Great Barrier Grief and the funding announcement that told us nothing at all

Last Sunday, a combined announcement from the Prime Minister, the Minister & Assistant Ministers for Environment & Energy, and bafflingly- the Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced funding to ameliorate the ongoing damage to the Great Barrier Reef.

The announcement was greeted with some cynicism, both for the timing of the announcement and the content.

Could the Australian government be so misleading and the media meant to hold them to account so lackadaisical that they would pass off the announcement of recurring budget spending as some kind of watershed?

Funding for the Great Barrier Reef has risen sharply (and with good reason over the past five years).

With a maximum spend of less than $110million for the last financial year – which is less than 1 percent of all budget spending – it seems unlikely that the $500 million quoted in the article is for a single budget year. If the funding is for the coming four years, then when divided between them, it does not constitute any special rise in funding. Yet the government has described the figure as ‘the largest ever single investment‘.

So which years does the funding apply to, pray tell? Or is it just too much trouble for the government to explain exactly what kind of spend tax payers will foot the bill for? Perhaps the government thinks we don’t care? I mean whether it is half a billion in one year or half a billion over several is not worth mentioning apparently!

Australians are so accustomed to announcements that appear on the surface to be impressive amounts of money that Ministers can get away with hiding more than they are revealing. This is one reason why I created a budget transparency project, as I was well aware that the average Australian has no idea whether a few million or even a couple of billion dollars is a significant amount with respect to what is normally spent on a particular issue when put into context. A key point of reference providing that context is the budget as a whole.

Without any reference points it is difficult to gauge whether a funding announcement is actually newsworthy or simply just business as usual. This is why I provide a percentage calculation for most totals that come out of AusGov.info – to provide context to seemingly large funding figures.

One hundred million dollars might seem like a lot of money but when compared with the budget as a whole (which sits at around $450 Billion), is a drop in the ocean of the budget spend. That the government would make announcements where it is not possible to determine whether the funding refers to a single or multiple years and if so how many years strikes me as a most egregious insult to the intelligence of Australian taxpayers.

Upon making enquiries with the Department of Environment and Energy I asked specifically which financial years each of the figures reported in yesterday’s media statement I was told nothing more than that ‘Further details about the Government’s announcement will be released in the Budget papers in due course.

So apparently a major announcement can be made which gives zero information about how many years the funding applies to and we are entitled to no further information- until it is revealed in the budget papers. Why bother to make the announcement at all and why has the mainstream media who cooperated in disseminating this egregious lack of insightful information ask such basic questions?

It is high time the government stopped being treated like the proverbial mushrooms.

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