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Empty Houses and Pipe Bombs: How Australia Debates

The Budget Emergency is so dire politicians are bringing bombs to work, spying on each other, and spending hundreds of thousand of dollars on housing.

by Girard Dorney
May 28 2014, 4:55am

Image by Ben Thomson

The Budget Emergency, a crisis so dire that the Prime Minister is freeing up funds for school chaplains to make sure Aussie kids won't be left behind when the rapture hits, is not over. The Budget, which takes a little bit of money from the rich, and lots of money from the poor, has not yet taken effect. There is a long and winding road to budget finalisation and upon that road there are several obstacles and one very large man standing in the way. These obstacles include historically bad polling data, rallies against the budget, and three parties and several independents arrayed to block key aspects of the legislation in the Senate. 

We're currently in the period after Budget night that is informally called, “Budget debate and consideration in detail.” What you would expect from such a title is debate, and consideration in detail. Instead we’re getting Parliament Question Time, which goes something like...

Speaker: The member for [blank] has the floor.

Member: My question is directed to [blank]. Are you seriously going to introduce this disgusting tax/co-payment/policy?

Speaker: The member for [blank].

Member: Thank you, Madame Speaker. Yeah! But only cause of you! 

@everybody tweets: Politicians are assholes #Budget2014

Outside of the House of Representatives, there are the less loud and more measured Budget Estimates hearings. A place where the heads of different Departments get up and get grilled by Senators on the merits of new cuts, taxes, and program and policy proposals. Also, because this is Australia, it’s a good time for wacky shenanigans that have nothing to do with the budget.

A couple of the highlights so far include good ol’ Bill Heffernan, Senator and crazed uncle of the Liberal party, bringing a fake pipe bomb to the proceedings last Monday. His aim was to prove that security arrangements for Parliament House—where new rules mean there are fewer searches of MPs, their staff, their family and other staff members—are ineffective. He explained, “When I was a kid, we used to blow stumps out on the farm 50 years ago… there is nothing to stop anyone from bringing those ingredients in here over a period of time through security.”  The Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Tony Negus, said it was a risk but also stated that Senator Heffernan had showed him the pipe earlier—“it was just a piece of pipe,” he’d explained. So you can bring ordinary pipe into parliament so long as you’re an MP and you first check it with the AFP Commissioner first. No more borrowing pipe at work—it’s BYO.

Speaking of security, a parliamentary official may have “spied” on Labor Senator John Faulkner. In response the Senator went for the Department of Parliamentary Services representative Carol Mills on Monday, taking up precious time to get to the bottom of the incident. It seems fairly benign, or a least not endemic, Faulkner was not the target and the employee who breached protocol and went beyond the scope of a “code-of-conduct case” by filming Faulkner’s office resignation a few months ago. But in these heady days where total government surveillance of our lives is becoming normal, the Labor Senator’s anger is a timely reminder that surveillance is not a two-way street.

The budget was never far from our minds though: remember how Prime Minister Tony Abbott was going to get all humble and Pope-y on us staying at the Australian Federal Police college while the Lodge was being renovated? Well it turns out he’s getting hotel service there—which isn’t obscene, but takes away from the humble part of the gesture. Also the whole reason given for the modest residence was that the PM balked at the cost of the lavish home initially leased. Now it turns out we’ve been paying for the house anyway, to the tune of $120,000. Plus he’s been living in Kirribilli since March and the budget for the Prime Minister’s official residences is over $1.5 million. This level of spending was set before Abbott took office but the lesson seems fairly obvious: Don’t make a big deal about the end of the age of entitlement while you luxuriate in entitlements, and don’t tell people you’re living modestly when you’re not.

“Entitlement” is the key word here. You see the Coalition had a strategy with this budget—no, seriously. The idea was to make big cuts to what some consider rights—such as the pension, health, education, and welfare—while assuaging the pains and political fallout of those cuts with small spends. Effectively, “We can no longer afford for you to have all these nice things but we don’t want you to go home empty-handed.”  Example: introduce a Medicare co-payment that raises the cost of healthcare for everybody who goes to see a GP, while also introducing a medical research fund. Or perhaps: Freeze funds for the $160 million “family relationships services” programs while spending money on a new $20 million “relationship vouchers policy”.

Why is this strategy blowing up in the government’s face? Because it hasn’t found an answer to the question: if there’s a debt emergency why are we increasing spending for untested policies? Also, the old programs were pretty good and no one seems to like the look of the new ones.

Take the “family relationships services” scheduled to have its funding frozen. It's a program that does things like offer legal aid to people engaged in family court cases. According to common sense and Justice Diana Bryant in an interview with the ABC, this is some pretty important stuff. So what does the sort-of-replacement policy, the “relationships voucher”, do? Well, if you’re married or in a permanent relationship you can get $200 for counselling, from financial education to conflict resolution. Besides, who has time to file for divorce when you've got all four of your suddenly pensionless parents and your unemployed Newstartless grown-up kids living in your house? Financial education is the answer.

With more budget estimate hearings to come we can expect the “debate” to continue.

Follow Girard on Twitter: @GirardDorney