Federal budget 2017: the year the Coalition stopped smashing Canberra?

This budget is not kind to Canberra. But nor is it harsh. In a way, its very mildness is worth celebrating – at least compared to the steep cuts of the Abbott years, whose echoes still rattle the capital.

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David Rowe shows Treasurer budget cartoon

The Treasurer Scott Morrison tours the Federal Budget lock-up in Parliament House in Canberra where AFR cartoonist David Rowe presents the Treasurer with a pre-budget picture, and gives a glimpse of the image he's working on during the lock-up.

Much will be made of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison's decision to cut themselves free of Tony Abbott's so-called "zombie" savings from 2014, which never passed Parliament but whose unpopularity have hung over the government since. Even more will be made of their Labor-esque decisions to lift spending on Medicare and schools.

Yet the pair also seem to have changed their views on the public service – the ACT's lifeblood – and realised that simply wishing it to become more "agile" and "innovative" might not be enough; that improving the bureaucracy's ability to serve the government might require, you know, investment.

The investment outlined is thin: a "modernisation fund" of $500 million, sourced from last year's decision to lift the efficiency dividend to an historically high 2.5 per cent (and it'll stay there for at least another two years). But it's a start.

The fund won't necessarily create jobs. But, for the first time in any significant way, the budget papers try to explain how the government wants the public service to improve.


For example, it wants greater sharing and analysis of the data it collects (to improve how agencies target services and regulatory activities). It will fund training to improve staff's digital skills. It will centralise shared administrative functions (a policy the Coalition does not traditionally favour). It will try to use, or sell, empty offices.

Again, it's not much. But it's a leap forward from past Coalition and Labor budgets, which simply whacked an efficiency dividend on government agencies and told them to save money, somehow.

Ironically, this shift towards centralisation, which brings to mind the long-gone Department of Administrative Services, coincides with the Nationals' madcap plan to fling agencies to regional towns. But that push shouldn't much worry Canberrans. The budget refers to it only in passing, reminding that such moves will only potentially affect a handful of "entities" and only if they can retain "specialist staff" and continue to perform effectively.

In other words, the government doesn't want another farce like the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority relocation to Barnaby Joyce's backyard.

Some things never change, though, regardless of who is in power. The safest government job is in Defence, where it seems too much funding is never enough, whatever happens to the rest of the bureaucracy.


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