The Budget Night ‘Circus’ – But the Devil’s in the Detail for NFPs
28 April 2016 at 9:30 am
Opinion: Amid all the posturing and rhetoric that comes with federal budget night, the Not for Profit sector will be focusing on whether this government’s previous pattern of unwelcome savings measures continues, writes David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council for Australia.
Federal budget night is a little like a circus performance. We can expect the rhetoric to be flowing, the value statements to be grand and all encompassing. Fairness will get a working over, as will the everyday working Australian and their families.
There will be sniping at the opposition and a little bit of theatre resulting in rabbits emerging from the budget hat. With the increase in iron ore over the past few months, government revenue has crept up by several billion dollars, creating an unexpected windfall just when federal departments were already locked into their savings measures. And it is, after all, an election budget.
We can try to spot the pork barrels (why are they relocating that to there), hot air balloons that will never fly or only hover for a very short time (Kevin Andrews’s marriage counselling subsidy), and the anticipated arguments about projections (where do they get that expected income figure from).
There will be a progression of winners calmly endorsing government largesse and losers complaining, all with a big smile for the camera. The commentariat will have a field day postulating what this budget means for the upcoming election, and many of us will be left a little confused trying to work out what it all means for us and the organisations we work in. Budget night is only ever really about headlines.
Having sat through 15 budget lockups, I have learned that the devil is often in the detail. The federal budget gives the headline figures and not much more aside from the rhetorical flourishes involved in the budget spin. Being able to ask a senior government official what the figures mean for specific programs has always been one of the great advantages for direct involvement. In the early days, directors of program areas would be present in budget lockups to answer specific questions. Unfortunately, this approach to information sharing is less popular and answers seem less forthcoming nowadays than in past budget lockups.
For the Not for Profit sector there will be a big focus on whether this government’s previous pattern of savings measures continues. Ongoing reductions in grant programs and more efficiency savings (cuts) to the bureaucracy will not be welcome news. Hiding cuts to existing programs by announcing new combined programs in the same area is another pattern of budget behavior to watch out for.
The Community Council for Australia will be looking to see if the length of government contracts is increasing or decreasing. One of the many good things promised by Kevin Andrews, who was the incoming minister for social services under the newly elected Abbott government, was to lengthen the contracts available to the sector as a way of increasing certainty and allowing organisations to build capacity over time.
While some government contracts have been lengthened to three or five years, this government has also had a bad case of “rollover disease” – just roll that program funding over for another 12 months and we will work out their future later. It seems as though programs and services in the Not for Profit sector are often dismissed as relatively dispensable – able to be turned on and off like a tap.
The federal budget is the most important policy document any national government delivers. Budget night is not always the best time to figure out what it will all mean in practice or over time, but at the very least, we can presume the delivery of this budget will reveal how this government intends to use its last minute income bonus. Perhaps just as importantly, it may actually set the scene for some meaningful policy discussions in the lead up to the federal election.
Most people in the Not for Profit sector are only too well aware of how important a federal budget can be. I do not expect any major changes in direction from this government but given the rapid changes over the past 12 months, there is a lot more uncertainty around the direction of this budget.
We can take some solace in knowing that anything that gets put up in this federal budget can also be written out of the federal budget within 12 months, and this may well be the case depending on the outcome of the upcoming election.
I am sure it will be a night full of interesting spectacle, and hopefully not too many cuts to the invaluable programs and services run by charities and Not for Profits across Australia.
(Find out more about what the leaders of the Australian Not for Profit sector want from this year’s Federal Budget in our latest Podcast: Federal Budget – The Not for Profit Wishlist)
About the author: David Crosbie has been a leader in the Australian NFP sector for more than 20 years. He is currently CEO of the Community Council for Australia (CCA), an independent member-based organisation promoting the work of the Not for Profit sector. He is also a member of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Advisory Board. Crosbie was formerly CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, Odyssey House Victoria and the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia. He has served on a range of key national bodies including as chair of the National Compact Expert Advisory Group, the NFP Sector Reform Council, and as a member of the Community Response Task Group chaired by former prime minister Julia Gillard.