Victoria’s “spending bonanza”, as the mainstream media called it, was announced on May 4. Being an election year, the state budget was heavy with promises of cash injections for health care, housing, education and public transport.
However, much of the spending announced will be to fund a big increase in “cops on the beat”, a natural step given the recent strengthening of police stop-and-search powers and the accompanying corporate media fear campaign.
The budget will increase net debt by 3.5%. To reduce debt, treasurer John Lenders has set infrastructure spending to drop about 40% in the next four years. The Victorian government plans to spend a lot less on new roads, public transport, schools and hospitals in the future.
The Brumby government seems to believe that the best way to win voter confidence is to increase the police’s ability to intimidate and discriminate.
The budget promised $561.3 million over five years to recruit 1700 more frontline cops, and $112 million to free up 266 police in administrative and call-centre roles to join the frontline. A further $98.1 million was allocated to establish a new centre for the police homicide, fraud, drug and sex crimes squads.
The court system will receive an extra $62.3 million funding and $45.6 million will increase prison capacity by 85 beds.
Despite the impression given by politicians and lurid media reporting that the increased police budget is needed to fight rising crime, Lenders admitted in his introduction to the budget overview that the state’s crime rate had actually dropped.
Victorian Council of Social Service chief executive Cath Smith said on May 4: “The evidence suggests that if the government had spent more tackling the cause not the consequence of crime, like intervening before children are put at risk, spending more on young people, or better assisting people suffering with mental illness we wouldn’t now have overflowing prisons and pressure on policing.”
The state government’s main objective for education is to upgrade or refurbish 500 existing schools at a cost of $381 million. It has only set aside $34 million for the construction of new schools.
The Australian Education Union (AEU) expressed disappointment in the lack of funding for secondary education. On May 4, AEU Victorian branch president Mary Bluett pointed to the lack of government resources in the face of increasing student retention goals.
“[We have] continually called for a wider curriculum, special settings, teacher aids and lower class sizes to encourage retention and engagement in secondary schools. We call on the government to acknowledge the importance of keeping students engaged and focused through a proper provision of resources”, she said.
The budget has also promised $60 million over five years for an extra 3590 kindergarten places, and an increase in preschool hours for four-year-olds.
The AEU said this is positive, but additional funding will be required to make the plans work. “These children will have nowhere to go unless there are expanded and improved preschool buildings”, Bluett said. “It is disappointing that the Brumby government, which professes to have education as its number one priority, has not done more to live up to this rhetoric.”
Tertiary education was largely ignored, with no new funding for TAFE.
The state’s ailing health system was given a much-needed $4 billion boost. But the fine print says the promised $4.7 billion is to be spent over ten years. It is, of course, not unprecedented for governments to fail to honour promises of expenditure.
The budget pledged $760 million over five years to increase hospital services to match higher demand, and $561 million for the construction of a new hospital in Bendigo and to upgrade regional hospitals in Coleraine, Geelong, Healesville and Leongatha.
The first home buyers grant was extended for another year, but will be restricted to those buying newly built homes or building their own. An additional $4000 will be given to regional home buyers, while $2000 will go to buyers of metropolitan properties.
The government has given people a clear incentive to move to the outer fringes of metropolitan Melbourne and further afield to regional Victoria. However, this requires resources not only for public transport but also more schools, hospitals and public services.
The $1 billion allocated to improve Melbourne’s transport system will barely repair the existing system, let alone cater for the projected growth of outer suburban communities.