Quinlan quit, he was always the odd man out in the Turnip government, an advocate of common sense and economic responsibility, unfortunately he was surrounded by a pack ofspendthrifts who “lived beyond their means” (to use the Stanhope quote), and now the public is going to have to pay for the mistakes.
It is now up to the public to appeal against this budget, to make as much noise as possible, and to ensure that the government know how the public feels.Stanhope may be happy to be the unpopular magic safety fairy for now, but history has a habit of repeating itself. Last time Stanhope said to blame him, he turned around and tried to derail the inquest which would probably find against him (hmmm, when are the findings due from that?), Stanhope may be happy for you to blame him for the budget now, but what’s the bet that he announces a massive cut to rates and taxes prior to the 2008 election in an attempt to wipe the slate clean, and derail the ultimate ballot box assault on his terrible leadership?
This budget is a shocker, as Clive Haggar said “It is going to take us years to get over this Budget, if in fact we are ever able to do it”. The federal government is already working to stop some ACT government legislation, and as the ACT is a territory, perhaps they would be willing to come to the rescue of Canberra over this budget. The federal government has the ability to sack the Chief Turnip and appoint an administrator…perhaps that is what this city needs.