Australia’s Budget 2013 keeps us stuck in the past

[As it turns out, my planned Budget commentary for Crikey didn’t happen. I got up early in San Jose, read the budget papers and made notes, but then my as-yet-unwritten article got spiked. This is a quick and somewhat belated post based on my notes, not as polished as it might have been if written for Crikey.]

Photo of Budget 2013-2014 papers: click for official government budget websiteThe problem with Australia’s Labor government is that after having had One Big Idea for a bold new future in the National Broadband Network (NBN), they’ve come up with almost nothing anywhere else. This year’s federal budget was a dull plod. Again.

There was even one move which struck me as remarkably dumb: capping the available tax deductions for self-education expenses at just $2000 a year. Apparently that saves $500 million, and that’ll go to the schools — and schools are good for the kiddies, of course — but that’s half a billion dollars less for people to be able to keep up with a rapidly-changing work environment.

This strikes me as particularly stupid when so many of the people servicing the computers, networks and other technology that powers small business are often freelancers, as are so many web developers and designers.

Two grand a year doesn’t go far when it costs nearly half that just to attend the annual user conference for just one of your core software toolsets — more if you have to add airfares and accommodation — and the rest would soon be burnt up on a handful of reference books.

Back when I used to work in various management and staff development roles, I was told that any organisation that wants to advance its knowledge base should be spending at least 5% of its time on staff development. In a technology field, in my opinion, that should be at least 10%. That’s four hours a week, or a week or so every three months.

That still doesn’t sound very much, but it’d cost at least four times that capped amount. And that’s still not compensating freelancers for the loss of billable hours.

“Business and training groups have already said capping the expenses will stop employers from being able to offer staff new training initiatives. There were reports [the week before the budget that] the government would end up reversing the move, but the budget papers now state the change is locked-in,” wrote Patrick Stafford at SmartCompany.

“The announcement is sure to raise the ire of small business groups. Many business owners also use these deductions for short courses and industry-based training sessions.”

There’s two particularly galling lines in the budget papers themselves. First, the tax deductions are now only available…

…where these expenses are incurred in the production of the taxpayer’s current assessable income.

So you’re discouraged from educating yourself for the jobs that will become available even in the very near future. Why?

The potential for uncapped claims for a wide range of expenses provides an opportunity for some people to enjoy significant private benefits at taxpayers’ expense.

Orly? That’s a bit rich, given that vast sums already given to private schools. Or the “baby bonus” that people on quite significant household incomes still get for extruding another brat. That simply reeks of hypocrisy.

As for the rest of the measures, all I could find of note was:

  • Commercial TV stations’ licence fees are now halved forever, spending $50 million propping up a dying industry. Apparently this was in the Mid-Year Financial Economic Outlook (MYFEO) statement but not “announced”.
  • The Australian Cyber Security Centre will be established without any new funding. So is it really so important?
  • “The Government will provide $30 million over three years (including $1.5 million in capital funding in 2013-14) to maintain and expand the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) online services. Funding will be used to continue to deliver the ABC’s existing iView, website, streaming of news content and to provide for an expected increase in demand for these services. The additional funding will also enable a pilot to live stream ABC radio and television content and to increase the quality of existing iView streaming.”
  • Mandatory internet censorship (“filtering”) is confirmed dead, at least for now, with its funding cut. This is another MYFEO thing.
  • There’s $7.2 million over three years to “improve the capacity of small businesses and not-for-profit organisations to engage in the digital economy and take advantage of the National Broadband Network (NBN)”. Big whoop.
  • “The Government will provide $215.9 million between 2012-13 and 2018-19 (including $18.5 million in 2017-18 and operating costs of $11.5 million in 2018-19) to upgrade the Australia’s International Communications Network (ICN) operated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade… The ICN supports the transmission and exchange of unclassified through to top secret information through over 140 sites in Australia and around the globe operating 24 hours a day. The upgraded ICN will strengthen classified connectivity and information sharing, increase protection against cyber threats, strengthen coordination and decision-making through improved connectivity, and improve productivity by addressing limitations of the current system.” In other words, a routine upgrade of a thing that already exists, made into a bigger thing because cybers.

As I say, it’s all a dull plod. In an election year, is that adequate?

[Photo: Image of the budget papers themselves, stolen from Crikey. I didn’t seek permission, but I got up early for them, so there.]