Federal Budget a mixed bag

By Paula Doran

The Federal Budget has produced mixed reactions to its bag of goodies, with commentators torn as to whether it was ‘regional’ friendly.

Among the winners nationwide thanks to Tuesday night’s Budget, were parents, with the incumbent Labour Government committing $4.7 billion over four years to subsidise cheaper childcare and more childcare workers.

Schools will also benefit, with student wellbeing the focus of $204 million dedicated to mental health supports, excursions and sporting or social activities. Improving ventilation and air quality in a post-Covid world, also got attention, with $271 million thrown in to look at that and refurbishments.

Housing, one of the key topics of the moment, also benefitted from the new Government’s conservative debut in national funding, with a target of one million new homes to be delivered over five years from mid-2024. That includes 20,000 affordable homes, with 30,000 affordable social homes to be built through the housing Australia Future fund.

Around 10,000 regional first-home buyers will also be eligible to buy a home courtesy of the Federal Government guarantee of up to 15 per cent of the purchase price.

Other allocations include:

  • Nearly $170m for 500 frontline workers to support women and children experiencing family, domestic and sexual violence.
  • Almost $70m to increase the income threshold for the seniors’ health card from $61,284 to $90,000 for singles and from $98,054 to $144,000 (combined) for couples.
  • The amount pensioners can earn before their pension is reduced will increase from $7,800 to $11,800.
  • $74m will encourage pensioners to downsize homes.

The environment was also a winner in the October budget. Renewable energy received multiple commitments:

  • $1.9 billion will be spent on helping move regional industries towards decarbonisation
  • $500m will be committed to reducing transport emissions
  • $300m has been allocated to the supply of community batteries and solar banks.

One could say that the Broken Hill compressed energy announcement last week foreshadowed this enthusiasm…

Meanwhile Local Government will be watching closely as the ‘Building Better Regions’ fund is thrown out, to be replaced by the new, and quite vague ‘Growing Regions Fund.’ This, like the new regional Precincts and Partnerships Program, promises the most opportunity for Broken Hill City Council, though little is yet known about the funding parameters.

Through the new regional funding, the Government says it commits to “a strategic, nationally consistent mechanism for funding and coordinating larger-scale projects that transform a place, to benefit communities in regional cities and wider rural and regional Australia”.

In a statement, Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Catherine King, said, “the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) found the BBRF grants favoured National Party electorates and were not awarded on the basis of merit, but on the basis of rules that were not made clear to all applicants.”

Coalition MPs have denied these allegations.

The Federal Government claims the Growing Regions Program will provide new opportunities for regional local councils and not-for-profit organisations through an annual open, competitive grants process.

The Budget – what they say…

There’s been an underwhelming response to what pundits are describing as the Federal ‘mini’ Budget.

Coming on the heels of a Coalition Budget released in March, the Labor Budget has failed to drum up much excitement in regional Australia.

Though to be fair, the new Government did forewarn that it would be more about essentials than a cache of gifts.

There was little in the coffers for landholders, with NSW Farmers’ President Xavier Martin saying rural communities would be bitterly disappointed.

“The Treasury papers reveal the cost of living is set to increase with gas and power prices to skyrocket over the next two years, and long-term water spending has been slashed while the trapdoor has been set for water buy backs,” Mr Martin said.

“It may seem strange to talk about drought while much of the state is in flood, but farmers know Australia goes through a cycle of wet and dry – this is precisely the time we need to be planning ahead for drought,” Mr Martin said.

He did however concede that investments into research and development to help lower emissions from agriculture were a positive move, as were efforts to improve education and training amid a major worker shortage.

“The future of agriculture will require a mix of skills and technology as we experience extreme weather events. The challenge will be in ensuring we don’t accelerate the brain drain from the regions to the cities,” he said.

Regional Australia Institute (RAI) CEO Liz Ritchie, was much more welcoming of the Budget, saying it would advance her organsation’s Regionalisation Ambition, with critical investment in housing, skills, regional health, productivity and innovation.

Ms Ritchie said the Treasurer had performed a necessary balancing act in addressing the nation’s current and significant fiscal challenges while positioning regional Australia to capture the opportunities before it.

“The RAI welcomes the Government’s signature Budget commitment to build new homes over five years. The Institute has been a leading voice calling for action on bolstered public and private sector investment in regional housing,” Ms Ritchie said.

“Unprecedented regional market tightness is frustrating the attraction of new people to the regions and contributing to an unprecedented 93,000 regional job vacancies, almost one third of the nation’s entire internet-advertised jobs on offer,” she said.

Nationals MP for Parks, Mark Coulton, was not so complimentary.

“The biggest loser in this Budget is regional Australia,” he said.

“The slashing of the Building Better Regions Fund (BBRF) is a devastating loss for communities through my electorate.

The program injected more than $46 million into the Parkes electorate since it was established, funding projects that are making a real and tangible difference in many of our communities,” Mr Coulton said.

“Childcare has been trumpeted as a winner in this Budget, but that is not the case for regional Australia.

“Childcare affordability is not the main issue for our regional families – accessibility is. Funding rebates do nothing to help those families in the Parkes electorate who are unable to return to work because they can’t access childcare in their town. Of the $4.7 million in childcare measures, there is no money to create one new childcare facility,” he said.

“After 10 years in opposition, Labor are clearly taking out their frustration on regional Australia, scrapping programs and funding that had significant benefit to the bush.”

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