Batten down the hatches – where this budget’s major announcements will keep public servants busy

By Melissa Coade

March 29, 2022

Minister for finance Simon Birmingham and treasurer Josh Frydenberg walk through the Press Gallery to talk to journalists during lockup before delivering his 2022 Budget speech at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

As Australia looks down the barrel of geopolitical uncertainty, a future of almost-certain major natural disasters (yes, more of them), and an ageing population, spending across defence, emergency management and resilience and health add to a major national infrastructure agenda that will keep APS staff on their toes. 

The tone of this year’s budget was all about celebrating Australia’s remarkable growth and economic resilience in the face of plague, catastrophic natural events like flooding and bushfires that have affected people nationwide this year, and the pressures that a faraway conflict in Ukraine is placing on supply chains and cost of living. 

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg wanted to offer voters the reassurance that in uncertain times, his government could and would deliver. In the face of current challenges the Australian community faced, he wanted to say that strength was possible during this period of recovery. 

“We have overcome the biggest economic shock since the Great Depression,” Frydenberg said. 

“Our recovery leads the world. Faster and stronger than the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.”

But for all the glow of Australia being one of nine other nations to preserve its ‘AAA’ credit rating through the COVID-19 pandemic, the direct message to individual voters was clear: the government was willing to offer tax offsets (in particular a one-off $420 cost of living payment for low and income earners), cash bonuses, and a six-month fuel excise that would ease the pain people’s hip pockets were feeling on a daily basis. The government claims its fuel excise will save a family with two cars about $30 a week, or a total of $700 over the next six months. 

At the bowser, during tax time, and in the height of a federal election – which still has not been called yet but will be held before the end of May – the treasurer wanted people to know he was for them. Workers and families, would-be apprentices and aspiring homeowners were chief among those the Coalition government wanted to remind they were backing. But pensioners, job-seekers, and veterans also got a look in, with a one-off $250 cost of living payment for 6 million eligible citizens. 

“This budget will see unemployment go even lower, delivering more jobs and higher wages. This is not luck. Our economic plan is working,” Frydenberg said.  

“By the end of the forward estimates, the budget is $100 billion better off compared to last year [sic]. The deficit for 2022-23 is expected to be $78 billion, or 3.4% of GDP. Over the next three years, this will more than halve to 1.6%. Net debt as a share of the economy will peak at 33.1% at 30 June 2026.”

For the public sector, the budget announcements canvassing the government’s strategic challenges, community health, natural disaster response, energy, workforce and wellbeing, and digital government service will be instructive.

“We must invest more in the defence of our nation. We have put in place a 10-year defence capability plan worth more than $270 billion supporting more than 100,000 jobs,” the treasurer said.

The government’s deregulation agenda will also affect a number of regulatory agencies. It will include a program to reform fees attached to registry services, simplify registry compliance obligations, improve the currency and accuracy of registry information and promote transparency and counter-party trust in commercial activities.  

“These changes will save Australians and their businesses $64.9 million in fees over three years from 2023-24,” the budget papers said.

“The government will take action to reduce administrative overheads and streamline businesses’ engagement with the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Border Force. This will support business growth in Australia’s fuel and alcoholic beverage manufacturing sector.”

Long-term policies were likely to guide the major work to be undertaken by the APS in Tuesday’s budget, as recently pointed out by EY’s chief economist, Cherelle Murphy.

More investment for disaster response, management, and recovery will flow from the Emergency Response Fund, to which the government has decided to release the maximum allocation of $150 million for post-disaster activities supporting flood-affected communities over the next two years.

Minister for emergency management and national recovery and resilience Bridget McKenzie announced the commonwealth would commit $2 billion, jointly with the state governments in NSW and Queensland, to offer recovery support for businesses, primary producers and individuals affected by the 2022 floods. 

“Beyond the pandemic, natural disasters pose an enormous challenge to Australia’s resilience. In recent years, disasters such as droughts, bushfires and floods have had a devastating impact on our nation, with some parts of the community responding to consecutive disasters,” the budget papers said. 

“In 2021-22, the commonwealth, state and territory disaster recovery funding arrangements have been activated in response to 38 natural disaster events. Most recently, the arrangements have been activated by the February to March 2022 floods that caused significant loss in Queensland and New South Wales.”

The APS has been heavily involved in recovery efforts to reduce the risk of future disasters, the budget papers added, to work alongside local communities and industry sectors for post bushfire recovery.

“To date, over $3 billion has been made available for critical recovery work that directly assists impacted individuals, communities and businesses, including support for more than 2,800 individual projects,” the papers said.

The government’s infrastructure vision, which includes a $120 billion spend on an infrastructure pipeline over 10 years, will also be a key focus for public servants. 

This budget announced $81 billion to be invested in the ongoing infrastructure pipeline over the next four years. It also announced there would be a $23.9 billion annual investment boost for 2023-23 toward the infrastructure pipeline. Among the projects funded under this commitment is $14.5 billion to deliver an inland rail connecting Melbourne and Brisbane, and $400 million connecting the Botany Rail duplication in Sydney.

“A total of $7.1 billion is being provided over 11 years from 2022-23 for the government’s energy security and regional development plan. The investment focuses on strengthening infrastructure and supply chains in the Northern Territory, north and central Queensland, Pilbara region in Western Australia and Hunter region in New South Wales,” the budget papers said. 

“Over the next 10 years, $880 million of funding for the Roads of Strategic Importance initiative will upgrade 11 key freight corridors across Australia. This helps Australian exporters who trade in global markets become more internationally competitive, while increasing opportunities for regional employment and business growth,” the papers added.

This budget also boasted that over the four years from 2022-23, the cost of administering government services declined as an overall share of total government expenses. According to finance minister Simon Birmingham, this was a result of longer-term efforts to ‘drive improved efficiency and productivity in the public service’.

“This continued improvement in structural efficiency takes account of all departmental costs, including APS staff, contractors, and other supplier costs,” he said. 

Senator Birmingham also flagged in the budget papers plans to grow the APS footprint in regional areas, with regional hubs to accommodate multi-agency personnel. Strengthening APS connection with Australia’s regions would lead to better and more effective service delivery, policy and program design, he added. 

“In 2022-23, the government is investing $15.2 million over seven years to establish APS Hubs in regional Australia that enable the APS to remain an employer of choice and provide staff with more diverse career opportunities.

“Accommodating staff in multi-agency workspaces in regional APS Hubs will locate staff closer to the communities they serve while breaking down silos to broaden their perspectives,” Birmingham said. 

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