For a while it might have seemed like clever politics for the federal Coalition to try to shape the news cycle by making announceable spending commitments – as often as not, dropped in advance to friendly journalists – without actually spending the money. Viewed most charitably, underspending is the opposite of profligacy and could be considered part of budget repair. The jig is up, however. The Morrison government has so perfected the art of underspending that it has begun to look cynical and deliberate rather than prudent.
Today, Guardian Australia reports that the $100 million Recycling Investment Fund announced before the last election – which is run by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and is meant to support the manufacturing of products from recycled plastics and paper – has not “entered into any transactions at this point”. On Monday, shadow agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon highlighted that exactly two years after the prime minister announced his $5 billion Future Drought Fund, “not one cent” has been spent. In his budget reply a few weeks ago, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese pointed out that of the $4 billion allocated to the Emergency Response Fund created after the Black Summer bushfires, with $200 million available each financial year from 2019–20, “not a dollar has been spent”. Then there’s the HomeBuilder grant scheme (underspent), arts funding (underspent) and JobKeeper (an underspend that can be seen from space).
In the middle of a pandemic and a recession, when people really need support, and in the wake of devastating bushfires and drought, the Morrison government can no longer get away with such misleading and deceptive conduct.
In a searing piece for The Monthly, editor Nick Feik dubbed Scott Morrison “the announcement artist”. It is a theme that Labor has taken up with gusto, including in Question Time today when shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers asked Treasurer Josh Frydenberg about evidence that the $4 billion JobMaker hiring-credit scheme for workers under 35 will create just 45,000 new jobs, not the 450,000 estimated in the federal budget. “How can Australians trust this government to spend taxpayer dollars in their best interest when its announcements never match its delivery?” asked Chalmers. Frydenberg simply stood by the estimates in the budget.
Shadow infrastructure minister Catherine King followed up with a question to the treasurer, again citing Treasury evidence that the government’s claimed 130,000 jobs generated by the Technology Investment Roadmap was a figure in a press release, not in the budget papers. “Is this another case of spin over substance?” asked King. Frydenberg ignored the question, saying: “I do not know what those opposite have got against creating jobs, but we are in favour of creating jobs.”
Such hollow rhetoric, often delivered at a hundred decibels, is wearing very thin. The prime minister and treasurer both joined the Opposition in a motion congratulating the people of Victoria in defeating the second wave of the pandemic, but they used it to attempt to score political points. Scott Morrison effectively chided the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, saying that border closures and lockdowns were “not evidence of success, they are evidence of outbreaks that have got out of control”. Frydenberg had the temerity to talk about the loss of 800 Victorian lives, saying it “all comes back to the failures in hotel quarantine” – neglecting to mention that 683 of those deaths were in federally funded and regulated nursing homes. State-run homes (with better staff ratios, trained nurses and proper infection-control procedures) were able to cope with the second wave without such fatalities.
There is a disconnect between the Morrison government’s self-congratulation and the reality on the ground, and it is only getting deeper.